While my primary cooking focus is on Italian food, I am fascinated with all the cuisines of the Mediterranean region. This geographical area broadly follows the olive tree, which provides one of the most distinctive features of the region’s cooking, olive oil. The region spans a wide variety of cultures such as, the Maghrebi, Levantine, Ottoman, Greek, Italian, Provençal and Spanish. History, as well as the impact of the Mediterranean Sea on the region’s climate and economy, mean that these cuisines share similar dishes, such as roast lamb, meat stews with vegetables and tomato (such as, Spanish andrajos and Italian ciambotta) and the salted cured fish roe, bottarga, found across the region. So far in this series, I have written about Mediterranean cuisine in general and the country of Portugal. This series continues with Spain.
The Mediterranean diet is the basis of Spain’s cuisine. The regions of Andalusia and Catalonia are best known for Spain’s olive oil. It is an important ingredient in Spanish salads and soups, such as gazpacho and salmorejo ( a cold soup made with tomato and bread). Whole olives, sometimes stuffed with anchovies or pimento (red pepper paste), are eaten as appetizers and snacks, or added to stews, hot pots and salads.
Some of Spain’s fertile agricultural regions are in Navarre, Andalusia, Murcia,the Balearic Islands and Valencia. Valencia is well-known for its citrus fruits. Other essential Spanish fruit includes bananas from the Canary Islands, strawberries from Huelva and Aranjuez (Madrid), Vinalopó grapes and peaches from Calanda (Aragon).
Bread is traditionally served as an accompaniment to food, often with a little extra virgin olive oil for dipping. Bread with cheese is a common snack, and bread is also used to thicken soups and stews.
Spanish cuisine also features many rice-based recipes and paella is world-famous. Spanish paella is cooked outside on an open wood fire in a large flat-bottomed pan called a paellera and paella can include all types of ingredients including seafood, chicken, chorizo sausage, rabbit and even snails.
The regions in the north of Spain are well known for their milk and dairy products. Traditional desserts, such as cuajada (made with curd cheese) and rice pudding are made from such ingredients. Spanish cheeses include Manchego (Castile-La Mancha), Burgos (Castile-León), Cabrales (Asturias), Idiazábal (Basque Country) and Majorero (Canary Islands).
Omelets and seafood are eaten often. The most popular fish dishes contain anchovies (very common in Cantabria), cod (typical of the Basque Country), “pescaíto frito” (fried fish) in Andalusia and seafood from Galicia. Fish and shellfish are used in a myriad of ways—grilled over hot coals and served with bread and salad, fried in olive oil and served as tapas (small appetizers served hot and cold in bars and bistros throughout Spain to accompany sherry, wine, or beer) dotted through a paella, or enjoyed in a saffron-infused stew with tomatoes, fish, shellfish, potatoes and wine.
Tomatoes, bell peppers (capsicum), potatoes and zucchini have now become synonymous not only with Spanish cuisine, but Mediterranean cuisine as a whole. Other commonly enjoyed vegetables include onions, garlic, asparagus, eggplant, spinach, cabbage, cucumbers, artichokes, lettuce and mushrooms.
These vegetables are used in rice dishes, stews such as cocida (a one pot dish with vegetables, beans and chicken or meat that originated in Madrid but is eaten throughout Spain) as well as soups such as gazpacho (a cold tomato-based soup) and a wide range of salads and vegetable side dishes.
Chickpeas and white beans are used to make hearty bean stews and flavorsome soups. Lentils, such as Spanish pardina lentils, are also added to stews and soups and are used in salads. Green beans and peas are used in a wide range of dishes including paellas and hot pots.
Popular nuts include almonds, pine nuts and hazelnuts which are often ground down and used to thicken and enrich the flavor of stews, sauces and soups. Toasted almonds are also a popular snack.
Meats like dry cured Serrano ham, lamb or chorizo sausage are used in small amounts to add flavor and texture to a dish instead of being the main ingredient.
Chicken is a popular addition to stews and rice dishes and eggs are used in a variety of dishes including tortilla de patatas, a traditional Spanish omelet with eggs, potatoes and onion.
For over 700 years much of Spain was ruled by the Moors (a Muslim tribal people from the Moroccan region of North Africa) and their influence remains today in many of the seasonings used in Spanish cooking including saffron, cinnamon and cumin.
Other commonly used seasonings include smoked paprika, garlic, flat-leaf parsley, pepper, sea salt, white wine vinegar and sherry vinegar, fresh chilies, capers, wine and lemon juice. These seasonings are all used to enhance, not mask, the natural flavors of the food.
Tortilla de Patatas
1 potato, peeled and cut into small cubes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cook the potato in boiling water for 4-5 minutes. Drain.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and cook the onion and green pepper for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the potato and cook for 2 minutes.
Whisk the eggs together in a bowl with the parsley, salt and pepper. Pour the eggs over the vegetables in the pan, cover, and cook gently over a low heat for 8 minutes.
Remove the lid and place under a hot oven broiler to cook for a minute or until the top is set. Cut into wedges to serve.
