Ever the diplomat, and clearly qualified for a high powered job in the Foreign Office, whenever a country get’s a bit of bad press, I try to do my bit to remind all the cynics out there that despite financial plight, banking crises, and the incessant need for multi-billion euro bailouts from reticent cash-strapped neighbours, the culture which made these economically shaky countries great survives through the monetary meltdown. This is no more so than in my beloved Spain, where the great flavours and platos ricos were born from poverty, using basic and cheap ingredients which, when combined, produce a flavour sensation which captures in its aroma, colour and savour the very essence of that culturally diverse country. Consequently, just like I did for poor old Greece a few weeks ago, I’ve returned to my London kitchen, and cooked up a feast in honour of Spain’s great gastronomic heritage.
Here are just a few dishes I tried out over the weekend. In this post I’m going to share three great savoury dishes from apple-lush Asturia, seafood-filled Catalonia and the once-moorish highly spiced lands of Andalucia. Later in the week, I’m moving on to the sweet stuff, when I’ll share a traditional Santiago almond cake, and some divinely Sevillan orange-burst creme-caramels.
Centollo a la sidra (Baked crab with cider)
This recipe takes its inspiration from the Asturias region of Spain, where Cider is the drink of choice and sidrerias can be found in every town and village. My take is in turn based on the recipe by Claudia Roden in her fantastic book, The Food of Spain: A Celebration (Penguin, 2012) so all credit must go to her. These little ramekin filled dishes make a perfect starter or, as I did, served as a light lunch with a little side salad. In Asturias, they make this filling and stuff it back inside the shell of their txangurro spider crabs. While not attempting any such culinary craftsmanship, I paid homage to their skills by serving my dish in a mini le creuset pot with a little crab shell on the side, just for decoration (you eat with your eyes before your mouth etc etc).
To make your own crab dish (whatsoever you may chose to stuff it in) take a chopped medium onion which should be sauteed over a low heat until soft. Add to it one peeled and chopped tomato, a pinch of chilli powder (or cayenne pepper) and another pinch of salt and cook over a medium heat for around 8 minutes. Next take a fillet of cod (around 150-250 g depending on how many ramekins you want to fill) and cook for about 5 minutes or until it begins to flake, turning it once. Flake the cooked fish and add 250g of cooked white and dark crab meat, 175ml of dry cider and 2 tablespoons of chopped flat-leaf parsley. Cook for around a minute. Oil 4 small ramekins or two big mini casseroles (like mine) and spoon the mixture in. Sprinkle with fresh breadcrumbs, a few blobs of butter and place under the grill until the breadcrumbs are browned. It’s probably best you leave the ramekins to cool for a couple of minutes once they come out of the grill before you serve them!
Fideuada del señorito – (smoked) seafood pasta
This is a pasta dish straight from the gutsy seafood-filled region of Catalonia, and brought to my attention, once again, by Claudia Roden although once again, I’ve gone my own way with it and shaken it up a bit (sorry Claudia). The dish, for no apparent reason, translates as “of the young gentleman”, perhaps because the short pieces of pasta and shelled prawns make the dish particularly easy for young senoritos and senoritas to eat. Either way its truly delicious for us adults too. You should service it with a good blob of alioli (garlic mayonnaise). If you can’t be bothered to make you own mayo, just add crushed garlic to shop bought mayonnaise. Mine is thick and yellow because I made it with extra virgin olive oil straight from a vineyard next to my Partner’s family home in Tuscany (yes yes, I know, it’s not Spain) so well worth the rather tedious effort of making it from scratch.
To make the pasta, heat 4 tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan (or paella pan if you have one). Cook around 400g of cubed smoked haddock (Claudia Roden uses monkfish, but I didn’t have any to hand – I adore smoked haddock and loved the results in this dish – it gives a subtle smokey flavour which works amazingly well with the alioli on the side) and cook on a medium heat for around 3-5 minutes. Next add 4-6 baby squids, sliced into rings, cooking for a further couple of minutes before adding a dozen or so peeled king prawns and an equal number of scallops. Cook until the prawns are nice and pink (1-2 mins). Place all the cooked seafood to one side in a separate dish, keeping it warm. Preserve any liquid. Using the same pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil and stir in 1-2 crushed cloves of garlic. Just before the garlic colours, add 3 chopped tomatoes, 1 heaped teaspoon of pimenton dulce (or sweet paprika), a little salt and a good pinch of saffron threads (and at this point pause and indulge in the aroma of Spain, a warm mediterranean evening wafting past your nose, a magical culinary noche brought to life in your kitchen, wherever it may be). Sorry, where was I… ah yes, The tomato will quickly thicken so at this point I added 120ml of oloroso dry sherry (although dry white wine will work too). Wait for that to reduce down, cooking for around 10 minutes.
