Romance, and Spain on Valentine’s Day, ah! Although Spain is smaller than France and larger than California, it remains the 51st largest country in the world. On the west, Spain borders Portugal; on the south, it borders Gibraltar (a British overseas territory) and Morocco, through its cities in North Africa (Ceuta and Melilla). On the northeast, along the Pyrenees mountain range, it borders France and the tiny principality of Andorra. Spain also includes the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, and a number of uninhabited islands on the Mediterranean side of the strait of Gibraltar.
Spanish cuisine consists of a great variety of dishes, stemming from differences in geography, culture and climate. Seafood is a heavy influence in dining because seafood is available from the waters that surround the country and reflect the country’s deep Mediterranean roots. Spain’s extensive history with many cultural influences has led to an array of unique cuisines with literally thousands of recipes and flavors. It is also renowned for its health benefits and fresh ingredients. Three interesting divisions of culinary tastes:
• Mediterranean Spain—all such coastal regions from Catalonia to Malaga succumb to the abundance of available seafood in dishes, cold soups similar to gazpacho and many rice-based dishes, which are paella and arroz negro.
• Inner Spain—Castile-La Mancha and Madrid enjoy hot, thick soups such as the bread and garlic-based Castilian soup, along with substantial stews. This food is traditionally salted, similar to Spanish ham, or immersed in olive oil like Manchego cheese, which has a unique flavor and sliced thin for joyful tasting.
• Atlantic Spain—the entire northern coast from Galicia to Navarra (Basque Country) enjoy vegetables and fish-based stews, as well as the lightly cured (lacon) ham.
It is too difficult to represent the cuisine of this fine country in one article, so I am sharing some of my favorite recipes, which capture some of the tastes and smells of Spain. Before embarking on a journey, when the Spanish want to drink something fresh, white and snappy, they think one thought—Albarino. This popular Spanish white wine is made from the Albarino grapes grown in the country’s far northwestern corner, a region that looks surprisingly like Ireland. This wine is crisp and bone dry with hints of peach, cream soda, star fruit and green applies and is delicious with grilled vegetables and shellfish dishes.
When serving steak, grilled chicken or any animal fat venue, there is nothing more satisfying than a robust glass of Rioja. The Spanish Riojas are lush, supple wines, made primarily from a blend of Tempranillo grapes. They brim with earthy, baked-cherry flavors, and laced with hints of vanilla. The simplest or youngest Rioja reds are labeled “crianza,” and moves up in price and quality with “reserves” and finally the “gran reserves.”
1/2 cup olive oil
1 pound thinly sliced peeled white potatoes
1 large sweet onion
6 large eggs (or use Egg Beaters if you have issues with cholesterol)
Salt and pepper to taste
Flat-leaf parsley, to garnish • Heat a 10-inch skillet, preferably nonstick, over high heat. Add the oil and heat, add the potatoes and onion and cook for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are tender. • Beat the eggs in a large bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. If you are using egg substitutes, 1/4 cup for each egg is the normal measurement. Drain the potatoes and onion through a strainer, over a heatproof bowl to reserve the oil. Very gently stir the vegetables into the eggs; set aside for about ten minutes. • Use a wooden spoon or spatula to remove any crusty pieces stuck to the bottom of the skillet. Reheat the skillet over medium-high heat with 4 tablespoons of the reserved oil. Add the egg mixture and smooth the surface, pressing the potatoes and onions into an even layer. • Cook for about 5 minutes, shaking the skillet occasionally, until the base is set. Use a spatula to loosen the side of the tortilla. Place a large plate over the top and carefully invert the skillet and plate together, so the tortilla drops onto the plate. • Add one tablespoon of the remaining reserved oil to the skilled and swirl around. Carefully slide the tortilla back into the skillet, cooked side up. Run the spatula round the tortilla, to tuck in the edge. • Continue cooking for about 3 minutes until the eggs are set and the base is a golden brown. Remove the skillet from the heat and slide the tortilla onto a plate. Let stand for at least 5 minutes before cutting. This will set the egg, potato, and onion and make cutting easier. Slice the tortilla into wedges and serve either warm or at room temperature. Makes 8-10 slices. It took a few attempts before I was confident transferring from skillet to plate and back to skillet. Serve this delightful dish as an appetizer or Tapas (from tapar, “to cover”). “Tapas” began as a simple slice of ham or cheese perched atop a sherry glass to keep out fruit flies. Today, Spanish tapas are more than just appetizers. They are a way of life. Friends and family gather in tapas bars, or in their homes, where lively conversation and a medley of small plates serve as a prelude to the meal.
