San Sebastian – pintxos galore!

I have to admit, I’d never really thought of San Sebastian as a holiday destination.. As I’d not really been aware of its existence. I know, it’s shocking. But no matter, because I now know that it exists – and more importantly, I know what an absolutely great holiday venue it is.

San Sebastian is famous for their take on tapas, which they call pintxos (pronounced pin-chos). Pintxos are essentially small plates of food that are eaten at bars, usually accompanied by a drink or two. In a way, it is the ultimate bar food: small, delicious. Some bars have a selection of pintxos laid out on the counters, which you pick and choose from, some do a “cooked to order” menu, and some do a mixture of both.

Ordering pintxos is an art in itself. Most pintxo bars are completely rammed with customers, and one must be brave and make your way into the sea of people to shout your order to the people behind the counter. Most bars have the menu written on a chalkboard behind the counter, usually in Spanish. The servers usually don’t speak very much English, and you should have seen me fumbling and trying to order food with my almost nonexistent grasp of Spanish…

But you know what, you don’t need to know very much Spanish to feast on pintxos. You just need to know some key words… (I might have mistranslated some of these words, so please correct me if I’ve made a mistake as I’m not known for my language abilities!)

Gambas = prawn
Vieira = scallop
Txipiron (“chi-pi-ron”)= squid
Bacalao = salted cod
Txangurro (“chang-gu-ro”) = crab
Antxoas (“an-chos”) = anchovy
Cochinillo = suckling pig
Costilla = ribs (I think)
Carrilera = beef/veal cheek
Jamon = ham
Pulpo = octopus
Foie = foie gras
Queso = cheese
Hongos = mushroom
Morcilla = black pudding
Txakoli (“cha-ko-li’) = sparkling white wine, the signature wine of the Basque country

We visited a number of pintxo bars, and literally bar hopped for much of our time there. On one of the days we actually had a three hour lunch! Then attempted to climb Mount Urgull – which is not a good idea after a heavy lunch, let me tell you.

LA CUCHARA DE SAN TELMO
One of the my favourite bars. This teeny little pintxo bar was always filled with tourists (mainly British ones, interestingly), but this was definitely not one of tourist trap places you worry about going to when on holiday… because the food was absolutely delicious. All the pintxos here were made to order, and were all excellent. In fact, the food was so excellent that we ate here three times, and tried at least two thirds of their menu!

Bacalao faroe contitado con patata y breza – Salted cod with potatoes and a herb sauce. Crisp skin, tender cod flesh that flaked away with the touch of a fork, finished off with some smashed potatoes. Incredibly good, and I can happily declare a newfound love for bacalao. Despite it’s name, it’s not actually very salty at all – so don’t get too worried!

Carrillera de ternera al vino tinto – Beef cheeks braised in red wine. I don’t think I’ve actually eaten beef cheeks prior to this, but you can sign me right up to the beef cheek fan club. It’s a great cut of meat which becomes incredibly tender when cooked this way.

Cotxinillo (cochinillo) letxal asado x 6hs – slow roasted suckling pig (I assume for 6 hours). The crackling was much better than I ever expected in a small humble pintxos bar – it was amazingly crispy, and I was very impressed. I did think they’d gone slightly overboard with the sprinkling of sea salt flakes though, as it was a little on the salty side.

Foie cuchara con compota de manzana – Foie gras with an apple compote. I tell you something, the people in San Sebastian really like their foie. It was featured on the menu of most of the places we went to! I suspect it’s because they are very close to France.. I just wonder how often the locals eat foie, as it’s not really the healthiest thing in the world! This was good, but just a little too rich for me. You’d love this if you’re a foie lover though.

Manitas de ministro con tximi txurri – Pork trotter with chimi churri sauce. I can’t believe they eat trotters in Spain, I thought it was a Chinese thing!

Pulpo roca con hojas de berza asada – Octopus with a side of cabbage (or at least what tasted and looked like cabbage). This had a great sauce, which had a hint of citrus.

Queso de cabra relleno de verduras asadas – goats cheese wrapped in ham. This was ridiculously good, and even R who normally finds goats cheese too overwhelming loved this.

Risotto (forgot to take down the actual name of this dish) – this was made with orzo, which is a rice shaped pasta sometimes called risoni. This totally blew me away, and I have since recreated a risotto dish made with orzo in my own kitchen. I preferred the texture of the orzo to the more ‘claggy’ texture of arborio rice – the orzo just makes the risotto taste lighter, if that makes sense.

Viera – pan seared scallop. Now, La Cuchara normally has a ham/bacon wrapped scallop dish on their menu. Unfortunately, we never got to taste it as we didn’t know what scallops were called in Spanish on our first visit, and it wasn’t on the menu the next two times. However, the server at the counter recognised me and and must have sensed my desperation to try this (haha)… He took one look at me and went like “Oh, viera!”. In any case, he offered me an alternative of a grilled scallop, but with no ham. Which I obviously said yes to – and I’m so glad I did, because check out the SIZE of that monster scallop. It was absolutely scrumptious, and perfectly seared.

This is the madness you’ll be face with in La Cuchara during dinner service… absolutely bonkers, but so worth it. Despite it being extremely crowded, it is very civilised and you actually have friendly chats to the people around you whilst waiting for your order to be taken. This system would never work in Malaysia, as everyone would just push forwards and be kiasu ‘afraid to lose’ (reminiscent of the horrendousness of the Malaysia Night at Tralfagar Square).

Much less madness at 12pm on a Sunday afternoon… you can actually see the counter. 😛

La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28
http://www.lacucharadesantelmo.com/
Closed Mondays

CASA GANDARIAS
This place was part pintxo bar, part restaurant. I only took notice of the bar though, and we visited twice, primarily for one pintxo which I absolutely fell in love with…

… this one: bacalao and pimento pepper served on a slice of crusty white baguette. This was SO GOOD! I suspect the reason why I enjoyed it so was because the entire pintxo was deep fried – how would it be possible to not like this? This is one of the pintxos that are displayed on the counter, and they even ‘heat it up’ for you when you order it. Be warned that ‘heating it up’ means popping it in the deep fryer again though. 😉

Solo Mio – seared beef fillet with a slice of pepper. This was good stuff, the beef is a bit on the rare side though, so best to steer clear if you’re queasy this. This was made to order.

Brochetta gambas – grilled prawn bruschetta. Good, but just not as good as the brochetta gambas from Bar Goiz Argi…

Txangurro – crab and pepper mix, served atop some bread. Very flavoursome, and bursting with crab. A little oily, but when who cares when you’re on holiday? Hehe.

Hongos – mushrooms. This was a fairly popular pintxo, and was something which was being served in a number of bars. Casa Gandarias adds their own twist to it by adding some ham, because who can say no to ham?

Bar Casa Gandarias
Calle 31 de Agosto, 23
http://www.restaurantegandarias.com/

A FUEGO NEGRO
This bar prides themselves on their modern and creative take on pintxos, and offered some very interesting dishes which I enjoyed.

Makobe with txips – Mini kobe beef burger with banana chips. Best bar snack ever! It was just the right size for it to be chomped down in two easy bites.

Oreja skabetxada con mole hezado – pickled pork ear with frozen mole. I don’t know about you, but I’d never eaten pig ears before and was quite curious as to what this would taste like. The best way I can think of describing this would be to call it a more cartilagenous (is that a word?) version of pork belly. I enjoyed this.

Txitxarro-gerezia-menta-ardia – mackerel, sheeps cheese, mint and cherry. Basically a mackerel tartare with cubes of sheeps cheese, served atop a cherry meringue base. Refreshingly different.

Txangurro-aguakatea-regaliza – crab, avocado and liquorice. A very modern take on the traditional Basque txangurro (brown crab) tart. And SO good! I absolutely adored the liquorice ice cream, and I’m normally not a liquorice fan. Great combination of tastes, textures and temperatures.

Paloma, tiro, PUM! – Wild dove breast with beetroot sauce (or beetroot blood in this case). This was such a fun dish, where it was plated to look like blood was splattering from the dove that had just been shot. They even had a little edible sign with the word PUM on it, which I thought was really cute. The dove was perfectly cooked as well.

Y un huevo – con hongo y jamon – egg with mushrooms and ham. This was no ordinary eggs and ham, and the liquid yolk like liquid had hints of mushroom in it. The paprika like powder on the top was actually ham bits, I only wish there was more of this.

Bakailu (bacalao) enkarbonao con pepitas de pimiento – “coaled” cod with pepper pips. Yes, yes. More bacalao. What can I say, I am obsessed.

A Fuego Negro
Calle 31 de Agosto, 31
http://www.afuegonegro.com/
Closed Mondays

BORDA BERRI
This place was similar to La Cuchara, and had some very good dishes.

Arroz bomba de txipiron – Paella rice with squid. Flavoursome, with just the right amount of bite in the rice grains.

Carrillera de ternera al vino tinto – Beef cheeks braised in red wine. This was very similar to the one at La Cuchara, and it was hard to pick a favourite between the two. The meat was more tender at Borda Berri, but the sauce was more flavoursome at La Cuchara. A tie then perhaps?

