Casa Pacheco – A haven amongst the acorn fields

Casa Pacheco

This past weekend, we took a day trip out to Salamanca.  Neither Paolo nor I had ever been, and we had been gifted a night at the Parador, so we decided to take a nice road trip to ham country.  That is, Jamon Iberico country.  Wow.  I am speechless as to the incredible amounts of ham we had, but it was worth the dieting that I am now embarking on.

We arrived just about lunch time, so Paolo said I should get on Trip Advisor to see what places were near that we could grab a bite.  I chose the #2 ranking, Casa Pacheco.  Funny enough, there was no #1 ranking, and honestly, Casa Pacheco should be bumped up to that space.  Not knowing really what to expect, we certainly were incredibly surprised!  Driving past Salamanca into the heart of Bellota (acorn) fields, filled with happy Pata Negra pigs roaming vast expanses of land, feasting on thousands of acorns.  There were also happy cows and sheep roaming, and I love to see that an animal that I am going to consume, is having a great, stress-free life.  That in itself should have clued us in to the amazing meal we were about to have.

The town itself is small, I’m talking about drive past it in 20 seconds small.  And if we had not looked on Trip Advisor, we would have completely missed it.  Situated right on the main road that crosses the town, is a small unassuming doorway to foodie heaven.  We walked in, and my first thought was that we had made the wrong choice.  A pintxos bar to your left, and two small tables on the right, nestled between two enormous bull heads.  Me being an anti-bullfighting kind of person, I thought, oh boy, we’ve walked into the dragon’s lair.  Then, as we were taken into the main dining room, still small but with about 8 tables, I felt as if I had just landed in Spain.  Yes, I’ve lived here for 10 plus years, but you can hardly say Barcelona is Spain.  THIS is Spain.  A veritable shrine to a specific bullfighter was the decorative theme of the restaurant.

Casa Pacheco

 

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As it turns out, the bullfighter Julio Robles, used to live very close to the restaurant, and he was a regular and a very, very good friend of the owner’s father.  I guess you could classify this as his museum.

We sat down and received the menu and the owner started to tell us what specials there were out of the menu.  It was a very, very difficult choice.  If it was humanly possible, I could have ordered all of it.  We finally made our choice, to eat some traditional ham, Jamon de Guijuelo,

Jamon de Guijuelo

 

and some croquetas, but the twist, they made the with oxtail.

Oxtail Croquettes

 

The jamon was perfect, shiny, flavorful, delicate yet robust.  The croquetas were fantastic too, I have never tasted croquetas made with oxtail, and I have to say, the béchamel was one of the lightest and best I have tried.  The owner told us that it was their first time making the croquetas with oxtail, and honestly, I think they need to make them again!

Then we chose to try a dish that is typical of that region, called Patatas a la Importancia.  This basically translates to Potatoes of Importance.  Just from the name, I had to try them.

Patatas a la Importacia

 

Now get this, it’s potatoes that are sliced, battered, fried and then cooked in broth.  Battered and fried potatoes.  Can it get more decadent than this?  (Actually yes, just wait to see what I ate next.)  It was a pleasantly peculiar dish.  I really liked it, and I think it is an amazing way to “class” up the simple potato, I guess hence the name Of Importance!  It definitely had a very home-made feel and taste, the broth was delicious, thickened slightly by the batter and potato starch.  I am really happy we chose to try it.

Now, on to our mains.  Paolo and Cassia decided to share an Entrecote, cooked on the stone.

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Look at that beef.  It was divine.  So delicious, so much flavor.  It was very tender, and the good part was that they could choose how much they wanted it cooked, since Paolo likes his beef still almost moo-ing.  The thing that really surprised me was the salad you see in the back,

Ensalada de Maruja

 

This, I was told is called Maruja or Pamplina.  On first inspection, I thought it was some type of sprout, but then after tasting it, I realized it is more akin to watercress in taste.  The owner explained that this grows on the side of river banks for only a few days a year, and it is a specialty in Salamanca.  It blew my mind.  Obviously I looked it up, and found out that we call it Chickweed.  I had never tasted it before in my life, and I find it so awesome to discover new tastes and food!  It was lightly dressed with a vinaigrette, pomegranate seeds, and a good dousing of crushed garlic……not for the faint hearted I assure you.  Make sure EVERYBODY else at the table eats this, if not you’re in trouble!

