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Spanish paradise: A little Mediterranean, a little Moorish, needlessly mysterious

Thursday, August 10, 2000

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

I'm thinking of a five-letter country name whose great cuisine relies on Mediterranean flavors -- garlic, olives and olive oil, tomatoes, a memorable thin-sliced ham, peppers, rustic breads, and world-class wines. What is it?

  Garlic shrimp Spanish-style (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette; food styling by Marlene Parrish)

If you said France, proceed to spell-check. Still wrong if you said Italy.

The answer is Spain. The cooking of the Iberian peninsula is probably the least known and most misunderstood of the world's great cuisines.

Blame it on immigration. If the Italians had headed to South America and the Spaniards had headed for North America in the mid-1800s, there might be quite a different stew in today's melting pot. Americans might have a love affair -- no, an obsession -- with paella instead of pizza, and with jamon serrano instead of prosciutto.

Although it's hard to believe, 500 years ago, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sat down to dinner at the castle, the menu was shy of tomatoes, sweet peppers, potatoes, corn and chocolate, along with paprika and chilies to add spice. Looking to upgrade their menu, the monarchs dispatched Columbus off to explore and stay for lunch in America. Should he find gold, all the better.

You know the rest.

Italy and France, along with the rest of Europe, have Spain to thank for introducing native American and Caribbean foods to the Old World.

But few may know that tomatoes were brought to Spain around 1520 and passed on to the kingdom of Naples, which came under Spanish rule at about the same time; or that potatoes were cultivated by monks in Seville by 1539 and are said to have arrived in Ireland around 1586, possibly from ships of the Spanish Armada wrecked on the Irish coast.

Nobody ever tells us these minor things. It was Janet Mendel, an American journalist living in Spain, who told me. We met in Madrid a few months ago, and over a sherry and tapas, she gave me a crash course in Spanish cuisine. Mendel's cookbooks, "Traditional Spanish Cooking," "Tapas and More Great Dishes from Spain" and "Cooking in Spain," are essential to anyone who wants to do a little Spanish exploration.

Mendel, whose latest cookbook about the Spanish kitchen will be published next year by HarperCollins, points out that Spanish cooking flavors are very similar to those of Italy and Provence, which Americans have come to love. But Spain blends them with the exotic tastes contributed by the Moors, who ruled Spain for almost 800 years -- an earlier exercise in melting-pot theory. World travelers know that you will find similarities between Spanish food and the cuisine of nearby Morocco, just across the Strait of Gibraltar.

The Moorish heritage shows up in the use of ground almonds and spices, such as saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg and sesame, in both savory and sweet dishes. But there are many differences. Spanish cooking makes great use of pork, ham and sausage, foods forbidden in the Muslim diet.


Look for Spanish ingredients at stores in metropolitan areas that sell international ingredients, such as Dean and Deluca.

For mail-order ingredients and Janet Mendel's cookbooks, contact The Spanish Table in Seattle. Phone: 206-682-2827; on the Internet: www.tablespan.com.


Foods of Spain

Spanish may be their common language, but don't expect the foods of Spain to be like Mexican or South American. You won't find tortillas, salsa or chilies. According to Mendel, the following foods are the hallmarks of Spanish cooking.

Ham -- Spain has a special ham, jamon serrano, which means "mountain" ham because it is frequently made in mountain regions where cold winters and hot summers contribute to the curing process. These hams are salt-cured, not smoked. Serrano ham, if made from the native Iberian pig, which is fed on acorns, is called jamon iberico or papa negra, "black hoof." Iberico ham, in my opinion, is one of seven wonders of the food world, far surpassing prosciutto.

Olives -- Seville Manzanilla green olives, whole or stuffed, are the best known because they are widely exported in tins and jars. They are big and meaty, with a fine texture. Most prevalent in Spain are home-cured olives. These are usually cracked, but not stoned, slightly bitter, flavored with garlic and lemon thyme, and kept in brine. They can be served as an aperitif or with a meal or used in cooking.

Olive oil -- Spain produces more olive oil than any other country. The oils vary considerably in color and flavor. Some are green, others golden. They have as many nuances of flavor as do fine wines. Olive oil is essential to Spanish cooking, and it is used in many desserts. Americans are finally learning to bypass butter at the table and enjoy bread dipped into olive oil, a healthful and delicious custom.

Garlic -- Ajo is used everywhere. Pickled, it is a robust appetizer. Find it minced raw in salads, lightly fried, sauteed or roasted in savory dishes.

Peppers -- Pimientos are widely used in Spanish cooking. You'll find both red and green bell peppers, the prized red piquillo peppers of the Basque country that are often stuffed, and hot chilies both fresh and dried.

Saffron -- It takes the stigmas of 75,000 autumn-blooming crocuses to make a pound of this expensive spice, which is grown in La Mancha and Murcia. The orange-colored threads are steeped in a little water before being added to dishes such as paella.

