TL;DR This is a research post on getting a base for Spanish Cuisine.
If you told me that someone can enjoy eating paella every single day for the rest of their lives, I would only be slightly doubtful. I had the great fortune of visiting Barcelona in 2013 along with West Coast, where for a full week, we dined on tapas, paella, and lots and lots of red wine at every meal. And you know what? It was amazing.
Upon returning to the East Coast, I resolved to learn more about Spanish cuisine. Here I present the result of my learning.
Meal Structure: The Spanish eat much later than other culture I’ve encountered, with lunch typically taking place between 1-4pm and dinner from 8-11pm. This is because the Spanish usually have 5 little meals/snacks throughout the day, as compared the the American 3-meal structure.
Breakfast #1 is a pastry/yogurt, with coffee and some fruit. Followed by breakfast #2 – a sandwich type light meal. Lunch is usually the heaviest meal of the day, with multiple hot and cold courses. This meal is so heavy (hello food coma), that the Spanish people will shut down all activity and take a siesta afterward.
An afternoon snack is usually enjoyed around 5-6pm to tide people over until dinner. Dinner is another multi-course hot meal that lasts into the night, with plenty of stories, laughter, and the clinking of glasses around the table.
Olive Oil – as essential as butter is to Paula Deen, Olive oil is the base to start of many Spanish dishes.
A quick discourse on olive oil grades: Olive oil is graded according to its level of acidity, less acidic=better tasting. In Spain, common olive oil for cooking is divided into 4 grades:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil: must contain less than 0.8% acid according to the rules of the International Olive Council (IOC). Best tasting. Extra virgin olive oil is great for cold uses, such as salad dressing, or to dip with bread.
- Virgin Olive Oil: Slightly lower quality, contains up to 1.5% acid.
- Ordinary Olive Oil: Acidity up to 3.3%.
- Lampante Olive Oil: Also has acidity up to 3.3%. Lampante olive oil is made by refining virgin olive oils that may have a unpleasant aroma. The refining aims to get rid of the bad taste, making Lampante essentially flavorless. Then the oil can be mixed with virgin olive oil to add back taste.
Jamon Iberico – A native of Western Spain, the black Iberian pig is allow to roam freely, and fed a diet heavy in acorns to achieve the best tasting ham. The hams are then salted and left to dry for up to 48 months.
A premium jamon iberico is unbelievably delicious. It tastes rich, nutty, and a tiny bit floral. It usually served sliced razor thin, along with some good crusty bread.
Paprika – Unlike regular paprika, which is powdered after drying under the sun, Spanish smoked paprika, or pimentón, is dried by slowly roasting the pepper over a fire, which leaves the pepper with a rich, sweet, smokiness.
The Spanish make gratuitous use of paprika. You can find paprika in soups, stews, meats, bean casseroles, or dusted lightly over some poached eggs for breakfast.
Tomato – Fresh tomatoes are added to salads, soups, and smeared on top of toasted bread for the delicious Pan con Tomate for a snack. To make tomato sauce, the Spanish prepare their tomato by grating rather than chopping, which leaves us with a juicier pulp.
Saffron – An indispensable ingredient in paella, a little bit of this expensive spice (up to $10,000 per pound!) will go a long way. A small pinch of saffron will dye the whole pot of paella rice bright yellow, and takes away some of the fishy taste in seafood dishes.
Gazpacho – A refreshing summertime soup, Gazpacho is made by blending raw tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, cucumber, garlic, and sometimes bread for added thickness. The soup is served cold, often with a light drizzle of olive oil and garnished with parsley.
Pan con Tomate – A simple dish to prepare, pan con tomate is made by added grated tomato on top of bread that has been rubbed with garlic and olive oil and toasted. Salt and black pepper add taste to this easy snack/appetizer. Like bruschetta, but easier.
Paella – The most famous of all Spanish dishes, paella is a rich cornucopia of rice, broth, shrimps, clams, chicken, sausage, olive oil. Paella is cooked in a flat, shallow, metal paella pan to ensure even cooking of the rice. Saffron imparts its bright color and dyes the rice a golden yellow. This is a dish that feeds a whole family, and its heartiness can best be washed down with a glass or two of wine.
If you ever get the opportunity, visit Spain and enjoy its mountains, architecture, flamenco dancing, and legendary partying. The people are friendly and warm, and the wine and beer free flowing. When you are toasting friends at the dinner table over a tasty meal, don’t forget to cheer: “Salud!”