I wasn’t intending to do Spanish cooking as part of this series, but my friend unintentionally gave me this challenge when she decided to have a birthday dinner this weekend at a Spanish restaurant.
I lived in Spain ten years ago as a student, and if you know about Spanish cooking you probably know these things already:
1) Spanish food is quite distinct from Mexican or Latin American food, something many people here in the U.S. don’t realize. The flavor palate and ingredients are much more similar to other Mediterranean cuisines, with olives, peppers, and goat cheese as featured ingredients.
2) Spanish cuisine can also be difficult for vegetarians. The pig plays a big role in Spanish food, and in any major city you can find bars or stores with giant hams in the window. The Spanish love their jamón, which is cured and served in various ways. You can even find pig’s ears on the menu and, yes, I have tried them. They’re kind of gross. Seafood is also a major element of Spanish food and it’s not uncommon to find tuna or cod in unusual places like on salads and pizza. However…
3) Vegetarian cooking can be done, and tapas menus (small plates, generally popular as inexpensive, shared bar food) can include veggie-friendly options like cheese, olives, mushrooms, potatoes, and more.
For lunch this Saturday morning, I decided to prepare myself a delicious meal of patatas bravas (a popular tapa) and a Spanish-inspired grilled cheese with romesco sauce.
Romesco sauce hails from Northern Spain and can be served with seafood, vegetables, or on a sandwich like this one. I got my recipe from The Pampered Chef’s The Vegetarian Table Cookbook, but you can easily find recipes online. The common theme is combining roasted red peppers, garlic, and ground toasted almonds. My preparation added a bit of mayo and basil from my own basil plant, but you can also add tomato, vinegar, or red pepper flakes if you like it hotter. Incidentally, a coffee grinder makes a great tool for processing nuts if you don’t have a manual or electric food processor. I then spread my romesco sauce on wheat bread and made a grilled cheese with mozzarella and Manchego cheeses. It was a lucky bit of fate to find Manchego at my neighborhood Albertsons this morning, and if you can find it it’s worth the price. This is a firm, goat milk cheese from the La Mancha region with a mellow, nutty flavor. This cheese is ubiquitous in Spain, and combining it with mozzarella helped give it the melty, grilled cheese texture that I wouldn’t have gotten with Manchego alone.
Patatas bravas are fried potatoes with a spicy, tomato based sauce that is easy to make. My friends and I always used to get these at the bar when we were out, and in Madrid they were often served up like fast food. Today I followed this recipe which employs ketchup as a shortcut in the sauce, but I used diced tomatoes from a can with a bit of white wine vinegar instead. If you want to go all-out there’s also a recipe from famed chef Jose Andres here. I love allioli sauce as an accompaniment to the potatoes, too, but I chose not to make it today. The brava sauce should be spicy, and cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes will add an extra kick, but that’s for you to decide! I finished off the entire meal with some extra slices of manchego and a few olives that I apparently keep lying around in case a Mediterranean luncheon breaks out in my house.
For an impromptu meal, this turned out really well. Next time, I will probably skip the mayo in the romesco… it’s a bit much when serving this with the salsa brava that has lots of mayonnaise too. There was one thing this lunch was missing, though, and that’s the last thing to know about Spanish food:
4) Spanish food is best paired with friends and a good time. A Spanish meal was even better later in the evening when my friends and I went to Casa Vicente here in Tucson. This restaurant really knows how to treat a large group, and they offer a wide variety of Spanish dishes, drinks, and wines you won’t find on the menu elsewhere. (If you are so inclined to drink… I actually tasted the virgin sangria that another non-drinker at the party ordered, and it was tasty!) For seafood eaters, here’s the amazing seafood paella that my table ordered. We had a lovely dinner on the patio, great conversation, and I even got to see some of the flamenco dancing on stage. Good times, friends, and jaleo–all that Spanish dining is meant to be! Hasta la proxima, amigos!