Merluza à la Gallega

Pisco de Elqui en el Valle del Elqui

I've been in Santiago, Chile, for nearly four weeks now. Jimmy and I have travelled together to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and to El Valle del Elqui, a region north of Santiago. Now we're gearing up for the country's Independence Day celebrations, called Fiestas Patrias, this Thursday (the festivities have already begun and will last throughout the weekend, but the country's birthday is technically September 18).

La Casa Rosada en Buenos Aires

The days have been so full, even the quiet and lazy ones when I finally roll out of bed late in the morning, hang around La Moneda (the presidential palace) reading, and make dinner in the twilight hours with Jimmy when he comes home from class. They're full in a simple, satisfying way, like lying out in the sun in springtime. We've trekked up Cerro San Cristóbal in Santiago, wandered the streets of Barrio San Telmo (where the night is filled with spontaneous parties on the street corners, with a band of musicians and a throng of happy dancers) in Buenos Aires, biked all around El Valle del Elqui in search of artisanal pisco, and learned how to salsa.  We've eaten well, drunk lots of Chilean (and Argentinian) wine, and rowed together in a double in Laguna Aculeo, which is the most beautiful place I have ever rowed.

Happy rower, taken by her happy doubles partner

It's an adventure each day when I explore on my own too, using my limited Spanish to find my way around the city on its excellent metro system, have my fill of empanadas from my favorite hole-in-the-wall place near La Moneda, and try my best not to be afraid of interacting with shopkeepers and waiters. Sometimes I pass by a store two or three times before I gather myself and walk in. But if there's anything I've gained from my solo wanderings, it's that I've gotten over being embarrassed. I've had some great interactions with people, when they're surprised to discover that I can tell them what I'm looking for and ask them questions in decent, albeit slow, Spanish, but I've also had ones that have ended with me pointing at things and them speaking broken English. I can't win them all, but I do try.

On my first morning in South America, Jimmy took me grocery shopping at La Vega. The sprawling market just over the Mapocho River, in the central part of the city, is a series of open-air warehouses, with stalls full of produce, meat, and dry goods like loose tea and beans, and small restaurants crammed with Santiago locals and their rolling shopping bags. It's surrounded by a ring of vendors selling cookware, clothing, and kitsch, and where stray dogs wander with the shoppers. The avocados are always excellent, and there is a really interestingly-shaped kind of kiwi that Jimmy, and now I, really enjoy. Today we also got around to buying some zapallo, a popular squash here with bright orange flesh, sold in huge chunks that the vendors saw off for you. La Vega is certainly not what I would call a farmer's market -- there is nothing quiet or bucolic about it (in fact it feels much more like an auction floor) -- but the hands of the men and women at their stalls are caked with dirt as they strip the outer leaves from bunches of spinach and twist carrots away from their stems. They are not far from the land where these were first planted.

A block away is another smaller market called Tirso de Molina that has two floors, the first with several more produce vendors and some great fresh juice counters (protip: ask for mango and orange together), and the second with fast food stalls. If you take the footbridge back over the river, lined with people selling Peruvian ceviche (over pasta, something I hadn't seen before), freshly fried sopapillas (that are excellent smothered with spicy tomato and pepper salsa, slaw, and mustard, which sounds weird together but is delicious, trust me), and all kinds of housewares (that often appear to have been gently used already), there's a great fish market in Mercado Central where the mongers will clean, debone, and fillet whole fish right in front of you. The tile floors are slick from the bowlfuls of water they splash across their cutting boards to wash away the blood and tiny bones, and the air is thick with the smell of the ocean, reminding you that the Pacific is not so far away.

Merluza à la Gallega
from BBC Food

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, sliced thinly
6 garlic cloves, sliced
2 teaspoons paprika
85 grams cured chorizo sausage, cut into cubes
1/4 of a pimiento de padron
1 kilo new potatoes, cleaned and cut into cubes
100 milliliters dry white wine
300 milliliters water
1/2 kilo hake/merluza steaks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a cast iron skillet. Cook the onions and garlic over medium heat until soft, then add the paprika and fry for 2-3 minutes. Add the chorizo sausage and peppers and fry for another 3-4 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the wine before adding the potatoes and water and seasoning with salt and pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes, until the potatoes are just tender and the liquid has reduced a little.

Season the hake steaks well on both sides. Put them on top of the potatoes, cover and simmer for 8-10 minutes, until the hake is cooked through.