The Spanish Pantry: 10 Key Ingredients
Washington, D.C., chef and restaurateur José Andrés is truly Señor Spanish Cuisine for many Americans. The owner of Jaleo, one of the first up-scale Spanish restaurants in the nation’s capitol (and which now exists in three D.C.-area incarnations), Chef Andres Andrés has worked tirelessly to teach Americans about the glories of Spanish food, ancient as well as modern, and equally tirelessly to let his fellow Spaniards know about the interest and excitement Americans are beginning to exhibit. He is the star of a new PBS food series called Made in Spain and author of the book that accompanies the series. With all that under his belt, he still found time to tell us about ten Spanish ingredients he feels he simply can’t do without:
People often say to me, “José, I loved the food when I went to Spain. But how do I cook it at home?” I always tell them it is easier than they think. Armed with a few key Spanish ingredients and a couple of simple recipes, you can fill your kitchen with the flavors of Spain. Here is a short list. You limited me to ten!
Spanish extra virgin olive oil
This is an ingredient I simply cannot do without. I use it for everything. For cooking, for flavoring, for adding the final touch on to a dish. Good olive oil is like wine. So much depends on the variety of olive and where the olive comes from. I choose different olive oils for different applications. An arbequina olive oil from Catalonia is soft and almondy, perfect for making allioli where you don’t want a strong flavored oil. An hojiblanca olive oil from Andalucia is better for frying. It makes sense because Andalusians are masters at frying.
Spanish Olives like Manzanilla and Arbequina
Of course, good oil comes from good olives. Spain is the world’s largest producer of olives and olive oil. There are tons of varieties to choose from, each with their own virtues. There is no better or easier tapa than a good olive. On its own or with anchovy and piquillo or marinated with citrus and herbs, olives are a perfect foil for a chilled glass of manzanilla or fino sherry.
Pimentón de la Vera
Pimenton de la Vera, smoked paprika from Extremadura in western Spain, is for me the defining spice of Spain. Whether mild, medium, or hot, it provides that intriguing element of pepper plus smoke. It is used to flavor everything from pulpo a la gallega (a Galician dish of steamed octopus) to escabeches (a kind of lightly pickled fish) to fresh and cured sausages.
The finest ham in the world is a luxury, as sumptuous and pricey as caviar. At the very top is Jamon Ibérico de Bellota which is made from Ibérico pigs, the black pigs that are native to Spain and graze free-range on acorns and roots in the oak forests. The resulting ham, which is aged up to two years, develops incredible aromas and flavors. One taste will change your idea of ham. You are ruined for other hams!
Pimientos de Piquillo
Pimientos de piquillo are beautiful heart-shaped peppers from Navarra. Their name means little beak, a reference to their shape. The fleshy red peppers are harvested and roasted over wood smoke before being peeled and packed. They are sweet Garrotxa cheeseand succulent—just plain wonderful!
Spanish Cheeses: Cabrales, Manchego, and Garrotxa
People don’t often think of cheese when they think of Spain but they really should! We have over a hundred cheeses, made from goat, sheep or cow’s milk, or from mixed milk—truly cheeses for every taste. My favorites are blue-veined cabrales from Asturias (like me), traditional sheep’s milk manchego from Castilla-La Mancha, and fine, goat’s milk Garrotxa from Catalonia, which has a story. There was a time when traditional cheese making was abandoned in Spain and we almost lost this wonderful heritage. My friend, Enric Canut, has done an amazing job of cataloging them all and in some cases, like Garrotxa, rescuing them from almost certain extinction.
Preserved in cans and jars like anchoas d’Escala (tasty little anchovies, packed in olive oil, from l’Escala in Catalonia), boquerones (white anchovies, usually with a slight vinegar flavor, packed in oil), bonito del norte (fine, line-caught tuna from northern Spain), ventresca de atun (ultra-luscious belly of line-caught albacore tuna), or mojama (fresh tuna loin that is packed in salt and hung to dry and cure just like a ham)—these are among the delights of Spanish seafood that are available in U.S. markets.
White asparagus, esparragos blancos, would be green except that the tender spears have been blanched deprived of light to keep them soft and sweet. The lack of light suppresses chlorophyll. To say Spaniards love white asparagus doesn’t go far enough. We adore it. Wait anxiously for it when it’s in season in May and June. We hoard jars of the stuff. Wonderful fresh or canned, it’s another very easy tapa. Drain canned white asparagus and serve it with a light vinaigrette.
This is a very special vinegar produced from sherry wine or jerez. It is light and slightly sweet but with a complex and exciting flavor. The perfect vinegar for dressing salads (especially with a little Spanish extra-virgin olive oil, it also provides a refreshing acidity for dishes like gazpacho.
A dry cured sausage that is traditionally spiked with pimenton de la Vera (see above), this has a deliciously spicy smokey flavor. It’s found wherever you go in Spain, but some brands are also imported. This is the prefered embutido (the Spanish word for sausages), to be served cooked, or sliced and served raw as part of a tapa selection.