Penelope Casas: Questions & Answers
Some recipes call for 'cucharada' and other measurements. What do these translate to here?
Your problem with measurements is one that I struggle with everyday, since I am constantly referring to Spanish cookbooks. Measurements are often very imprecise, like the cucharada and vaso. My rule of thumb is:
1 cucharada = 1 tablespoon
1 cucharadita = 1 teaspoon
1 cuchara sopera- I'm not sure- probably a tablespoon
1 vaso = 4 ounces
1 copa de cognac = 2 tablespoons
1 liter = 4 cups
1 pound sugar = 2 cups = about 500 grams (60 grams is about 1/4 cup)
1 pound flour = 4 cups = 500 grams
It's very helpful to have a small electronic kitchen scale that will instantly convert ounces and grams.
Why is the ham named serrano? Is it because of the original makers of this ham?
Thanks for your message. The word serrano means "from the mountains", and refers to the cool dry climate necessary to cure hams in the traditional way. Today most moderately priced cured hams are produced in plants that simulate mountain conditions. Top of the line cured hams, called Jamon Iberico (not as yet imported to the United States) are in fact, naturally mountain cured and come from the extraordinary native Iberian pig.
The best cured ham sold in the United States today, in my opinion (far superior to prosciutto), is the Redondo Iglesias serrano ham that is imported from Spain and available from Tienda.com.
Your recipes often call for Spanish paprika. There are three flavors available at Tienda -- which should I choose?
Spanish smoked pimentón paprika is available in 3 kinds: sweet (the sweetest), bittersweet (sweet with a pleasant bitter edge), and hot. Each is made from a different variety of red pepper, all dried over slow burning oak, giving the paprika its characteristic smoky flavor. It is then stone ground in the traditional way.
Generally in Spanish cooking (which, as you know, is not hot and spicy as many Americans believe it to be) the sweet or bittersweet are most appropriate, although it is really a matter of taste. My favorite is bittersweet, which, because of its more complex flavor can transform a good paella or stew, for example, into a great one. To taste the differences, place 1/4 teaspoon of each paprika in a small bowl, and dilute each with a tablespoon of chicken broth. Their distinctive flavors will become apparent.
Can you tell me about Bomba rice?
Bomba rice is a superb and unique rice. My reference sources have very little information on bomba rice, since until recently it was a variety that had all but disappeared because of the intensive care it needs to grow. Chefs, however, created a demand, and today bomba is once more cultivated for the pleasure of discriminating food lovers.
The basic difference between bomba rice and others is that bomba does not expand longitudinally, like other rices, but in width, like an accordion. It doesn't become pasty after cooking, as typically happens with other short grain rices, and it has a wonderful consistency and flavor.
What is the right way to eat paella?
Eating paella is a very casual affair, and it is fine -- and much more fun -- to eat the shrimp and shellfish with your fingers. To eat the shrimp, break off the head and suck out the delicious juices. Then peel the tail and eat it. For small clams and mussels, use the shell like a spoon to scoop out the meat. Don't worry too much about the etiquette of eating paella- just enjoy it!
What are the typical meats of Spain?
In Spain, fish is a favorite along the north, south, east and west coasts, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. In Madrid, although landlocked, prodigious amounts of the very best fish from all the coasts are eaten. In the interior areas, you will find a great variety of game birds, like quail, partridge, and pheasant. In the northern interior, beef is eaten (the land is suitable for grazing); in central Spain, baby lamb and suckling pig are specialties; and in the south, goat is appreciated. All over Spain, wonderful cured meats are eaten, like chorizo sausage, blood sausage, and mountain cured Serrano ham.
What is 'Alioli'?
Ali Oli is nothing more than a mayonnaise with lots of garlic. It usually has less egg than mayonnaise (sometimes no egg at all), but otherwise is made just like mayonnaise. You have an excellent recipe for alioli- also known as ajo aceite- in my book "Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain".
What is a typical Spanish breakfast?
In Spain breakfasts are small and simple -- coffee, tea or hot chocolate for a beverage and either toast with jam, a sweet bread, or churro delicious fritters that are often coated with sugar and dunked in coffee or hot chocolate. That's about it, although not too long after breakfast come midmorning and pre-lunch snacks called tapas, which can be much more substantial.
What is the eating tradition in Spain?
The food in Spain is based on the Mediterranean diet -- lots of olive oil, wine, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and grains -- not so very different from Italian cooking except Spain has its own special ways of combining ingredients to make them taste outstanding. Eating hours are very different from the United States: Lunch (the main meal of the day) is served at about 2:00 P.M., dinner at 10:00 P.M., with tapas in between.
Are Spanish and Mexican cuisines similar?
In truth, there is little similarity in cooking styles and dishes in Mexico and Columbia and in Spain. What you do have is overlapping ingredients - some that Spaniards took home with them after discovering America (like peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and chocolate); and others that were introduced by Spaniards to the New World, like pork, beef, rice, wheat and sugar.
Tacos and enchiladas, for example, don't exist in Spain, and even foods that have the same name, like Mexican tortilla and Tortilla Española, are entirely different (in Spain Tortilla Española is a potato omelet).
What is the traditional Christmas meal in Spain?
In Madrid, the traditional Christmas Eve dinner is Almond soup, Baked Porgy, Turkey, Red Cabbage and turrón and mazipan for dessert. You can find recipes for these dishes in my book "The Foods and Wines from Spain" and La Tienda stocks the dessert items.
Roast lamb is of course a favorite dish in Madrid, but I don't think many Spaniards would be very happy with American lamb. In Madrid they eat baby lamb, which is only weeks old and tastes entirely different from the lamb available to us. I do have a recipe for Spanish roast lamb in The Foods and Wines of Spain, but if you decide on lamb, I suggest New Zealand baby lamb chops, grilled and sprinkled with minced garlic and parsley, which will be a little closer to the lamb he knows.
What are other Christmas foods eaten in Spain?
Traditional on Three King's Day, 6 January, is the Roscón de Reyes, a sweet bread ring that contains a good luck token. Turron, Spanish almond nougat candy, is traditional on Christmas as well as Three Kings Day, as are marzipan cookies.
What are your thoughts about olive oil?
You can do away with all other kinds of cooking and salad oils -- none will be healthier than olive oil and none will taste as good. Spaniards pay close attention to acid content because low acidity is associated with finer flavor and quality. By the way, all olive oils are cold pressed, even those that are afterwards chemically processed. I cannot find anything in my sources that indicate that processing reduces olive oil's health benefits.
Does extra virgin olive oil have a lower burning point than other oils?
It is not true, that fruity extra virgin olive oil has a low burning point. All olive oil has a high burning point- the reason some people do not use extra virgin olive oil for sauteing and frying is because heat destroys some of the oil's finer flavors, for which you are paying a premium.
What are the types of extra virgin olive oil?
Within the category of extra virgin olive oil there are those that are green and very fruity (usually those from Andalucía) and those that are golden and milder (common to those from Catalunya). Which you use is really a matter of personal taste (by the way, hojiblanca is a very elegant and not overly fruity extra virgin oil that is typically used in Andalucía to make gazpacho, among other dishes).
Tienda.com has a wide range of Spanish olive oils, in different styles and different price ranges. Check out their selection. You can trust them to have good quality oils, a high turnover, and oils stored under proper conditions (olive oil has a long shelf life if it is kept away from light).
What are capers?
Most people, in fact, have no idea what capers are, even though they use them in cooking and have eaten them many times.
Capers (alcaparras) come from a bush that grows wild- and today is cultivated- in the Mediterranean region. The bush requires dry conditions and lots of sunshine. The caper is the flower bud that forms on the plant and must be quickly picked before the flower unfurls. The buds are cured in brine and then marinated in vinegar. The tightly closed tiny buds become capers "nonpareil"; those that have just begun to open are larger and not as aesthetically pleasing, but taste the same.
A less well-known delicacy are caperberries-(alcaparrones) the fruit that forms on the plant after the flower has died. Caperberries are cured just like capers and make wonderful appetizers. They are eaten as an appetizer or accompaniment to other foods.
I am planning a Spanish dinner; what do I need?
First of all, be sure to make an authentic paella in a real paella pan and with Spanish short grain rice. I suggest you take a look at my book "Paella! Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain" for recipe ideas and contact Tienda.com if you need to purchase a paella pan or any special ingredients. Of course I recommend serving Spanish wine- either red or white, depending on the ingredients in the paella recipe that you choose. I leave the decorations and invitations up to you- anything Spain related that you can think of. For background music, try the Gypsy Kings or Spanish classical or flamenco guitar.
Can I use saffron and paprika in paella?
Your question is a good one. Not only is it OK to use both paprika and saffron in a paella, but it is commonly done -- each provides a distinctive flavor (take a look at my book, "Paella! Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain" -- for more information on paella and paella ingredients.) In fact, paprika- in particular Spanish smoked paprika (I prefer the "agridulce - bittersweet" variety, which you can buy through Tienda.com)- is an important ingredient in most paellas.
What is chorizo?
Chorizo is a lean pork sausage spiced with garlic, paprika and herbs. It may be a soft sausage, used in cooking, or a dried sausage, sliced and eaten as is. The word has been used since the 17th century and means "sausage". Probably chorizo originally applied to any kind of sausage, but once paprika became common in Spain (peppers are native American products that were unknown in Europe before the discovery of America), the word was used to refer specifically to sausage that contains paprika.
What are typical tapas from Madrid?
A typical tapa from Madrid (which can also be found elsewhere in Spain) might be Gambas al Ajillo (garlic shrimp), croquetas (croquettes) and Pincho Moruno (marinated pork skewers). From Barcelona, Pa amb Tomaquet (garlic and tomato bread, perhaps with a thin slice of cured ham or anchovy on top) and Esqueixada or Xato (both cod salads).
Desserts for Madrid could be Torrijas (sautéed bread in honey syrup) and Bartolillos (custard-filled fried pastries), and for Barcelona, Crema Catalana (sugar crusted custard). You should find most of these recipes in my book "The Foods and Wines of Spain" or "Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain".
What is the best source for Spanish food in the U.S.?
You've come to the right place. Tienda.com is just the mail order source you are looking for- they have imported Spanish chorizos, serrano ham, olive oils, rice, pimentón, cheese, etc., etc. Just log on to tienda.com.
Are there different cooking styles throughout Spain?
Madrid and Barcelona have very different culinary heritages- Madrid, Castilian and Barcelona, Catalan. I suggest you take a look at my book "Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain," at the chapter called "The Central Plains: Region of the Roasts" which includes Madrid, and "Catalunya and the Baleares: Region of the Casseroles" which includes Barcelona. I think you will clearly see that the cooking styles and ingredients of each place are quite different from one another.
Where can I buy fresh peaches from Spain?
Are you referring to the firm whole peaches and pears bottled in light syrup? You can buy these bottled fruits including figs in blush wine from Tienda.com or you can find a recipe for the pears in my book "The Foods and Wines of Spain" and for the peaches in "Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain", both available from La Tienda.
Do I serve ali oil with my paella?
Most definitely, the alioli should be eaten with the rice- the combination is extraordinary. Place the alioli on the side of your dish, dab a little bit on your fork, then scoop up some rice and enjoy the mingling of flavors.
What is the origin of paella and tapas?
Paella got its start when the Moors, who dominated Spain for almost 800 years, brought rice and saffron to Spain. Along Spain's eastern coast, especially in the region of Valencia, where a lot of fruits and vegetables are grown, paella became a meal made over an open fire by field workers at lunch hour, combining rice with whatever other ingredients were at hand.
Tapas is a custom thought to have started a century or two ago in Andalucía and is a style of eating closely linked to sherry, which is made in western Andalucía. Since sherry is a fortified aperitif wine, it needs a little food as an accompaniment, and tapas fill the bill.
Which Spanish paprika should I use?
Of the Spanish paprikas, some come from Murcia, but the most prized is smoked paprika from Extremadura, such as Santo Domingo and La Chinata (both which have been awarded the D.O. designation). Whether you use the blend called dulce (sweet), agridulce (bitter sweet), or picante (hot) is really up to you depending on the flavor you want for your chorizo. You might want to experiment.
Do all chorizos contain paprika?
Chorizo is a very individualized product. Each town has its own which they think is the best in the world. But after all is said and done, most of the authentic ones, including Palacios, which follows a family recipe, use smoked paprika (pimentón).
What size cazuela should I buy to make a stew?
Cazuelas come in many different sizes but are generally the same shape: wide and shallow. To make a stew, depending on the number of portions, you will need a cazuela at least 10" wide.
Can I cook with my cazuela on the stovetop?
It is best first to cure a cazuela by immersing it in cold water for several hours. It can then be used on a stove top, although I always like to place a flame tamer underneath for more even heat distribution. Remember- never place anything very cold in a hot cazuela or anything very hot in a cold cazuela or it may crack.
How do I store my manchego cheese?
The best way to store Manchego cheese is refrigerated and wrapped in foil. For fullest flavor, it should be brought to room temperature before eating.
What are the courses in a typical Spanish meal?
In Spain menus are not rigidly divided into first and second courses, but rather into appetizers, egg dishes, vegetable dishes, soups, meats, fish, and desserts. However, typically a segundo plato will be either meat, game or poultry, or fish. Spaniards love all kinds of simple fish preparations, breaded veal cutlets (sometimes with a fried egg on top), garlic chicken, grilled lamb chops, quail or partridge.
What pastries are typical to Madrid?
Custard-filled fried pastries called Bartolillos are typical to Madrid (I don't think I've found them anywhere else). I doubt their origin is Moorish or Roman, but more likely they were once made by nuns in convents- like so many other Spanish desserts. Bartolillos would be eaten at cafes or bought at pastry shops and taken home. If you need a recipe, you can find one in my book "The Foods and Wines of Spain".
What is the difference between Mexican and Spanish chorizo?
While Mexican chorizo is seasoned with chili peppers and vinegar, Spanish chorizo is made basically with pork (as far as I know with lean pork loin), sweet paprika and garlic, and is cured either to a hard sausage consistency, to be sliced and eaten as an appetizer, or to a softer consistency to use in cooking.
Tienda.com carries some excellent chorizos, one of them imported directly from Spain and recently written up in The New York Times.
Can I freeze horchata?
Yes, you can freeze horchata - in fact, when you buy it freshly made in Spain, it is kept "slushy" in a machine that chills and churns, and that's how it tastes best. By the way, once Tienda's supply is gone, there will be no more, since the supplier will no longer be exporting it to the USA. Tienda, is, however, looking for another source, and hopefully the price will be more moderate. Keep in touch with them for more information.
How do you make caramelized sugar for flan?
Thanks for your message. It is really quite simple to make caramelized sugar. In a small saucepan, dissolve 1/2 cup sugar in 3 tablespoons water. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is syrupy and turns a light golden color. Turn off the heat. Slowly and very carefully stir in 5 more tablespoons of water, then pour into individual custard cups.
How can I make a tortilla low-fat?
Tortilla Española is not at all high in saturated fat. It is cooked in monounsaturated olive oil, and a large tortilla that serves 4-6 only has one or less egg per serving. COOKING MEASUREMENTS I wrote an article for Cooking Light magazine (August 2001) that includes Spanish tortilla, and it fit into their strict nutritional guidelines. The only change I made was to cut down on total fat by baking the sliced potatoes and onion in the oven with just 2 tablespoons oil (350 F for 1 hour), instead of frying them.
How can I make the sauce that El Churrusco in Cordoba uses?
Although I do not have a recipe specifically for that sauce, I think the sauce called Mojo Picon from the Canary Islands that you can find in my book "Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain" is quite similar. It is made from dried sweet red peppers, herbs and spices.
What can I tell you about tripe?
There is not much I can tell you about tripe from a historical perspective, except that in the past any kind of animal innards would always popular in Spain, partly because they were inexpensive. One of Spain's versions of tripe, Callos a la Madrilena, is a wonderful dish and the best tripe recipe I know. It is made with white wine, tomato, onion, garlic, chorizo, cured ham and paprika. You can find it in my book "The Foods and Wines of Spain" ( or at many libraries).
How do I cook Spanish tortilla so that it doesn't stick to the pan?
I have never used a non stick pan to make tortillas and have never had a problem. If you are talking about Tortilla Española -- the potato omelet -- for the initial cooking, the potatoes simmer in plenty of oil, so they shouldn't stick, and the secret to preventing sticking for the final cooking is for the oil to be smoking hot before the egg and potato mixture is added.
What is an authentic paella?
Although you may find paella in many parts of Spain, it originally comes from the Valencia region and is usually prepared most authentically there. The word paella refers to the paella pan in which the rice cooks, and there are versions that are dry (sometimes with a crispy crust of rice at the bottom), and others, called "meloso" that are meant to have more liquid.
The difference in the colors of the paellas you tasted depend on the ingredients that enter into it, the broth, and whether paprika is used. Bright orange rice means the rice has not been made with saffron but with artificial coloring. As for the saffron, it is always better to use thread saffron so you know what you are getting (powdered may be poor quality and not "pure"). They do not have different uses - thread saffron can always be crumbled if necessary.
You can purchase top quality saffron, Spanish rice, or a complete paella kit, which comes with everything you will need for a great paella, from Tienda.com For more than 60 recipes for paella and much more information on the dish, see my book "Paella! Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain".
Is there a uniquely Cordoban gazpacho?
The soup you are referring to is Salmorejo, typical of Cordoba. Like you say, it is similar to gazpacho, but thicker and milder in flavor. You can find a recipe for it in my book "Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain" and in "Paella! Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain" (both ). And be sure to try the Salmorejo as a dip for fried eggplant (as it appears in Delicioso!). It's a wonderful combination.
How can I make a refreshing green salad as I had in Spain?
I agree that simple Spanish salads always taste wonderful. I too attribute it to the vinegar- which is almost always an inexpensive mild white wine vinegar that I find at supermarkets in Spain and bring home with me. But I think the garden fresh lettuce, tomato and onion also contribute to making these salads special. Along with the mild white wine vinegar available at La Tienda, you might also try a special mild white wine vinegar available from La Tienda that is made from Spanish cava (champagne).
Among your paella recipes, which is your favorite?
Among my favorite recipes in "Paella!" are Scallop, Shrimp and Seaweed Paella; Stewed Squid Paella "El Faro"; "Rice on its Own" El Pegoli; Ruperto's Marinated Chicken Paella; Crusted Paella; Cumin-scented Pork and Watercress Paella; Bean-Pebbled Paella; and Potpourri of Mushrooms Paella. I hope you have fun working your way through the paella book and I hope all your paellas meet with great succeeds.
Do you know of a book for making Spanish bread?
In fact, I do not know of a cookbook in English or Spanish that is dedicated exclusively to Spanish bread baking. However, in my book "The Foods and Wines of Spain", I do have a chapter on breads and rolls with about a dozen recipes, and in "Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain" there is a wonderful recipe for Castilla's flat moist bread tortes that typically accompany roast lamb. I hope this is helpful- and I will give some thought to writing a book on the subject!
How do I make authentic Spanish chorizo?
I have a detailed recipe for home made chorizo in my Foods and Wines of Spain cookbook (available at Tienda.com). Although most recipes merely specify "paprika" of course what is meant is Spanish paprika, pimentón -- not American bland or Hungarian -- which is made out of significantly different peppers.
How many minutes should my paella simmer on the cooktop?
