I can see Maria Jose now.
It is the early 2000s, and the raspy-voiced, curly-haired Spaniard is standing in her hot kitchen in the southern coastal city of Alicante, carefully watching a pan full of potatoes and eggs cook on the stove.
She has a wooden spatula in one hand, poking at the edges of the tortilla — one of Spain’s iconic dishes, similar to a frittata — to see if it’s ready for “la vuelta,” the flip that inverts the uncooked side back into the pan to finish cooking.
This is the most important step, she tells me in Spanish. After living with her for a week, I’m starting to understand her accent, but grasping the deeper nuances of the language will plague me for the coming 10 months. I’m here to study film, literature and economics of the European Union, but if I’m going to call Spain my home, I need to know how to make a tortilla, she says.
Maria had a twentysomething son living at home. She’d lost another to a drug overdose, and to help heal her spirit and bring in a little money to help pay the rent, she hosted study abroad students like me and my Japanese roommate.
It was too expensive an arrangement for me to live there for more than a month, but during those weeks, Maria Jose opened up her home and her kitchen to me, showing me how to make Nutella toast, bocadillos (sandwiches), paella, fried garlic rice (still a favorite) and the tortilla de patatas.
I’ll never forget watching her cover the tortilla with a plate and, with more confidence than I could muster in or out of the kitchen at that moment in my life, flip that pan over to dump the tortilla onto the plate, and then carefully slide it — half- cooked — back into the pan.
For more than a decade, I’ve dreamed about finding her to say thank you for that lesson and the many others she gave me during our short time together.
In June, I finally went back to Alicante. When I showed up unannounced to her building, no one answered when I rang her apartment. I tried another. “No, Marie doesn’t live here anymore,” a woman said. “She moved in with her mother a few years ago.”
She wasn’t the only one who had moved on. I had also lived in an apartment with seven women, all of whom now live in Paris, Portland, Napa Valley and beyond. But on this trip, I lucked out staying with an AirBnB host, Manolo, who became a different house mother of sorts.
Manolo is an Alicante native who lived — and, for a brief time, worked as a chef — in London and Paris. After battling cancer in recent years, he has a renewed passion for living and loving, and sometimes that means taking in curious travelers who want to know more about this city he adores.
Thankfully, my Spanish has held up all these years later, so on my first night there, we stayed up late talking about everything that has made us who we are.
By morning, it was time to eat, and Manolo was happy to do the cooking.
Many travelers to Spain spend their days eating paella and tapas — including patatas bravas, fried calamari, meatballs, toast topped with baby eels, and anchovies and peppers marinating in oil — at the outdoor cafes that line every street in every city center.
At home, families aren’t likely to prepare tapas unless they are having a get-together with friends. Home cooks do make paella, likely Spain’s most famous dish, but it’s an occasion to make one, so they won’t serve it more than maybe once a month. It should be noted that home-cooked paella is almost always better than that from a restaurant, because the dish requires a level of attention to get the bottom crust (socarrat) right that the restaurants often don’t have the capacity to give.
On an everyday basis, you’ll find simpler foods, from the common bocadillo sandwiches made with baguettes and ham or tortilla, maybe with a little bit of greens, to an array of uncooked dishes that we’d call salads, even if they don’t have lettuce.
At Manolo’s house, we’d start each day with strong espresso diluted with warm milk (the beloved cafe con leche) and eat bread with, no surprise, wedges of tortilla, slices of dry-cured ham and sausages and, an unexpected favorite — especially at that time of day — salty, flaky fish marinating in olive oil.
For lunch, with the sun burning strongly on his terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the city of about 350,000, he moved on to lighter fare.
Salads are something I remember from my Spanish roommates when we lived in one of those pastel apartment buildings you can see from Manolo’s place in the San Roque neighborhood. For lunch, they’d fill a large bowl with torn up lettuce leaves, cooked spiral pasta, canned tuna, canned corn, maybe capers, green olives stuffed with anchovies or pickled asparagus, and about twice as much olive oil and salt as you’d think you need. After a quick toss, they’d eat it with fresh bread, adding more olive oil and salt, as needed. (Add cubes of manchego cheese, a few pieces of jamón serrano and a glass of red wine, and you’ve got dinner.)
Manolo’s salads were equal in their simplicity, with the same quintessential elements of a Spanish salad: something green and crunchy, another something mildly sweet, many things that are acidic, and a hearty drizzle of fat and salt to bring it all together.
He served what I’ll call an ensalada del mar, with baked salmon that had been flaked and mixed with canned mussels, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and capers. When I made this back home, the flavors didn’t quite meld the way they did under his watch. I sent him a photo via Whatsapp anyway. “Me parece muy apetitosa,” he wrote back. (“It looks very appetizing.” It’s amazing how much technology has changed how we travel and can stay in touch after those trips.)
