Thursday, December 8, 2011


Potato tortilla--a favorite in every region.
Ever wondered what’s cooking in Catalonia? What’s best of Basque or cool in Castilla? I recently wrote an article for U.K.-based magazine, FINE FOODIES (check it out on-line here), with a regional round-up of everything good to eat. Here is part of that article, providing some culinary geography, a cook’s tour of Spain.

Olive variations.
Taste: An olive, a slice of salt-cured ham, a sweet, briny prawn. Sip a little wine. Taste some more: sunny paella, chilled gazpacho, hearty ox-tail stew, fish crisply fried in olive oil. Spain offers a wealth of vibrant flavors.
Regional Roundup

Regional Spanish cooking is best characterized by the old Spanish saying, referring to both summer weather and cooking techniques: “In the east you simmer; in the south you fry; in the center you roast, and in the north you stew.” This broad generalization provides some clues to cooking styles around Spain.

What Simmers in Catalonia

Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, the region on Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coast that borders on France at the north and historically includes Valencia to the south and the Balearic Islands to the east.

What simmers in Catalonia? Perhaps a kettle of fish--suquet--a seafood stew with potatoes, tomatoes and ground almonds; or rabbit slow-cooked with a herbal bouquet of snails; or arros negre, rice tinted black with squid ink.

The Catalans are famed for their sauces--alioli, garlicky olive oil mayonnaise, served with grilled meat and vegetables; picada, a pesto of almonds or hazelnuts, saffron and sometimes a touch of chocolate, added to chicken or meat stews, and romesco, a deeply flavored mixture of ground nuts and dried sweet red peppers. Romesco is sensational with grilled prawns.

In Barcelona and environs you can expect to find lots of variations on the salad theme. One Catalan salad, amanida, starts with a bed of greens onto which are spread celery, tomatoes, roasted peppers, olives, sliced sausage and strips of anchovy. Another, xató, includes salt cod.

Valencia and True Paella

South from Catalonia, you come to the Levante, or “east,” made up of the Valencia Community plus Murcia. Valencia, where rice is grown, is the home of paella.

If you learned to love paella as made anywhere else in the world, you might be surprised to find that the authentic Valencia version contains no seafood. That’s right--no prawns, no lobster, no mussels or clams. No squid. No sausage nor strips of red pimiento.

Paella on its home ground has beans and snails, rabbit or chicken. The rice is colored a sunny yellow by saffron. Nevertheless, popular paellas everywhere in Spain are made with a mixture of chicken and shellfish. Paella rice, by the way, is a medium-short grain, somewhat like Italian arborio rice.

Navel oranges are in season.
The Levante also is known for its citrus groves (look for luscious navel oranges and Clementines in this season) and market gardens. This is a great place to eat your vegetables--maybe prepared in a tortilla, a fat omelet incorporating potatoes or aubergine and courgette.

In the South, You Fry-- in Olive Oil

Following the Mediterranean coast south you enter the large region known as Andalucia, which includes eight provinces (Almería, Granada, Málaga, Cádiz, Huelva, Sevilla, Córdoba, and Jaén). Of these, five have sea coasts (Mediterranean or Atlantic); one has a river port with sea tides, and only two are landlocked. The coastal regions are famous for their seafood and the inland ones for their olive oil (Jaén has more olive trees per square mile than anywhere else in the world).

Fried rings of calamares.
Remember? In the south you fry. In olive oil, obviously. Fried fish is tops. Little fish such as fresh anchovies (boquerones) or rings of squid, lightly floured, come out of the bubbling oil golden and crisp. Or, try them in a mixed fish fry with a few prawns, a fillet of a larger fish.

Andalucia’s famous contribution to world gastronomy is gazpacho, a word that has entered the lexicon as any cold soup. Actually, gazpacho is your original peasant food, a very simple concoction of fresh, raw tomatoes, bread, garlic and olive oil. With accompaniments of chopped green pepper, cucumber, onion, tomato, croutons, gazpacho is a great way to celebrate summer.

Moving up the western boundary of Spain, bordering Portugal, you pass through the region of Extremadura, especially famous for its hams from a special breed of pig, called ibérico. If prosciutto rates a nine on a scale of 10; ibérico merits a 15. It’s that good. Oh, by the way, it’s very expensive, served on special occasions.

Big Roast Country

The central high plateau comprises the autonomous regions of Castilla y León, Castilla-La Mancha and Aragon. The capital of Spain, Madrid, is in the center. When wool was an important export, huge herds of sheep moved across these lands, from north to south, mountain to lowland, and back again with the seasons. It is still sheep country--famous now for its sheep’s’ milk cheeses, such as Manchego, and for baby lamb roasted to a turn in old-fashioned bread ovens.

Suckling pig, cochinillo, also emerges crackling and succulent from wood-burning ovens. Not all pigs wind up in the oven at a tender age. Many grow up to be the sausages for which the region is famous. The most outstanding sausages are red chorizo, flavored with garlic and paprika, and morcilla, blood sausage spiced with cinnamon and cloves.

Saffron from La Mancha.
Precious saffron, essential for paella, grows in La Mancha. Saffron is the stigma of autumn- blooming crocuses.