The total cooking time on top of the stove should be about 5 minutes. If you look on page 11, "Tips for a Perfect Paella" you have a more precise description of when the paella is ready for the oven ("when this point has been reached, the bubbles rising from the pan will look slightly thick, most of the rice will appear at the surface, and a spoon will momentarily leave a path exposing the bottom of the pan when pulled through the center of the rice.") Once you get the hang of it, however, you will not need such detailed instructions- you will know instinctively.
I want to cook paella for a wedding rehearsal dinner for 100. What do you recommend?
Paella recipes can be increased with no need to change the proportions of the ingredients, so take any paella recipe you like (my book "Paella! Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain"- - has over 60 paella recipes) and make it the size you need. Of course, you will need a huge paella pan to make paella for 100 people.
Can you help me with some food my grandmother might have prepared?
In my book "The Foods and Wines of Spain" I have a recipe for chorizo (although I would suggest you buy the excellent chorizo imported from Spain that La Tienda carries). In the same book I have a recipe for an Asturian sweet called Casadielles- little turnovers filled with sugar and walnuts. Also in The Foods and Wines is a sweet bread, although typically it is made for Three Kings Day January 6th rather than Easter, and it's called Roscon de Reyes. I hope this information helps you reproduce the dishes that you so fondly remember your grandmother preparing.
How do you use morcilla?
Morcilla is a wonderful Spanish sausage that can be thickly slices and fried to eat as an appetizer, or is often used as an ingredient in bean and chickpea stews, to which it lends a fine flavor. You can find several recipes using morcilla in my book "The Foods and Wines of Spain", also.
I have been told about a paella that cooks slowly in sofrito. Can you tell me more?
Thanks for your message. I am surprised that your sources call for a slow cooking sofrito as the base for a paella. Paella by its very nature (cooked in an open pan over an outdoor fire) is a quick cooking dish, and that's generally the way it is made in the Valencia region, where paella is done to perfection. There are, of course exceptions- and they are called arroces, not paellas.
It sounds like your source is for a Catalan-style paella. In Catalunya sofrito is a common base for many dishes that are made not in a wide, shallow metal paella pan, but in an earthenware casserole, which lends itself to slow cooking. A sofrito does indeed make a good paella, but a different one that is not in the traditional Valencian style.
TRAVEL IN SPAIN
Where to travel in August with children?
I think Andalucía would be a good choice -- very child friendly and wonderful weather -- in August you will never have to worry about rain and can go to the beaches with the kids every day (in the north you could experience bad weather which might ruin a trip with children). Keep in mind, however, that August is the busiest month for the beaches -- they are crowded and it is difficult to get reservations at some beachside hotels. Early July would be a better time to go.
Is it possible to stay in a monastery?
Thanks for your message. There are well over one hundred monasteries that accept guests, each with different requirements (like minimum stays) and regulations (some accept only men, others men and women, others women only. There is a book published in Spain called "Alojamiento en Monasterios" published by El Pais/Aguilar that lists all of them, with prices and how to make reservations, and is available in bookstores all over Spain. I doubt, however, that you can find it here.
Why don't you get in touch with the Tourist Office of Spain and see if they have any information? I don't know where you are located, but they have offices in New York (212-265-8822), Chicago (312-642-1992), Miami (305-358-1992), and Beverly Hills (213-658-7188).
What kind of currency do I need to take with me?
Travelers checks are widely accepted all over Spain in hotels and shops- but restaurants are not likely to accept them. However, travelers checks are no longer the best way to travel abroad- credit cards and ATM cards are your best bet and have the best exchange rates. The dollar fluctuates against the Euro so there is no advantage one way or the other. The exchange rate is usually better when you make the change in Spain rather than here, but you will get the best rates using a credit card or ATM machines, which you will find all over Spain, even in small villages. Banks give lower rates and besides take a substantial commission.
Is Spain a good source for leather goods?
Yes, there are good deals on leather goods in Spain. A few months ago I bought a magnificent leather jacket in Spain for a price beyond compare with any quality leather items here. In fact, it comes from a shop in Barcelona that specializes in leather goods called Omnia.
