Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel & a Seafood Paella Recipe
It’s not hard to guess what crossed my mind when I found out we’d be gallivanting through Madrid for a couple of days on the back end of our trip: The f.o.o.d. I’ve been to Las Tapas in Alexandria and Jaleo in DC. I know that good things can indeed come on little plates. I thought of cured meats and manchego cheese, olives and sangria — and all of it coming in tapas style, perfect for sharing other peoples’ food with me.
Beyond the food, the best part about our stop in Spain was arriving to familiar faces and getting to enjoy the company of two friends (who happen to be excellent tour guides). Our party of eight became a party of ten (and my mind reeled at how many dishes I could potentially get to sample off their plates :-). When they mentioned how the Spaniards do lunch — late in the day, with several courses and for hours if necessary — I couldn’t wait. Let the food fest begin!
After a long walking tour of Madrid’s version of Central Park, we had the chance for such a leisurely lunch on our first day. Gazpacho, lasagna with Spanish cheeses, perfectly cooked ham-and-beans, I was more than happy to sample what everyone ordered. By the time the dessert course came, nearly everyone opted for coffee over sweets. But I had to try the flan, which I usually don’t much care for, to see if it tasted that much better in Spain. It did.
That evening, after a visit to the Museo del Prado, and much more walking, our friends had in mind a special spot for dinner. When we walked up, I knew I was home.
Near La Plaza Mayor sprawls the nearly 100-year-old Mercado de San Miguel. It’s iron roof and elegant glass walls encase more than 30 food vendors and were recently updated to offer seemingly ever Spanish delicacy a tourist could wish to try during two short days in the country. Now this is a market, I thought, finally catching in first person the vision behind places like Eastern Market and Union Market in DC.
Freshly caught squid and oysters, paella and tapas galore, I could have stayed there all day, all week. But my traveling companions decided the place was too, well, un-air-conditioned for dinner for 10 at stand-up tables. Not to mention, my husband was probably tired of losing sight of me as I wove through the crowds from stand to stand, taking in the eye candy, completely losing sight of the cardinal rule (don’t get yourself lost). I snagged some seafood-and-olives on a stick and wondered if we’d get to come back.
Thankfully, we did. After winding our way through Real Madrid‘s Cathedral and Palace the next day (neither of which permitted pictures), we discussed the lunch situation. It was after 2 p.m. I think, and someone had mentioned hamburgers. I braced myself for the worst: eating American food in Spain. But, apparently, I don’t hide my chagrin well (i.e. I’m “high maintenance”), and an offer was floated that we split the group up. Two lovely ladies offered to hit the mercado with me. Hooray!
Once we got there, I felt a severe case of indecision coming on. So many choices! Last chance to try all of them! Dash the exorbitant exchange rate! We settled on splitting a bowl of seafood paella and then eating it next to the sangria pitcher at a tapas stand (it was also closer to the door, the only source of airflow). I figured the paella would be good, but I didn’t know how good. Saffron has that effect on things, I’d been learning, and I loved what the Spanish were doing with it (so much so, I tried to duplicate it with the recipe below).
We hit a home run with the tapas, too — cured duck salad, soft cheese on a bed of caramelized onions and one that had three of my favorite things: eggplant, cured salmon and a quail egg on top. (The fishy looking spaghetti was intriguing, but was, while good, made from Alaskan pollock. Not exactly “local.”)
I wanted to stay all day, but we had to join the rest of the group. On the way out, we tried the Spanish version of fro-yo to fight the heat — a pleasant cross between the too-sour and too-sweet versions in the states.
I researched the mercado further when I got home (hoping to be the first to write about it, of course). But those plans were foiled by the NY Times, which wrote a great wrap-up of the market’s hundred-year history and latest renovations in 2009. The story confirmed my feeling that the place wasn’t just erected for us tourists but that it serves as a watering hole for lunching locals and happy hours. Not unlike DC’s newly revived markets, the mercado was resurrected in a space that had fostered buying and selling, cooking and eating from carts, for nearly a century.
Maybe next time I’ll get to linger there for a whole day, sampling everything and talking to locals. For now, I’m reliving the market by trying to replicate paella. Here’s a quick recipe I tried the other night. It was aaaaaalmost as good as the real-Spanish thing.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 16 oz. bag of frozen seafood pieces (shrimp, calamari, scallops, mussels) from Trader Joe’s, thawed and drained of excess water
- 2 cups chopped onions
- 1 cup chopped red bell pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon (generous) saffron threads, crumbled
- 1/4 teaspoon hot Spanish paprika or hot Hungarian paprika
- 3 1/4 cups (or more) low-salt chicken broth, divided
- 1 1/2 cups arborio rice or medium-grain white rice
- 1/2 cup pimiento-stuffed green olives, halved
- Salt to taste (if using a homemade, unsalted chicken broth)
Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and bell pepper and sauté until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Stir in saffron and paprika, then 3 cups broth and rice. Bring to boil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until rice is almost tender, about 15 minutes. Nestle seafood pieces into rice, top with olives, and drizzle with 1/4 cup (or more) broth to moisten. Cover and cook until shrimp are just opaque in center, about 6 minutes. Season to taste with more salt and pepper.
Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit.