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Spanish Accents: National identity encoded in flavorful quintet of ingredients

Thursday, November 08, 2001

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When we return from one of our frequent trips to Spain, I can't wait to duplicate those exciting Spanish dishes in our kitchen. It should be easy, no? After all, Spanish cooks shop from the same global grocery basket as Americans do -- seafood, meat, vegetables and desserts -- and they work the same kitchen drills as Americans do -- bake, roast, saute and grill.

But cooking with a decidedly Spanish accent is another matter completely. The national character of a dish comes from key ingredients, spices and seasonings.

The figure of Don Quixote stands guard over a meal of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and nuts flavored Spanish style. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette, food styled by Marlene Parrish)

When I want to give my food a genuine Spanish flavor -- or any other country's flavor for that matter -- I follow flavor principles.

Elisabeth Rozin, a historian and cookbook author, has made it her life's work to analyze and understand ethnic cuisines. Her quest to find the meanings of flavors and to understand culinary ethnicity was described in her now out-of-print book, "The Flavor Principle Cookbook."

According to Rozin, each global cuisine relies on a set of basic foods, traditionally determined by the resources available locally and the ease of their production. When the same foods and seasonings are consistently combined over and over in a given cuisine, they begin to function as a kind of sensory label for the prepared food. They become a way of providing identity and familiarity.

Foods of Spain

This is the second in an occasional series on the foods of Spain. Today, we look at the key ingredients -- pork, olive oil, garlic, paprika and saffron -- that are the flavor principles of Spanish cuisine.

There are links below to recipes for roast chicken, mashed potatoes, alioli and more.

First article in the series


That means that where you and your ancestors were born and raised in this world determines what your inherited foods are, how they are cooked and why they taste the way they do. In fact, you can determine the ethnic roots of a dish and pinpoint their place on the globe just by identifying three or four ingredients.

Pretend that I serve you five bowls of chicken broth, and to each, I stir in three or four key ingredients. By varying the additions, I can alter the flavor so that a specific ethnic character asserts itself. Watch.

Bowl No. 1 gets tomato, basil and garlic. Bowl 2, sesame oil, rice wine and gingerroot. Bowl 3, coconut, fish sauce and lemon grass. Bowl 4, cumin, coriander and gingerroot. And 5, ancho chile, cumin and oregano. If you labeled those bowls of soup Italian, Chinese, Thai, Indian and Mexican, you know your way around the culinary block.

If we were to add a pretend Spanish soup to our list, it would certainly contain pork, olive oil, garlic, paprika and saffron. These are the flavor principles of Spanish cuisine.

Hallmarks of Spanish cuisine

Pork and ham. Spain is the land of the hog, and its charcuterie is without parallel. But Spaniards don't pig out. Pork products are eaten sparingly because their often-intense flavor goes a long way. Superb air-dried serrano ham is on the table or in the dishes of almost every tapas bar or home kitchen. The most famous is the translucent, paper-thin sliced Iberia ham made from native black-hooved, free-range pigs who dine solely on acorns. The taste of this Spanish ham is memorable, and it is considered by many to be the best ham in the world. And (may the Italians forgive me) that would include prosciutto.

Olive oil. Because Spain is the world's largest producer of olive oil and olives, olive oil is used in every kitchen process, from deep-frying tiny fish appetizers to sauteing vegetables, forming the base of soups and stews, drizzling over salads or whisking into baked goods and desserts, including velvety ice cream. The so-called Mediterranean Diet is the head cheerleader for the health benefits of Spanish cuisine, so if you have a fear of frying, get over it. If frying is done at the right temperatures, the food isn't oily or greasy. As a consumer, shop for, and think about, olive oil the way you do wine -- flavor, color, aroma.

Garlic. For centuries, garlic was considered to be a cure-all in Spain. Galician novelist Julio Camba joked in the 1940s that it was a national vice used to "frighten off both witches and foreigners." But don't let it frighten you off, and don't even think about cooking without garlic. It makes the music in the mouth. Every Spanish region can claim the primary ingredients of garlic, tomatoes, onions and peppers. The quartet is the basis for sofrito, a mellow saute of the vegetables that forms the basis for endless dishes and sauces.

Spanish Paprika. Pimenton is a vibrantly colored powdered pepper and is one of the defining elements in Spanish cooking. Pimenton (pi-men-TON) resembles Hungarian paprika, but in color only, and although the two pepper cousins can be used interchangeably, pimenton offers bonuses. Its rich flavor has all the deep smokiness of chipotle chiles, and its aroma is reminiscent of a West Texas roadhouse on a Saturday night. The red pimenton peppers arrived in Spain along with potatoes, tomatoes and corn, thanks to Christopher Columbus. Pimenton quickly became an important ingredient in preserving meats and in indigenous Spanish dishes.

Saffron. Because Spain is the leading producer of saffron in the world, the Spaniards use plenty of it in their stews, sauces and broth for rice. Often called Spanish gold, saffron has a characteristic musky flavor and scent of iodine. It's the famous seasoner of paella and bacalao vizcaino, both great Spanish dishes. Saffron comes from the Crocus sativus flower. Each blossom yields only three stigmas, delicate orange-yellow filaments that must be plucked by hand.