Risotto de hongos – risotto with mushrooms. One of my top 3 pintxos of the trip. The meatiness of the mushrooms was extremely evident in every mouthful, and it was so good that we went back to have another plate as a post-dinner ‘snack’. Like the risotto in La Cuchara, this was made with orzo. Such a revelation!

Queso de kabra tostado – grilled goats cheese. Goats cheese tastes so much better when cooked this way, I don’t know why we don’t do this more often here in England.

Viera asada con pure coliflor – Scallops with cauliflower puree. Nothing like fresh and well cooked scallops to make for a wonderful dish.

Kallos de bacalao – cod guts/tripe. I found this a little too slimy for my liking, but R liked this.

Borda Berri
Fermin Calbeton 12
Closed Mondays

BAR GOIZ ARGI

Brocheta de gambas – prawn bruschetta. This is what Bar Goiz Argi is famous for, and I can see why. Perfectly grilled prawns topped with the best salsa I have tasted in a long time. Excellent.

Chipiron a la plancha – grilled squid. This couldn’t have been more simple – grilled squid topped with olive oil and chopped parsley. Yet it was so delicious, and a perfect example of how you don’t have to do very much to good ingredients.

Hongos – this was one of the things I picked from the counter. By this time I’d already copped on to the fact that I was a huge fan of their mushrooms, so this was a no brainer really. 😉

Ma Juli – salmon and anchovies on bread. Good, but nothing mindblowing. I’d rather have another brocheta gambas over this I would think.

Bar Goiz Argi
Calle Fermin Calbeton 4
Closed Mondays

BAR TXEPETXA
This place is famous for their anchovies, and they offer a selection of 14 different variations of anchovy pintxos.

We tried four types – from front to back: foie y compota, papaya, jadinera (salsa) and huevas de erizo mar (urchin roe). My favourite was the papaya version, it was refreshingly different and not something I’d ever thought would work together.

Bar Txepetxa
Calle de Pescadería 5
Closed Mondays

MUNTO

Txipiron relleno y jamon iberico – squid stuffed with ham. The stuffing was nice and creamy, but I must say I didn’t taste too much ham in the filling though.

Txipiron a la plancha – grilled squid with caramelised onions. This was good, and the caramelised onions added a nice sweet touch to the squid.

Tarteleta txangurro – brown crab tart. The creamy crab filling was delicious, but the pastry could have been a little bit more crumbly and buttery. I like my pastries to ooze calories. 😛

Munto also served this massive plate of fried stuff, which I think was cheese. I saw a group of people next to us eating it, and was extremely intrigued by it. Shame I was already bursting with food, so didn’t get a chance to try it! Next time, perhaps…

Munto
Calle de Fermin Calbeton 17
Closed Mondays

LA CEPA

Platter of jamon jabugo – I almost squealed in delight when this was brought to the counter, as it was meat galore! Pricey, but oh so worth it.

Tortilla bacalao – cod omelette. I had seconds of this, as it was so good. They were very generous with the bacalao in this, and there was an abundance of cod flakes in the tortilla. I can only imagine how good it would have been if it was piping hot. Mmmm.

Hongos a la plancha – grilled mushrooms, served with an egg yolk. Now, this plate of mushroom goodness did not come cheap (it cost about 18 euros, much more than all the other pintxos in San Sebastian), but it was mindblowingly good. You know the meatiness of Portebello mushrooms? Well these ones were twice as meaty as Portebellos. Absolute heaven. I don’t think it even needed the egg yolk, as it was already amazing on its own. If I could I would not eat any other type of mushrooms, ever.

Ham sandwiches. We actually packed a few of this away on our last day in San Sebastian, as we (correctly) suspected we would have difficulty finding dinner in the airport at 9pm.

La Cepa
Calle 31 de Agosto, 7
http://www.barlacepa.com/

HIDALGO 56 – Gros
The only bar in the Gros district that we managed to get to… there was too much food, and too little time!

Antxoas… a humada – smoked anchovies. I was very impressed with the presentation of this, with smoke and all. The lady was obviously proud of this dish, and even pre-warned me when she was about to lift the cover, so I could take a photo. The anchovies themselves were plump, juicy and perfectly cooked.

Volcan de morcilla, yema, pasas, y manzana – black pudding with egg yolk, raisins and apple. Now I never tend to order black pudding as I’m not a huge fan of it’s texture, but had to try this because it sounded intriguing. Am very glad I did, because it was really, really good. The raisins and apples added balance to the salty black pudding, and the egg yolk brought everything together.