Add around 300g (for 2-3 people) of spaghetti, broken into 3-4cm pieces to the tomato mixture, making sure it is well coated. Then add around a pint of boiling chicken stock and add back the cooked seafood, stirring it into the pasta/ tomato mix. Cook until the pasta is al dente. This should use up all the stock, but add a little more if the liquid dries up before the pasta is cooked. The dish should be moist when its finished.
And that’s it! Serve with some sprinkled parsley and a good dollop of alioli – the mixture of smoked fish and pimenton with delicate seafood and a pungent winey tomato sauce is to die for, I promise. Oh and don’t forget to give the whole thing a good squeeze of lemon juice – the acid cuts across the strong salty smokeyness perfectly.
Pollo en pepitoria (Chicken in a mildly spiced saffron, pine nut and almond sauce)
Last up it’s down to the Med and the region of Andalucia where the influence of 700 years of Islamic rule can still be felt from the rafting voices and spasmodic dancing of gypsy culture emanating from Seville, to the use of mild moroccan spices in their food. This dish is no exception. It was first cooked for me by my mother, who in turn got it from chef Rick Stein, who in turn nicked it from Australian chef Luke Mangan who opened a restaurant specialising in a mixture of Spanish and Moorish cuisine. Despite this chinese-whisper-like chain of chefs, all of whom have no doubt made changes here and there, the dish is nonetheless emblematic of Southern spanish cooking, with its warm aromatic spices and plentiful use of almonds. Moreover, the use of a “picada”, that is a nutty paste stirred into the chicken, is popular across the whole of the Iberian peninsula.
Start off by hard boiling two large eggs for 10 minutes. You’ll need these later. Allow them to cool and then peel off the shell.
Next deal with your chicken. Some people will use a whole chicken, in which case they’ll chop up and use the legs, wings, breasts etc. I only really like chicken breasts and am not therefore much help on how to use these other bits of the bird – but you can. I use four chicken breasts. Cut these into fairly large pieces (probably three from each breast) so they remain moist.
My spices: they smell as good as they look
Onto spices. Lightly crush approximately 10 cardamom pods and remove the seeds from inside (this is fairly tedious but worth it, I promise). Discard the shells and add the seeds to a pestle and mortar into which should also go 1/2 teaspoon of coriander seeds, 1/2 teaspoon saffron strands, 2 cloves, 1 cm piece of cinnamon stick, 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg and around 10 peppercorns. Grind to a fine powder and enjoy the aromas while you’re doing so.
Now heat around 4 tablespoons of oil in a casserole. Add two peeled whole garlic cloves and a slice of white bread. Fry on both sides until golden. Transfer to a food processor. Now season the chicken lightly and fry until golden on the sides. Remove and set aside. Now in another tablespoon of oil, add 1 large onion, finely chopped and fry lightly until soft and sweetened but not brown. Stir in the spices, cooking for 1 minute and then stir in 200ml of dry oloroso (or other) sherry or white wine and 200ml of chicken stock. Return the chicken to the pan with 2 bay leaves, a handful of raisins or dates (these are my addition, but are optional) and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for around 20 minutes (40 minutes is probably necessary for chicken legs etc).
In the meantime heat a frying pan and dry roast 40g pine nuts for 1 minute and 40g blanched almonds for 2 minutes. Leave to cool. Add the nuts and the yolks from the hardboiled eggs to the bread in the food processor along with 10-12 tablespoons of cooking liquid from the chicken. Grind to a paste (this is the “picada”). Chop 20g more of blanched almonds to sprinkle over the dish at the end.
Once the chicken is cooked, stir in the picada paste and simmer for a couple of minutes longer until thickened. Stir in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice approx and make sure your seasoning is on course. Finally, in a separate pan, stir fry those remaining chopped almonds for a couple of minutes in a little oil until golden. Serve your chicken with the sauce and sprinkle the almonds on the top with some parsley.
OK, we’re done. Three dishes bringing the flavours and character of Spain directly into your house. On second thoughts maybe this post isn’t so helpful to the Spanish economy after all – once these amazing cooking aromas fill your home, you’ll have no need to go on holiday again!