Postcard from Valencia, Spain: More saffron and less of everything else needed in my paella pan

Ask a purely traditional cook from Valencia, Spain, about paella, and you are told there is only one. It contains rabbit, chicken and maybe sausage or snails.

But I realized after a month consuming rice dishes there, we never tried the classic version. Seafood lovers have corrupted many a restaurant kitchen, and experimental contemporary chefs led us into playful flavorful territory.

Two things I learned I have always done incorrectly: I am too stingy with saffron, and I put too much of everything else in the pan. Proper Valencian paella is shallow in depth to allow the rice to caramelize in the bottom and particularly around the edges of the pan. This crispy crust – socarrat – is key, and Valencians are not timid about vigorously scraping the dish, even when served in a communal pan. Of course, I’m not even sure we can buy the real Valencian rice at home – the rice grown specifically for its capabilities of absorbing the broth quickly without turning into mush.

Also, paella should be made only upon ordering. The broad pans are only set on the stove for at least two; you just are out of luck if no one at the table is willing to share. If your paella arrives on a plate dished out of a large deep pre-prepared pan in the kitchen, we’re talking by pure Valencian standards, it’s just wrong.

As the photos demonstrate, we violated tradition by ordering seafood paella, such as the one at Namua, and, horrors, even a verde, all-vegetable one at Viva Mascaraque. We weren’t disappointed at all.

Another rice preparation prevalent in the region adds more rich stock to the pan than the rice can absorb – arroz merloso. Mythos Tapas y Mas featured a different one daily on its comida specials, and we enjoyed a wild mushroom and bean one at Refugio. Foam-topped mussel-plump arroz at Seu Xerea fell into this category as well.

And then, there were the totally unexpected, on our part, arrivals in paella pans – fideo noodles, caramelized the same way as the rice. Don’t tell any of the traditionalists, but my favorite dish delivered in a paella pan was the black fideo filled with tender pulpo served at Viva Mascaraque. We greedily scraped up very bit of socarrat we could. Just wanted to save the kitchen staff some elbow grease.

Postcard from Bergamo, Italy: Final meals in Italy

The porcini man. We never learned his name. He slices fresh porcini throughout the day, places them in boxes at the door of the store and lets the distinctive woodsy scent announce to the locals the arrival of their supply.

The seductive ploy worked on us. We would sautee what for us was a luxurious mushroom with some of his rich dried tomatoes for a light supper. We visited him almost everyday.

Okay, not everyday for his porcini. His wine beckoned us to cross his threshold. He had the best prices and selection in the high, walled section of Bergamo. We could have bought wine down below, but it would have been a long haul back up the hill. And he was less than a block away from us on the narrow main street of the Alta Citta. A truffle store was a block away the other direction, but we limited our intake to shavings applied in restaurants.

There was a dangerous shop nearby that I tried to avoid. A storefront with two full windows of licorice candies. That business model would never fly in the United States.

Although there is nothing in my blood, I must have been born with Italian taste buds. The Italians seem to love the flavor of anise, and their licorice is the real thing. I crave the intense flavor but worry about the impact on my blood pressure. The memory of staying up half the night in a wide-awake state after a waiter in Ferrara left a full bottle of licorice liqueur on the table for me to self-serve reminds me to temper my intake. I asked the Mister – who absolutely has no hankering for licorice – to restrict me to a pastille or two a day.

While we continued to enjoy the traditional pumpkin-filled pasta, risotto, grilled vegetables and pizza we became accustomed to during our sojourn in Italy, our favorite restaurant in Bergamo was outside the walls in the city below. Monna Lisa successfully and subtly marries the flavors of fresh products and traditions of Lombardy tinged with accents from its owners’ native turfs – she hailed from Sicily and he from India. Results might include sea bass and ginger ravioli in a delicate mint and pea cream sauce; lentils dhal with smoked herring and coriander; or purple potato flan with gorgonzola and hazelnuts. So worth the hike down and the climb back up to the Alta Citta.