Lasana de hongos crema de foie gras – mushroom risotto with cream of foie gras. This was only so-so, and I couldn’t taste much foie gras, I suspect the balsamic glaze completely killed any hint of foie gras there might have been in the dish.

Hidalgo 56

Paseo colon 15
Gros

Also worth a mention is BAR ZERUKO – I was really looking forward to eating here, but they were CLOSED! They were on a month long break, and we were there right in the middle of their holiday. All the more reason for me to go back….

* A special word of thanks to Rachel of The Pleasure Monger, Guan of The Boy Who Ate The World, Ann & Jeff of Pig Pig’s Corner and the site Todopintxos for all the pintxo recommendations.

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An Evening with Bill Granger

When I was younger, I always used to wonder what it would be like if I had a chance to meet a celebrity. I still remember watching Friends and wishing I could be part of the live studio audience. I mean, how cool would it have been to meet the cast of Friends, and see Central Perk and Monica’s apartment in real life?

Anyway, as time has gone by, I’ve found that the celebrities I’d like to meet have changed – not surprisingly, a number of them are celebrities in the cooking world. For those of you who are regular readers, you probably know that I adore Bill Granger. This naturally means that he is one of the people I would love to meet. So, when I found out that Bill would be hosting a promotional event for his new cookbook in Selfridges, I knew that I *had* to go, because who knows when I would next get a chance to meet the man in all his smiley-ness?

And you know what – I’m so glad I decided to go, because I had a blast (and so did R and Mowie, whom I brought along with me)…

The event was held at Mark Hix’s restaurant in Selfridges, which is on the first floor and overlooks the shopping area. It was actually rather strange to see people shopping in the background whilst we were eating our food! It was co-hosted by Bill and Mark, who appear to be pretty good friends. Despite it being the first event held in the restaurant, it went very well, and there was lots of banter between the two chefs which made for a very enjoyable evening.

The food that was served on the night was based on recipes in his new cookbook Bill’s Basics (which of course, I brought along in the hope of getting it signed).

Warm bread and butter that we snacked on whilst waiting for the appetizers to appear. The staff were quite strict about not allowing people to be seated until 7pm, and as such there was a short period of waiting whilst everyone was shown to their seats.

An appetizer of Maldon oysters with fresh coriander and chilli dressing. Now, I was slightly apprehensive when I saw this on the menu, because I am not a huge fan of oysters. Call me strange, but I find them a tad too slimy for my liking. However, after a bit of ooh-ing and aah-ing, I decided to try one anyway – and it actually tasted rather good! All credit to the coriander and chilli dressing which managed to make the oyster taste a lot less fishy.

A starter of lobster and saffron risotto. This was one of the dishes in Bill’s Basics that stood out for me, and I’m so glad that it was included in the menu. The risotto was beautifully cooked, and the wonderful aroma of saffron wafted up my nose with every mouthful. And of course, the lobster was a very welcome addition – it was cooked well, was very fresh, and complemented the saffron risotto. I’ve since tried to recreate it at home, stay tuned for that blog post!

And then the mains appeared – roast chicken with chestnut stuffing. The star of the dish was by far, the chestnut stuffing which (according to the cookbook) contains fennel, pancetta, chestnuts and sourdough bread chunks. Fennel is such a revelation, I have only recently started to cook with it and am loving its versatility. The chicken was lovely and tender, but unfortunately did not have crispy skin – something I always look out for in my roasts. But the roast potatoes – they were amazing. I’m a massive potato fan (I have an entire cookbook dedicated to potatoes), and these were done extremely well. Crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside.

Autumn slaw – one of the two sides served with the roast chicken. I’m not a huge fan of coleslaw (never have been, and never will be), so this was just an “okay” side for me. It did have a nice twist of having raisins in it though.

Everyday green salad – this was a standard green salad, nothing exciting but I admittedly wasn’t expecting all that much from it anyway.

I always look forward to dessert, and I could not wait for this brown sugar pavlova with figs and blackberries to come to the table. In between the main course and dessert, our friendly waitress told us that the pavlova looked amazing, and that she was hoping that there would be some extra plates for the staff post-event. (I hope she did manage to try some, because she was terrific.) I think I let out a little gasp of delight when this was served because it was plated so prettily. A great dessert: crispy pavlova shell giving way to a soft fluffy interior, coupled with the sweet blackberries and figs = heaven. The figs weren’t as sweet as they could have been, but that was the only thing I would want to change about this dish.

In between all the dishes, Bill was a perfect host and worked his way around the room. He went to every single table, shook everyone’s hand, and had a short chat with each person at the event. He also took the time to sign copies of his new cookbook – and it wasn’t just a plain old signature, because he took the time to personalise it. How can you not love him?