And, now to the most decadent dish I have ever consumed in my entire life :

Braised Oxtail

 

Braised oxtail with caramelized onions and foie gras.  Yup.  Heart attack material.  But man, oh man….this was beyond delicious.  There are actually no “real” words to describe how good this is.  The oxtail was perfectly cooked, it fell apart at the mere touch of it.  Then mixed with the onions and the foie……Oh boy.  I unfortunately could not finish it, because we had gorged ourselves with so much food before, but had I known how incredible this was going to be, I would have starved myself for weeks so I could consume not one, but two helpings of this.

Obviously we had no room for dessert, I was in sort of a food coma at this point so I can’t tell you what they were, even.  But, let me tell you this, I recall that they all sounded delicious.

If you are ever on your way or passing through Salamanca, make this is the number one priority on your list.  You seldom find little gems like this anymore, a small unchanged restaurant, tucked away and run by the 4th generation of the same family.  It is food at its best, rustic, homey, delicious.

Casa Pacheco

C/. Jose Antonio s/n

Vecinos (Salamanca)

Tlf. 923 382 169

http://www.casapacheco.net

 

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Shiitake Croquetas

Shiitake Croquetas

 

I LOVE CROQUETAS.  Croquetas are croquettes, usually made with leftover ham, but now a days, you can find them filled with anything your heart desires.  I have had cheese, spinach, pine nuts and raisins, beef, onion, fish…..the list goes on.

I have eaten croquetas since I was a kid, and I think my obsession started because my parents really didn’t buy or make them.  In Miami it is a Cuban thing, and the only time I would get to eat them is when I went to sleep at my Uncle Ernest and Aunt Myra’s house.  We used to have them for breakfast.  Sooooo good.

Now, call me stupid, but I had no idea that croquetas was a Spanish thing.  When I first landed in Spain, and saw that every single restaurant had a croqueta on the menu, I had an “A-ha!” moment.  Croquetas originally are made with left over chicken or pieces of Jamon mixed with a thick béchamel, then coated with breadcrumbs and fried.  The ham ones are still my favorites.  I’m not so sure about the chicken.  I decided to make them with some shiitake, because I had some dried in my fridge, kind of just staring at me every day.

Croquetas are fairly easy to make, but they are laborious and time-consuming.  This is probably something you might want to do on a rainy Sunday, (as I did) and make a lot.  They freeze really well, and as all things, the home-made versions are much better than store-bought, which usually has a very low ham to béchamel ratio, favoring the latter.  And once you get the knack, then the possibilities are endless!

So here’s what you’re going to need:

2 handfuls (sorry, I didn’t measure other than that) dried Shiitake mushrooms, soaked and strained, reserving 1 cup soaking liquid, then minced

1 tbsp olive oil

1 small onion, finely minced

4 tbsp butter

4 tbsp flour, more for dusting

2 cups milk

Salt and Pepper to taste

2 eggs, beaten

Breadcrumbs, for coating.  In this recipe, I used Panko (Japanese Style Breadcrumbs)

In a sauté pan over medium heat, add the olive oil, shiitake and onion.  Saute until the mushrooms and onions are softened, about 20 minutes.  Make sure all the water from the mushrooms has evaporated too.  Take off heat and set aside.

In a stockpot over low heat, melt the butter and add your flour and mix well, to make a roux.  Cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes.  Mix the milk with the cup of soaking liquid, and in a slow stream add to the roux, whisking constantly.  Stir until very thick, about 25 minutes.  Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper and mix well.  Spread out on a plate, and let it cool to thicken even more.

Now, on your counter line up the plate with the filling, the bowl with the beaten egg, the bowl with the breadcrumbs, and a baking pan to place them on.  Dust your hands with flour, and grab a bit of the mushroom filling, roll into a ball or a log shape, dip them in the eggs, and then roll them in the breadcrumbs.  Continue to do that in order until all your filling is gone.  If needed wash your hands in between.  If you are not using immediately, you can freeze them in an airtight container for up to a month.

Heat a large non-stick frying pan with olive oil, when it is hot but not smoking, fry your croquetas about 4-5 minutes on each side, or until golden brown.  Turn over and repeat.  Place on a plate lined with paper to soak the excess oil.  Serve hot.