The region is renowned for its small game. Partridge is cooked in a vinegar marinade, while wild rabbit and hare go into robust hunter’s stews. It’s also known as Spain’s breadbasket, for the vast stretches of wheat fields that produce much of the country’s cereals. In Spain you can expect to find very serious bread, freshly baked every day.

Cocido--a one-pot meal.
While every region of Spain has some version of cocido, a meal-in-a-pot, Madrid’s is exemplary. Into a big soup pot go chicken, ham, beef, chick peas, sausages, meatballs, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnips and onion, all to simmer until succulent. First the broth is served with soup noodles. Platters of meats and vegetables follow. A real feast.

The Green North

The top of Spain, from Galicia in the west, through Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country, Rioja and Navarra, is frequently called Green Spain. Open to storms and mists from the Atlantic and Bay of Biscay, it is rolling country of green meadows and lush pastures where dairy cattle (and dairy goats, too) thrive. Some of the country’s best cheeses come from the north. Try Cabrales blue cheese; smoky Idiazábal; sharp Roncal; buttery Tetilla.

Caldo gallego--Galician stew.
Now, about those stews. The most famous one is fabada, a hearty bean and sausage stew from Asturias. In Galicia, white beans are stewed with ham, potatoes and greens. Seafood stews, calderetas, appear too, usually with potatoes, fish and shellfish. 

Seafood, often very simply prepared, is superlative along these northern coasts. In the Basque Country,  txangurro, a crab gratin laced with brandy; chipirones en su tinta, squid cooked in their own ink, and merluza a la vasca, fresh hake in a white wine and parsley sauce, are outstanding. Of special note are dishes made with dry salt cod. One of the best is bacalao al pil pil with lots of garlic.

Cod pil-pil on toast.
The inland provinces of La Rioja and Navarra are famed for their wines and for their piquillo peppers. Small red peppers, slightly piquant, piquillos are  stuffed with fish or prawn and gratined with a creamy sauce. Look for tinned piquillos at your favourite food shop.

Sweet Stuff

Spanish bake shops proffer a tantalizing array of small cakes and pastries. In Spain they are served with coffee, tea or sweet wine. Here is a list of some you might enjoy sampling: almendrados, almond cookies; brazo gitano, which means “gypsy’s arm,” a filled cake roll; coca, a Catalan pastry topped with candied fruits; ensaimada, from Mallorca, a spiral bun, good for breakfast, or with cream filling, as a dessert; torta de Santiago, rich almond torte; yema, egg yolk candy.

(Photo by Jerónimo Alba.)
Special for the Christmas holidays are a trio of anise-scented biscuits from Andalucia—mantecados, roscos and polverones; marzipan from Toledo, and turrón, almond nougat candy, both a hard type studded with whole almonds and a soft brown, fudgy sort, from Jijona (Alicante).

Such varied and vibrant flavours, and yet so easy to translate to your home kitchen.

¡Que aproveche! Enjoy!

Tortilla de Patatas
Potato Tortilla

If there is a single dish without boundaries, popular all over Spain, it’s the famous tortilla, the round, flat potato and egg cake. It’s served in tapa bars and in homes from one end of the country to the other.

Makes 12 tapas or 4 main dishes.

120 ml / 4 fl oz / olive oil
1 kg / 2 ¼ lb potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped onion (optional)
6 eggs
1 teaspoon salt

Heat the oil in a no-stick or well-seasoned frying pan (24-26 cm / 9-10 in). Add the sliced potatoes and turn them in the oil. Let them cook slowly in the oil, without browning, turning frequently. If using onions, add them when the potatoes are partially cooked. The potatoes will take 20 to 30 minutes to cook.

Beat the eggs in a bowl with the salt. Place a plate over the potatoes and drain off excess oil into a small heatproof bowl. Add the potatoes to the beaten eggs and combine well.

Add a little of the reserved oil to the frying pan and pour in the potato-egg mixture. Cook on a medium heat until set, without letting the tortilla get too brown on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Shake the pan to keep the tortilla from sticking.

Place a flat lid or plate over the pan, hold it tightly, and reverse the tortilla onto the plate. Add a little more oil to the pan, if necessary, and slide the tortilla back in to cook on the reverse side, about 3 minutes more. Slide out onto a serving plate.

Cut into squares for tapas or slice in wedges as a main dish. Serve hot or cold.

©text and photos Janet Mendel


  1. I can't wait to be back in Spain.

  2. This great article makes me want to travel, particularly to the north, where I've never been -- there really are so many enticing food traditions to explore in Spain! What is really incredible to me is the variety of dishes that are produced in different regions with quite similar ingredients. Genius! I'm eager to try those albóndigas.

    A quick question about saffron -- I've heard that the quality of saffron sold can vary greatly. Do you recommend any particular brand? Thank you! Ansley

  3. Ansley: most saffron sold in Spain comes from Iran and is packaged in Spain. If you can find it, buy saffron with denominación de origen Azafran de la Mancha. It is superior. Unfortunately, not widely available. Try el Corte Inglés.