The enormous expense of the spice reflects the fact that it takes 225,000 stigmas to yield a pound of saffron. Add a good pinch of the delicate threads to the water before cooking rice, and the dish will be daffodil yellow. To impart a rich golden color to baked goods, steep saffron threads in a little water to make a tea and add it along with other liquids. Beware of wannabes. Cheap, dried marigold and safflower petals are often palmed off as saffron. They yield little color, give no flavor and rob your money.

In the American kitchen

Adapting Spanish flavors in the American kitchen isn't such a stretch, after all. Instead of trying to duplicate exotic dishes in the style of some ambitious restaurant chef, experiment with familiar staples. Below, we'll look at some American comfort foods, apply the flavor principle and tweak them with a little Spanish flair.

Roast chicken -- An American Sunday dinner chicken is buttered, roasted and served with mashed potatoes. Its bread stuffing might be flavored with herbs -- parsley, thyme and sage -- and crumbles of sweet sausage. The Spanish Sunday dinner might include a roasted chicken, too. But the cook will rub her probably free-range bird inside and out with sherry, and glisten it with olive oil. She'll tuck an onion and herbs into the cavity along with a secret weapon, a small piece of chorizo sausage.

As the chicken roasts, the skin is basted with the spicy orange drippings from the chorizo, and the result is a beautifully bronzed skin. While the chicken rests before carving, the piece of chorizo is diced and added to a bread dressing made on the side that was moistened with saffron broth. Americans might make a simple stove-top stuffing with a pinch of paprika and cayenne added and bits of chorizo stirred in at the last minute.

Potatoes -- Want fries with that? American family restaurants serve fries with just about every entree. And they serve loaded baked potatoes piled with butter, sour cream, scallions, bacon and Cheddar cheese. In Spain, french fries are as popular in restaurants as they are here, and they're often the only accompaniment of a main course. But mashed potatoes served in the home are a whole 'nuther thing. Olive oil is added instead of butter, and the add-ins are sizzled garlic, pimenton, cumin and cayenne pepper. Spanish baked potatoes go a step further, and add-ons might be chopped scallion and frazzled cured ham or crumbled bacon.

Seafood and steak -- Spain consumes twice as much seafood per capita as any other country in Europe, and worldwide, it is right up there with Japan. Spain wrote the book on fish and seafood. If you've ever ordered garlickly scampi in an Italian restaurant, you have a preview of one of Spain's favorite tapa dishes, Gambas al Ajillo, or garlic shrimp: Shrimp is tossed into sizzling olive oil and seasoned with garlic, salt, hot pepper flakes and maybe a pinch of pimenton. Topped with chopped parsley, the shrimp is served sizzling in flat ceramic crocks.

The Basques are big beef-eaters. Customize your all-American filet mignons with a Spanish flair: In a skillet, heat 6 tablespoons of olive oil. Add a chopped clove of garlic, and cook until softened. Add two roasted red bell peppers cut into strips and a good pinch each of sugar and kosher salt. Keep warm while you cook the steaks. Rub four 4-ounce steaks all over with olive oil and salt them generously. Grill or pan sear until done the way you like. Serve them with the peppers.

Vegetables -- Tourists returning from Spain often complain that they didn't eat any vegetables. What they mean is that they didn't ORDER any vegetables. Spain has tons of vegetables, and Spanish cooks pride themselves on the quality of the tomatoes, peppers, onions, asparagus, artichokes, broad beans, greens and potatoes grown throughout the country. Columbus takes yet another bow, because most European countries can thank Spain for the wide range of vegetables brought back to Spain after the discovery of America.

Spaniards usually turn up their noses at English-style veggies, boiled and plain. Usually, combinations of vegetables are served as a first course or in a salad after the entree. To season vegetables in the Spanish way, trade olive oil for butter, and season generously with salt, paprika and cayenne. Add sizzled garlic and ham to taste.

Mayonnaise -- Americans love dips, and sour cream is king. In Spain, garlic mayonnaise, alioli, is king. They think of it as a dip, a condiment -- practically a ketchup equivalent. All it takes is a dab of alioli to liven up fried potatoes, pork roast, roast chicken, sauteed vegetables, paella and other rice dishes. Smear it on sandwiches, dab on sliced tomatoes. The pairings are endless. Anybody who misses the cool goo of sour cream on a baked potato might add a dollop of alioli.

Garlic bread -- A sturdy country-style bread is easy to adapt. Instead of slathering bread with tons of garlic butter, try this. Rub the surface of slices of warm, toasted peasant bread with a raw clove of garlic. Drizzle the toast with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with a bit of coarse salt. Or, brush thick slices of bread with extra-virgin olive oil on both sides and place on a griddle or grill to toast.

Breakfast eggs -- After a short learning curve, Americans now adore Mexican huevos rancheros: jalapeno-spiced tomato sauce, chorizo sausage, eggs, Cheddar cheese and tortillas. The Spanish vary that by topping over-easy eggs fried in olive oil with zesty tomato sauce kicked up with garlic, paprika and cayenne pepper. A side of Spanish chorizo is right on the money. Bread lightly fried in olive oil stands in for the tortillas.

Stay in character and carry out Spanish accents in the rest of a dinner menu. With cocktails, nibble Spanish olives and salted almonds instead of chips and peanuts. Dress a green salad with olive oil and sherry vinegar. Pour a Spanish wine, preferably a Rioja. And round out the meal with creme brulee or caramel custard flavored with cinnamon for dessert.

Related Recipes:

Spanish Roast Chicken
Spanish Mashed Potatoes
Spanish Green Beans
Flamenco Eggs

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