Tomatoes -- Sweet, vine-ripened tomatoes are one of the glories of the Spanish summer. They go into salads, fresh tomato sauce and, of course, gazpacho, Spain's famous cold summer soup.

Sausages and pork -- A wide range of sausages is produced in Spain. Chorizo is probably the best known. Salchichon is a hard sausage similar to salami, lightly garlicky and studded with peppercorns. Salchicha is fresh pork sausage links; and sobrasada is a soft, spreadable sausage from Mallorca. Lomo embuchado is cured pork loin in sausage casing.

Fish and seafood -- Spain is a country with about 3,000 miles of coastline. Most of the coast is dotted with villages whose populations earn their living from the sea -- fishing, boat-building, canning and preserving. Fish and seafood is fried in olive oil, grilled over coals, or made into earthy soups and stews.

Nuts -- Almonds, walnuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts are often used in savory dishes to thicken and enrich sauces. Toasted almonds are a classic nibble with a glass of sherry.

Wine -- Rioja may be the most famous Spanish red wine. Red wine is tinto; white wine is blanco; rose is rosado. Sherry, produced in the area around Jerez, is one of the world's great wines. It is the perfect foil for shellfish, ham, nuts and tapa foods.

Tapas -- No, this isn't a solo food; it is a unique way of eating. Tapas are small portions of foods, both hot and cold, served in wine bars and taverns. With them, you drink dry Spanish sherry, wine, cider or beer. Tapas are always accompanied by olives, almonds and rustic bread, the better to mop up the sauces. Trust me, they are so varied and delicious, a tourist can spend a week in Spain tapa hopping, eating nothing but tapas for lunch and dinner. We have.

An expat expert

Growing up in Decatur, Ill., Mendel hardly expected to make a career writing about traditional village cooking in Spain. But there she is, an American journalist living in the town of Mijas on the Costa del Sol, writing about the food she has loved for 30 years.

Time-travel back to 1966 for a tale of her journey.

She and her new husband, both graduates of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago, decided to go to Europe with a small stash of money and live there as long as the money lasted.

Spain got the nod because it was more affordable than anywhere else. A brandy went for a nickel and a glass of wine, 2 cents. Malaga, on the Mediterranean coast, was chosen as a tentative base for travel.

With only sketchy plans in mind, the Mendels happened to eavesdrop on the conversation of a Spanish-speaking American in a Chicago bar one night shortly before leaving.

Introducing themselves, they told him of their plan. "I lived for a year in Paradise," he said. "It's the village of Mijas and very near Malaga. You must go there. Paradise, really." They took the words of this stranger to heart.

In those days, suitcases had no wheels. It was lug, lug, lug that trunk, clothes and two typewriters. Traveling cheaply, they boarded a freighter bound for Tangier. It managed to veer off course, and the Mendels had to off-load in Casablanca instead. Again it was lug, lug, lug onto a ferry to Spain. Finally, they found a ride to Mijas.

Travel, that kind anyway, is for the young and strong.

Once settled, the couple spent social evenings in taverns. "My husband played dominos, drank sherry and ate tapas with the old men at the bar," Mendel says. "I gravitated to the kitchens, two steps down and in the back, usually, where women gossiped and cooked the food. Eventually, as my Spanish got better, I began to pitch in to make the tapas."

Mendel's journalism background helped her. She asked questions. She copied recipes. She organized a notebook.

"The wife of the owner of our neighborhood bar sent me to other bar kitchens," Mendel says. Exploring bar kitchens is one thing, but going into a home is quite another. When the Spanish women saw that the young American woman who was such a good cook was serious about learning, they opened doors for her.

"'You must go to see my aunt, they would say,' " remembers Mendel. "Or, 'My cousin makes the best cocida.' "

The money finally did run out, but by then neither Mendel nor her husband wanted to go back to the United States. They went to Switzerland to teach for a year, to stockpile more money. Returning to Mijas with a small inheritance, Mendel put down roots. She bought a small piece of land, built a house and started a family. (They have since divorced, and he lives in a neighboring town.)

To bring in a little cash, expatriate Mendel sent some of her collected recipes to Lookout magazine, a monthly guide to the good life in Spain, written for American and British expats and other English-speaking people.

Timing is everything. She was invited to write a cooking column that has appeared monthly ever since. Lookout is sold on newsstands in Spain and by subscription abroad.

Mendel's four cookbooks followed (one of them is available only in Spain), each focusing on Spanish village cooking. These are not about chefs and fancy foods or cuisine with a capital C. Her recipes are for the sort of home cooking that is eaten day in and day out, the simple, traditional and healthful Mediterranean diet.

Related Recipes:

Garlic Shrimp
Marinated Green Olives
Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts
Grilled Shrimp with Romesco Sauce
Spanish Almond Cookies

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