From my kitchen to yours,

Carla

 

 

Sicilian Street Food: Arancini di Ragu

Ten years ago exactly we celebrated our 10 year high school reunion in Taormina, Sicily.  I fell so in love with the island; the smells of flowers and ocean air.  Its rocky cliffs dipping vertically into the clear, azure Ionic Sea.  The cobblestone streets with the outdoor cafes, bustling with ultra-cool Sicilians having Gelato con la Brioche, (incredible ice cream sandwiches) and Granita con la Panna, (italian ice with whipped cream).  The weather was perfect, mildly warm during the day, and cool and breezy at night.  I didn’t want to leave.

After this vacation, I moved to Barcelona.  And I decided that I wanted to bring back all of those glorious things I tasted on my trip.  So, I started traveling extensively throughout Sicily, took many cooking lessons, visited wineries, cheese producers, cured meat purveyors, all in hopes of soaking up what they do best in Sicily, cook and eat.

One of my favorite things I discovered, besides the gelato con la brioche, was Arancini.  The name means “small oranges”, obviously because of their color and shape.  But inside….it was a surprise that I was quite happy to discover.  Arancini are stuffed rice croquettes.  The ones that I like the best contain a ragu, or meat sauce, in the center.  But they can be as simple as plain mozzarella, or with spinach and cheese, or just vegetables.  The time I spent there, I met many Mamma’s, Nonna’s and chefs.  And each one of them imparted their unique technique’s from all over the island.  Here is my recipe for Arancini, mind you, it takes a bit of practice, and it definitely requires some patience since the process has quite a few steps.  But I wouldn’t hesitate to make them.  They are beyond delicious, and you will be very happy when your guests or family gobbles them up with huge smiles.

So here’s what you’re going to need:

Makes about 8 arancini

For the rice:

3 cups water

1.5 cups arborio rice

2 tsp of salt

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

For the ragu:

2 tbsp olive oil

1/2 large onion, finely minced

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tbsp tomato paste

125g ground beef and pork

1/2 cup white wine

1 can of pureed tomatoes, 400g

1 cup beef stock

1/2 cup peas

Salt and Pepper to taste

Grated Nutmeg

1/4 cup mozzarella, diced

2 eggs, beaten

Lots of bread crumbs

Vegetable oil, for frying

In a saucepan, add the water, salt and bring to a boil.  When it is boiling, add the rice and turn the heat to low, cover and let simmer for about 15-20 minutes until it evaporates.

Let it cool a bit, and add your egg and parmesan cheese and mix well.  Spread out on a baking sheet and let cool in the fridge.

In the meantime, make the sauce.  In a large sauté pan over low heat, add the onion and garlic,cook for about 10 minutes.  Add the tomato paste, and raise the heat to high, cook for about 2 minutes, stirring continuously so your onions and garlic won’t burn.  Add the beef/pork mixture, and sauté until cooked through, stirring the whole time.  When it is completely cooked, add the white wine and let it evaporate completely.

Add the tomato purée, and the vegetable stock.  Bring to a boil, and lower the heat to medium low.  Add the peas and let simmer for about 20 minutes, just enough so that you have more meat to sauce, but it is still quite moist.

When done, add the salt, pepper, nutmeg and mozzarella.  Mix well.  Let cool.

Now here comes the tricky part.  It is useful to have everything ready on your countertop before you begin to make the arancini.  In a deep, non stick frying pan, fill half full with the vegetable oil.  Place it over high heat.

Crack your eggs into a shallow bowl, and put the bread crumbs in another shallow bowl.  Place them side by side, and have your rice and ragu in a row so you can work easily.  It also helps to have a large bowl of water to rinse your hands with in between making the arancini, because it becomes a sticky mess, and of course, a kitchen towel over your shoulder to dry your hands with!

Now grab a bit of your rice, and place it in your other hand, and cup your hand.  Start molding the rice to your hand, creating a sort of pocket, like this:

Then place a generous tsp full of your sauce into the pocket.

Now, start closing your hand around the sauce, using your free hand to help you close up the hole.  Grab a little bit more rice and place it on top, pressing the rice to create a nice tight seam.  It takes a bit of artistry, but by the second or third one, you will get the hang of it.  Once the sauce is completely covered with the rice, mold into a ball shape.

Now roll in the beaten eggs, and then in the breadcrumbs, making sure that it is completely covered.  Then with a slotted spoon, place in the hot oil, and fry until the bottom half is golden brown, then flip it over and fry on the other side.  You can do a few at a time, just remember the order you put them in.

Strain on paper towels to take off the excess oil, and serve immediately.  You can also make them ahead, and before frying refrigerate for a few days.  Just bring them to room temperature before frying.

From my kitchen to yours,

Carla