This cold soup is delicious and refreshing—a perfect summertime meal served with bread.
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 red onion, roughly chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
1 cup peeled, seeded and roughly chopped cucumber
3 cups low sodium good quality tomato juice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Garnish: chopped cucumber, onion or bell pepper
Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and process until smooth.
Chill in the refrigerator for twenty four hours for the best flavor.Garnish with chopped vegetables, if desired.
Add a few drops of Tabasco sauce for a spicy version.
You could use ripe, fresh tomatoes instead of tomato juice, but you need to skin and remove the seeds first.
The following paella recipe serves 4, and for best results cook in a 14 or 15-inch paellera. A large shallow frying pan makes an acceptable substitute. Most Spanish Paellas are made with seafood.
Prepare the vegetables:
Finely chop: 1 red onion,1 red and 1 green bell pepper, 4 cloves of garlic and 2 tablespoons of fresh flat-leaf parsley.
1 cup of canned peeled tomatoes mashed with a fork.
Prepare the seafood:
Peel and devein 16 large shrimp
Cut 2 squid tubes into rings
Scrub and debeard 12 fresh mussels.
Cover the fish and refrigerate.
Sofrito is a Spanish tomato and onion sauce which is used as a flavor base for a variety of dishes, including paella.
To make the sofrito:
Heat 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in the paella pan over a medium heat and cook the chopped red onion, 2 tablespoons of parsley and 3 of the chopped garlic cloves for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the tomatoes and 2 teaspoons of Spanish smoked paprika.
cook until all the liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated and the sofrito has the consistency of jam. Transfer the sofrito to a small bowl to cool and wipe the paella pan clean with a paper towel.
Cook the mussels:
Bring a ½ cup of water to a simmer in a saucepan. Add the mussels, cover the pan and steam on a low heat for 5 minutes. Remove the mussels and set aside, discarding any that haven’t opened.
Cook the shrimp and squid:
Heat 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in the paella pan over a medium-high heat. Add the remaining clove of chopped garlic and the shrimp and cook for 1½ minutes. Add the squid rings and cook for a 1½ minutes more. Remove the shrimp and squid from the paella pan and lightly season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover and set aside.
Prepare the paella:
Heat 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in the paella pan over a medium heat and cook the diced red and green peppers for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the sofrito back to the pan along with 1½ cups of Spanish Calasparra or Bomba rice and cook for a minute, stirring to coat the grains.
Add 3 cups of heated fish or chicken stock, a pinch of saffron threads, 1½ teaspoons sea salt and ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Stir to combine, and bring to a bubbling simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, uncovered without stirring. (To make sure the rice cooks evenly you will need to regularly move the paella pan around the heat source, or you can position the paella pan over two burners.)
Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 15 minutes more without stirring. After 15 minutes, turn the heat up to medium-high for a minute or so until you can smell the rice toasting at the bottom, then remove the paella pan from the heat.
Push the cooked shrimp, mussels and squid into the cooked rice and scatter a half a cup of defrosted frozen green peas over the paella.
Cover the pan with foil or a clean cloth and let the paella rest for 5 minutes.
Present the paella in the pan at the table with lemon wedges.
Classic Spanish Flan
Makes 12 servings
For the flan:
4 cups whole milk
2 strips lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
5 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar
For the caramelized sugar-coating:
1/2 cup sugar
5 by 9-inch mold
Preheat the oven to 300º F.
To prepare the caramelized sugar-coating, spread the sugar evenly in the bottom of a small heavy saucepan and place over medium-low heat. It may take several minutes before the sugar begins to melt. Without stirring, watch the sugar closely as it begins to liquefy at the edges. All of it will slowly turn first into a yellowish and then golden syrup and finally into a brown caramel sauce.
When the liquefied sugar is turning from golden to brown, immediately remove the saucepan from the heat. (If you miss this point, the sugar will quickly turn too dark and taste bitter and you will need to discard it and begin again.)
Working swiftly, pour the liquid caramel into the flan mold and tilt to cover the bottom and sides evenly. It is important to do this transfer quickly, as the change in temperature causes the caramel to solidify rapidly. Set aside.
In a saucepan, combine the milk, lemon zest and cinnamon stick over high heat and bring to a boil. Immediately decrease the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes to infuse the milk with the flavor of the seasonings. Remove from the heat and let cool.
In a bowl, combine the whole eggs, egg yolks, and granulated sugar and whisk until foamy. Pour the cooled milk through a fine-mesh sieve held over the egg mixture and whisk until well blended. Pour the mixture into the coated mold.
Place the mold in a large, deep baking pan or roasting pan. Pull out the oven rack, put the baking pan on it, and pour boiling water to a depth of about 1 inch into the pan to create a water bath. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until set when tested with a thin-bladed knife in the center. Carefully remove the water bath from the oven, and then carefully remove the custard from the water bath and set aside to cool completely.
You can cover and refrigerate the cooled flan to serve cold, or you can serve it at room temperature. Run a knife around the inside of the mold to loosen the edges of the custard and then invert the flan onto a dessert plate.