A few days later in Barcelona, I made my own briny salad with spring greens, canned cockles, crumbled goat cheese and green olives stuffed with anchovies. By that point, my heavy hand with the olive oil and salt had returned, and I enjoyed the meal on yet another open-air terrace with yet another perfectly crusty baguette from the bakery two doors down the street.
Some of the elements that make eating in Spain so splendid can be hard to come by on this side of the Atlantic. You can seek out fancy tins of anchovies and octopus, aromatic loaves of fresh bread and an espresso maker to pull your own cafe con leche, but it’s harder to transport yourself to one of those stuffy, small kitchens with a bold cook by your side, showing you another way of looking at the world.
Couscous with Nectarines
This was another light dish that my host in Alicante made one day, and I found out that it’s just as delicious on Day 2. You can serve the leftovers straight out of the fridge, as long as you refresh it with a little more mint, another handful of cut fruit, such as apples, and a kiss of salt and olive oil.
2/3 cup vegetable broth
1 cup couscous
1/4 cup dark or golden raisins
1 nectarine, cut into slices and then halved
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Hearty pinch salt
1/4 cup chopped mint
Bring broth to a boil and then add couscous. Cook for 30 seconds, then turn off the heat. Add raisins on top of couscous, cover and remove from the hot part of the stove.
After the couscous and raisins have steamed for 5 minutes, fluff with a fork and let cool. Add nectarine, olive oil, salt and mint and serve at room temperature.
— Manolo Ruiz Saura
Ensalada del Mar
Canned seafood in Europe is exponentially better than what we can find here, but specialty stores sell imported brands, such as Vigo. If you’re a huge mussels fan, keep all of the marinade liquid from the can; otherwise, pour some or all of it off. You could substitute canned octopus, another Spanish specialty. This or any cold seafood salad pairs well on Day 2 (or any day, really) with cooked pasta, such as penne or fusilloni.
1 1/2 cups cooked, flaked salmon
1 (4 oz.) can mussels, some of the marinade liquid drained
2 Tbsp. capers
1/2 seedless cucumber, cut into half-moons
1 small tomato, sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. white or apple cider vinegar
Heavy pinch salt, to taste
In a bowl, combine the ingredients and toss. Let marinate for at least a few hours. Serve with pieces of bread or toasts.
— Manolo Ruiz Saura
This recipe is more about technique than anything. The size of your best nonstick saute pan will determine how many potatoes and eggs. If it’s a small pan, only use half an onion, three potatoes and five or six eggs. Don’t skimp on the salt or the olive oil. Some recipes call for as much as 4 cups olive oil in which to poach the potatoes. I don’t use quite that much, but it’s still more than many other dishes I make.
3/4 to 1 cup olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
4-5 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced
9 large eggs
2-3 tsp. salt, to taste
In a saute pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, potatoes and 1 tsp. salt and cook for 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. While the potatoes and onions are cooking, whisk the eggs and add 1 tsp. salt. If you tend to like foods on the salty side or aren’t on a salt-restricted diet, add another teaspoon of salt to the eggs. Make sure the eggs are well whisked.
Remove the potato mixture from the heat and let cool slightly. Add the mixture to the whisked eggs and stir to combine. Lower the heat and add a swirl of olive oil in the saute pan. Add the tortilla mixture and cook, undisturbed, for 5-8 minutes. Place a plate on top of the tortilla, whose top will still be quite liquid, keeping one hand on top of the bottom of the plate and the other hand on the handle of the saute pan. Carefully, but with confidence, quickly flip the tortilla onto the plate. It should release from the pan and fall squarely on the plate, liquid side down. (Some of the liquid might slide off. That’s OK; it even happens to the pros.)
Slide tortilla back in the pan, so that uncooked side is over the heat, and continue cooking for another 8-10 minutes. (The lower the heat, the longer you’ll cook it. Some people like the tortilla a little soft in the middle, but it shouldn’t be juicy. If necessary, flip the tortilla again to even out the cooking.)
Remove from heat, and let cool slightly. Cut into wedges only as you serve them, and serve immediately or at room temperature.
— Addie Broyles
Spanish food words to know:
Paella: The rice-based dishes from Valencia that can also be made with fideo noodles. The rice is cooked with vegetables and proteins in a shallow, flat pan with two handles, sometimes over an open fire.
Tapas: Small bites of food that are served alongside beer or wine, often in bars.
Sangria: A mix of fruit, juice and wine that is served on ice.
Tortilla: An omelette, similar to a frittata, made most frequently with potatoes and onions.
Bocadillo: A baguette sandwich made with anything from fried calamari to sliced manchego cheese.
Jamón: The Spanish word for ham, but one that signifies the dry-cured hams, such as serrano or ibérico, that are thinly sliced and served as a tapa or on a bocadillo.
Salchichón: A Spanish sausage that, like jamón, is sliced thin and served with cheese and bread as a tapa.
Aceitunas: The word most frequently used in Spain for olives, especially green olives.
Pulpo: Octopus, often served grilled or marinated in olive oil.
Angulas: Baby eels, another delicacy from the sea that you also buy canned.