There was also an informal Q&A session during the course of the evening, where we found out that this was the first cookbook that he’d written entirely in the UK (and that he’d been living here for the past year!!). He also said that the best question he’d ever been asked was “Are your teeth real?” – to which the answer is “yes”.

My signed copy of Bill’s Basics – I smile every time I open the book to see this! (that’s not sad, right?) He also very kindly signed my copy of Bill’s Open Kitchen, which was the first ever Bill cookbook I owned.

Mowie, Bill, and me! 🙂 I was so excited that we managed to get a photo with him that I even sent a copy of this to my parents, who don’t really know who Bill is… oh well. Now they know.

All in all, it was a fantastic night – great service, delicious food, and Bill Granger. Now I can cross one person of my “to meet” list!

p.s. I think Bill is currently in Australia on a similar promotional event blitz, so if you’re a fan, I highly recommend attending one of his events! You won’t regret it.

For those of you living in UK/US/Canada – have you entered my CSN Stores £50/$75 gift voucher giveaway?

Butternut squash and chorizo risotto

I normally look forward to holidays with much anticipation, knowing that I’ll be able to bake themed treats for family and friends. However, this was not to be this Halloween, as I was on-call for the four nights leading up to Halloween. 😦 As such, I’ve decided to write a post on this risotto, as it’s nice and orange-y, and is the closest thing to Halloween I have in my growing backlog of posts.

I discovered butternut squash a few years ago, and I instantly fell in love. One thing I didn’t like back then though was how tedious preparing it was (I didn’t have very good knives at the time, which definitely doesn’t help!)… but then…. I discovered the beauty of prepared butternut squash. Now, I’m not one who normally goes for ready prepared vegetables as I don’t think it justifies the extra money you pay for it, but I make an exception for butternut squash. Instead of spending 5 minutes (or more) cubing the squash, I only have to open the packet, and ta-dah! An added plus is that the squash will be de-skinned – I used to leave the skin on as it was too much effort to peel it, but wasn’t exactly a fan of the skin as I find it too hard.

 

I’ve always enjoyed butternut squash risotto, and have always made it in my usual ‘throw everything together and see what happens’ way. I’ve also always added chorizo to my squash risotto as I find that they complement each other really well. However, something I saw on Simon Rimmer’s show on Good Food channel caught my attention – instead of just having cubed squash in his risotto, he also puts aside a portion of squash and blends it to mix it in with the risotto. Pure genius. It not only adds flavour to the risotto, but also makes the risotto turn a delightful shade of yellow. Yum.

Butternut squash and chorizo risotto
Inspired by Simon Rimmer

  • 400g prepared butternut squash, peeled de-seeded and cut into 2-3 cm cubes (I used 2 packets of M&S prepared squash)
  • ~200g chorizo, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1.3 litres hot vegetable stock (make a little bit more than this as you may need it, see below)
  • 20g butter
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 400g risotto rice (I used arborio)
  • 100g cream cheese (I used Philadelphia light)
  • bunch lemon thyme
  • 25g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Heat the oven to 180°C.

2. Put half the butternut squash and the chorizo slices in a roasting tin and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Roast for about 20 minutes. Take care to not let the chorizo burn (they become hard and chewy if this happens – you may need to remove the chorizo after about 15 minutes).

3. Simmer the remaining squash in stock until softened. Tip the squash into a sieve, reserving any stock in a bowl below. Puree the squash (I used my trusty hand blender for this) and keep on the side.

4. Melt the butter in a large pan and sweat the chopped onion for about 5 minutes.

5. Tip in the rice and stir well into the onion. This step creates a “shell” around each grain of rice, allowing it to slowly absorb liquid during the cooking process.

6. Add a ladleful of the hot stock while the pan is still on the heat and stir continuously until absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, gently stirring between each addition – this gives the risotto its characteristic creamy consistency. (On Masterchef, John Torode said that risotto must always be stirred in one direction – I can’t remember why though!)

7. The risotto is done when it is cooked through (i.e. soft when you bite into it). To ensure you have the right consistency, spoon some risotto into a plate, and gently tilt the plate from side to side. The risotto should spread out slowly. If it doesn’t do this, it’s too dry and needs more stock. If it’s overly runny, it needs a bit more cooking to allow the extra stock to evaporate.

8. Once all the stock has been absorbed stir in the pureed squash, followed by the cream cheese, parmesan, and the thyme leaves. Warm through.

9. Dish the risotto into a plate, and top with chorizo, roasted squash and a small spring of thyme. Season with freshly ground black pepper, and enjoy!