Pa amb Tomaquet
French loaf bread
Tomatoes (ripe, juicy)
Olive oil, optional • It is most unusual to have a meal in Barcelona that does not start with Pa amb Tomaquet, whether you enjoy at home or in a tapas bar. This is one of the classics of that region. • Rub slices of bread with a fresh juicy tomato, flavor with garlic and olive oil. If the bread is too soft, toast first. • If you are hosting a luncheon, serve tomato bread with a plate of thinly sliced Serrano ham and Manchego cheese and let your guests assemble their own mini-sandwiches.
2 cups Spanish short-grain rice
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, sliced finely
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
2 tomatoes, broiled, peeled, seeded and chopped finely
1 squid body, cut into 1/4-inch rings (you can find these frozen)
Save the tentacles and set aside
4 cups fish stock (I use shrimp shells to make stock)
12 large uncooked shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 red bell pepper, broiled, peeled, seeded and sliced (or pimento)
Ink sac from squid* • Place the rice in a strainer and rinse until the water runs clear; set aside. • Heat the oil in a large, shallow casserole or skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook for about 3 minutes, then add the garlic cloves and cook for an additional 2 minutes until the onion is soft, but not brown. • Add tomatoes and simmer until they are very soft. Add the squid rings and cook quickly until they turn opaque in color. • To this mixture, add the rice and stir until coated with the oil. Pour in the stock, squid ink sac. (I do not use this because the taste is very intense and fishy to my family. I substitute the liquid from black beans, which gives a similar dark color to the rice, but not the intense fishy flavor) salt and pepper to taste.) Bring to a rapid boil. Reduce the heat and let simmer for about 15 minutes, uncovered and without stirring, but shaking the skillet frequently, until most of the stock is absorbed and small holes appear on the surface. • Lightly stir in the shrimp, squid tentacles (if you are using), bell peppers, (or pimento). Cover the skillet and continue to simmer for about 5 minutes or until the shrimp turn pink and the tentacles turn opaque and curl. Serve this dish with a side of Allioli (garlic mayonnaise—recipe below). This recipes serves 4-6. You may increase the shrimp, or add scallops instead of squid. *If you are using a whole squid, cut off the tentacles just in front of the eye; discard the hard beak, but set aside the tentacles if they are to be uses. Hold the body in one hand and use your other hand to pull out the head, which will bring the insides along as well. Remove and set aside the ink sac, but discard the rest of the insides. Use your fingers to pull out the transparent, quill-like bone in the cavity. Rub off the outer membrane, cut off and discard the fins. Rinse the squid body and pat dry, prepare for slicing per your recipe requirements. The ink sac gives the rice and broth a dark, almost black opal intense color and the flavor is very fishy.