And, am embarrassed to admit, during our eighth week in Italy, a brand, new hamburger spot – Goss Grill – opened up almost across the street from us. We were among the first customers, ordering one to go to split hidden away in our apartment. It truly was as good as any American hamburger, yet tinged with an Italian accent of grilled eggplant and sun-dried tomato on top.

The subversive hamburger diversion should not be misconstrued to mean we do not continue to bow at the altar of alta cucina. Everywhere we go, we seek out Italian food after a week or so of immersion in any other cuisine.

It’s embedded in our taste buds.

Postcard from Guanajuato, Mexico: Wishing these dining spots were not 600 miles away

Have tried to whittle this down to three recommendations for eating out in Guanajuato but failed to do so. These four were our favorites during our month-long stay, and, hopefully, the photos will convince you to roam a few blocks off the main squares to find them.

A bowl of warm vegetables with salsa to smear atop fresh bread is an unusual amuse bouche that gets meals off on the right foot at Mestizo. The seafood ceviche there is the best we have tasted anywhere, and we had difficulties weaning ourselves away from it to try other starters. Just before we left Guanajuato we broke rank and ordered the tuna carpaccio, and it was equally as good. The Mister grew particularly attached to the chicken in achiote oil, while I enjoyed the shrimp pasta as much as any pasta we had in Bologna. The Mister’s found his filete de res served as rare as ordered and extremely tender. Fish, chicken and meat entrees are offered on a bed of small roasted potatoes or perfectly prepared vegetables. Free from dictatorial reach of the Chiles en Nogada Council of Puebla, the chef shunned the batter. Sorry, Puebla, but this fresh-tasting and not-over-sauced chile rises above its heavy fried cousins to the southeast.

Even if you try nothing else, the corn and jalapeno fritters with queso fresco at Los Campos Cantina y Restaurante are a must-have. If you are not sharing them with anyone else, they make a meal unto themselves. Two kinds of guacamole tempt you as starters as well, one topped with roasted tomatoes and splashed with mezcal and the other featuring roasted corn and chapulines (read more about grasshoppers in dishes here). An unusual dish to fall in love with – a huge bowl of lentils. This was so good I tried to somewhat duplicate at home this week. Studded with bits of serrano ham, the lentils were flavored with smoky paprika and topped with a poached egg, saffrony roasted tomatoes add fried onions. Quesadillas were made with homemade corn tortillas rosily colored from beets in the masa, and the serving of burritos was so ample some had to be taken home in a doggie bag. Roasted pork was served room temperature over cauliflower puree with a morita chile salsa. And the black bean burger provided for a nice break one day.

A deep bowl of rich bouillabaisse an order repeated at El Midi Bistro. The goat cheese en croute is a wonderful starter in this touch of France in Guanajuato. The layers of roasted eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes in the vegetable tian make a great dish to share. Both the smoked salmon tagliatelle and pasta marinara are flavorful, and a salad topped with shrimp definitely can serve a full meal. Although we failed to try any of the breakfast pastries for which the French bistro is known, the apple tart certainly serves as an enticing advertisement for them.

A Mediterranean restaurant, A Punto, is spread out on the first floor of the same building housing El Midi. For a luscious start, treat yourself to roasted figs stuffed with blue cheese and topped with glazed serrano ham all nestled in preserves. The roasted eggplant “salad” arrives layered with sliced tomatoes and generous amounts of goat cheese. Avocado soup is refreshing without reliance on the heavy-handed use of cream. Both the riso marinara and the shrimp pasta with a pistachio pesto please, and the chicken is well paired with a port wine sauce and wild mushrooms. A white chocolate mousse is among the artfully presented desserts.

If any of these dishes appear extravagant, they are not. The Mister noted upon returning to el norte that the most expensive meal of the trip was consumed in the Houston airport. Sadly, it consisted of two not-very-good chicken sandwiches, one glass of house red and one PBR. Welcome home.