The Thirty Days of Christmas 8

Oh, I forgot to mention that dinner went down well. They even treated us to some freshly sliced ham at the bar before we sat down.

       The first courses were a combination of classics and innovation. The Bonito con Pimientos Rojos translates into English as tuna fish and red peppers. But let’s get down to details. In Spanish, tuna fish is commonly called “atún” and is sold in the familiar flat cylindrical shaped cans. But bonito tuna is a different fish altogether. It is captured in the Bay of Biscay up off the northern coast of Spain. Its ventresca meat, which is the light, lean, delicate piece on the underside of the fish, is highly prized in this country and popular in salads. It goes especially well with the roasted red peppers that are also a mainstay in this country. They are also most typical of the north of Spain, in the Basque Country and Navarra. They are slowly roasted and pickled in jars. A newcomer to the product might find the slimy exterior a little off-putting, the flavor is terrific and it goes well with dozens of dishes.

       The codfish was going to be the second round, another legendary ingredient, but that was canceled. Cod has always been a major product of the sea in Spanish and Portuguese cuisine. Traditionally the fish was cured through extreme salting and sent inland where it could be preserved for months. Then, when it came time for consumption, it was desalinated in cold fresh water, often several times, before use in a dish, thus avoiding a cardiac arrest. But that was neither here nor there, as we weren’t going to be having the dish. Instead, we were given several plates of broad beans. Broad beans are most commonly dried and later used or bean soups. I’ll get to that at a different time. But these were fresh and sautéed in a bit of olive oil and bits of ham to give it that unparalleled Spanish flavor.

        Then came the third round, which was pulpo, or octopus. That eight-legged (apparently they are arms) cephalopod which in places I grew up in would produce the kind of bodily reactions you wouldn’t like to appear at the dinner table is actually a delicacy in Spain. It took me a great deal of pre-action mental prepping and a large glass of water by my side before I could actually muster up the nerve to put one of those suckers in my mouth. Now I love it.
In its most widely known version pulpo is boiled (apparently after having been previously beaten soundly to soften it up, and then frozen), snipped up into tiny pieces and smothered in olive oil, paprika and chunky salt. It also comes in a vinaigrette form. But recently for some reason, chefs are preparing it on the grill and the results are a somewhat drier but savory version. Of course, this is octopus I am talking about, so not everyone will be able to relate to me.

         The main course was a classic choice: steak or hake. Hake is the main white fish in Spain and the kind you are most likely to encounter on Christmas dinner menu. And the steak, the entrecote, is also standard fare at these meals. Men usually pick the latter while women prefer the former. We were lucky and served a rib-eye. It took half an hour to finish mine. The hake was accompanied by gulas and shrimp. I don’t think I need to expound on the second ingredient, but the gulas have a story of their own to tell. They are essentially fake baby eels.

       Why anyone would want to eat a real baby eel let alone go to the extreme to ask for and digest a fake one needs a little explaining. Real young eels (called elvers, if you need to know) are known as angulas, and they are prized in Spain that a mere kilo (2.2 lbs.) will fetch as high as 1,000€. Restaurant portions usually weigh in at 125 grams, so a plate, albeit tiny one, of these slithery critters can go for something like $150.00. And that’s just tidbit. The main cause of the astronomic figures is, as usual, scarcity.

        So seeing that most people are unwilling to go to those lengths to dine, surimi has done for the consumer what mother nature could not: provide cheaply. They are generically known as “gulas” and the designers of the faux-eel have even bothered to insert two dots of squid ink as eyes. Everyone knows it’s not the same, but lightly cooked in a bit of olive oil, garlic and cayenne pepper, and you have a tasty treat for 5.00€ per 250 grams. That may sound more than reasonable, but 20€ for a kilo of processed pressed anonymous fish is still pretty steep.

       Anyway, that’s what you get these days at a Christmas dinner. We had no complaints. Plenty of laughs, which are always free.

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