3-4 large garlic cloves, use more or less...to taste
2 large egg yokes
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1-1/4 cups olive extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and pepper, to taste • Mash the garlic cloves to a paste with a pinch of sea salt. Put the paste in a food processor; add the egg yokes and lemon juice, process. • While the motor is still running, slowly dribble in the olive oil until an emulsion forms and the sauce thickens. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Cover and let chill. This makes about 1-1/2 cups and can be stored in the fridge for about three days. • You can easily change the color and taste of this sauce by soaking a large pinch of saffron in 2 tablespoons hot water for about 10 minutes. Follow the recipe and add the saffron water after the sauce starts to thicken. These mayonnaise recipes are great with any deep-fried seafood dish, excellent with simply cooked young vegetables (asparagus, baby carrots, green beans. Bring a pot of water to boil, add a pinch of salt, add veggies, and cook only until just tender. Drain veggies and immediately submerse into ice-chilled water to stop the cooking process.). For a simply elegant dessert:
Naranjas de Valencia con Caramelo
(Valencia Caramel Oranges)
4 large juicy oranges
1-1/4 cups superfine sugar (baker’s)
1-1/4 cups water
4-6 tablespoons slivered almost, toasted
• Peel the oranges carefully (do not leave any bitter-tasting pith on the oranges) over a heatproof bowl so you can catch any juice. Use the knife to remove the orange segments, cutting between the membranes. Squeeze the membranes over the bowl to extract as much juice as possible; discard the membranes and set the segments and juice aside. • Put the sugar and 2/3-cup of the water into a small, heavy-bottom pan over medium-high heat. Stir until the fine sugar starts to and dissolves, then boil, without stirring, until the syrup turns a rich golden brown. • Pour the remaining water into the pan (be very careful, because as you add the water the syrup will splatter). Stir again until the caramel dissolves. Remove from the heat and let the caramel cool slightly, then pour over the oranges. Stir to blend the orange juice into the caramel. Let the oranges cool completely, then cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours before serving. • Prior to serving, sprinkle the caramel oranges with the toasted slivered almonds. This recipe serves 4-6. This simple dessert can be prepared up to a day ahead and chilled until required. It is a refreshing end to a meal and delicious served on its own or spooned over vanilla or chocolate ice cream. In a typical Spanish kitchen, you find almonds (almendras). The Moors introduced almonds trees, planting the first groves near Granada in Andalusia. Cheese (queso) Manchego is a renowned sheep’s milk cheese from LaMancha. Chickpeas (garbanzos): Spanish explorers introduced these slightly nutty, rich, round legumes from the New World. Chile peppers (pimientos chili): the “heat” in a Spanish dish. Chorizo sausage (chorizo): Spain has a wonderful and varied selection of cured and raw sausages—all chorizos are made from pork, and contain paprika made from the choricero Chile pepper. Garlic (ajo): desserts are probably the only Spanish dishes that do not include this pungent vegetables (yes, garlic is a vegetable). Ham (jamon) in a country where the pig is king, hams have been produced for consumption for the past 2,000 years. Olive oil (aceite de oliva) this is the most important ingredient in the Spanish kitchen. Olives (azeitunas) Spaniards have a wealth of choices when it comes to olives. Paprika (pimenton) the orange-red color and sweet-to-hot earthy flavor of paprika finds it way into numerous Spanish dishes. Rice (arroz) this short-grain rice grown in the coastal plains of the Levant, and is a staple ingredient found in most Spanish kitchens and an essential ingredient in Paella. Saffron (azafran) the golden hue and distinctive flavor of saffron is unique in such class Spanish dishes like Paella and Catalan Fish Stew. Saffron was introduced by the Moors when they conquered Spain in the early 8th Century. Turron (turron) a honey-flavored delicacy is similar to nougat. Since the 8th Century, the center for production of this spice is Jiljona, which is located in the hills above Alicante. Spanish cuisine is varied and rich, centered on quality ingredients and having a strong appreciation of seasonal freshness. Generally, Spanish main courses are served simply, with vegetables as a separate coarse or as an integral part of the dish. As we glance through our spices and recipes, how much of the Spanish influence has migrated into our own kitchens of the New World? Add a little sizzle, and heat, to your Valentine’s Day by trying some of these recipes or others, just for fun. Time to get moving onto the next culinary adventure!
Carole Truesdale is a Ramona resident with a background in corporte marketing, sales and event planning. She attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to learn the wine industry. She loves to experiment with food-wine paring and share this with others.