Is it wise to walk the Camino Santiago?
Walking the Way of Saint James has in recent years become a very popular endeavor, and even if you go alone, you will surely make many acquaintances along the way. I consider it quite safe to go it alone, although it might be nicer to do it with a friend.
There are shelters in hospitals, hotels and monasteries along the route- about every 30 kilometers, which is considered an average day's walk. For toilets there are many towns and villages along the way, and in Spain there is always a bar to stop in for that purpose. Don Harris of Tienda.com tells me that he has a friend about your age who walked the route on her own. If you wish, he can put you in touch with her.
Can I bring chorizo with me when I return to the USA?
Unfortunately the law has not changed- it is still not legal for travelers to bring sausage products into the USA, even if they are vacuum packed. However, there is chorizo from La Rioja imported commercially, and you can find it right here at Tienda.com under the Palacios brand name. It's available in mild and hot, and there are smaller links that are cured for cooking.
Do you know any good Spanish restaurants in Boston?
I have done several Spanish food events in the Boston area and am very familiar with three Spanish tapas bars/restaurants: Tapeo, Dali, and just outside Boston in Somerville, Rauxa. All are fun and lively and the food is quite authentic.
Where should I stay in Madrid?
Villa Real is an excellent hotel in an ideal location, convenient to shopping, museums and sightseeing. However, it is right next to the Palace Hotel, which I consider a far superior hotel. I am not familiar with the Best Western Villa de Barajas but I presume it is near Barajas airport, which would be a very inconvenient location if you are planning to see Madrid.
Is late spring a good time to visit Spain? Can I do the country in two weeks?
The end of April/ beginning of May is a fine time to visit Spain (in fact, I will be leading a tour to Spain at that time of year.) What you propose can be done in two weeks, but it would be a bit rushed. Your itinerary would take you all over the country- and Spain is not such a small country. And to travel from central Spain to the Barcelona area, then Valencia and southern Spain by train would be a bit cumbersome. Driving is a much better option, especially if you want to see the countryside and not just travel from city to city. I suggest you read my book and perhaps you will have a better sense of the country, what you can accomplish in two weeks and which are the places that would interest you most.
Do you have any suggestions for hotels in Barcelona?
Indeed, the hotel choices in Barcelona are many. I have been to the city many times over the years, tried close to a dozen hotels and have not yet come up with the ideal one. However, one that I like very much in the category you describe, in an ideal location and I think quite reasonably priced, is the Condes de Barcelona. Once a palace, the hotel retains the original facade but is modern, in the Barcelona style, within. It would be a perfect choice.
What are good restaurants to visit in Madrid?
I would suggest you try what has become my routine every time I am there: roast lamb at Posada de la Villa in Old Madrid; a meal at Lucio's, also in the Old Quarter, where every celebrity and head of state goes to dine, but the food remains simple and down to earth (I particular like the huevos estrellados, pollo al ajillo and arroz con leche). Zalacain, is still the finest and most elegant restaurant in the city (with an extraordinary wine list and Spain's top sommelier, Custodio); and for unbeatable seafood, La Trainera. For an excellent cocido, try centuries-old La Bola. And for tapas, Lhardy (croquetas, tea sandwiches and sherried consomme), La Fabrica (Jamon Iberico) and Bar Cervantes (canape de gambas al ajillo), all near the Palace Hotel, and el Bocaito and Cazorla for Andalusian-style tapas. Que aproveche!
My father is thinking about going to Spain in the winter. He'd like to go to Madrid, and then go somewhere where the weather won't be too bad, and the food and wine will be good. He doesn't need a resort area, so if there is a great town down South somewhere...on the water, maybe?
Nice to hear from you! Why not send your father to Cadiz- one of my favorite Spanish cities. There he will have everything: water everywhere, small town charm (even though it is a capital city), great weather, wonderful food and wine, and people that are the epitome of Spanish "joie de vivre".