It isn’t hard to fall in love with Spain. I traveled here on a whim and I’m still here, two years later. The country seduced me via stomach by its local produce, prideful regional cuisine, sophisticated flavors, and culture of tapas. The simplest ingredients are combined in a way that equals more than the sum of their parts.
Again and again, I witness and taste this magic: ‘‘It’s too good to be that simple!’’ The Spanish know how to extract the essence of an ingredient’s flavor — such as roasting red peppers or salt curing ham for 36 months — and how to combine them optimally with other flavors. It is a simple but wise tradition.
Indeed, the country is renowned for decadent items: cured ham, manchego cheese, Rioja wine, cafe con leche, and lots of crusty bread, to name a few. However, there are thousands of lesser-known dishes more ideal for those of us seeking optimal health. Vegetables are served up with creativity and punchy flavors which makes eating them anything but a chore. A standard tapas bar will feature a lineup of colorful, plant-based creations, amidst the typical ham and cheese. Such dishes are unpretentious and enjoyed for their flavor more than health-benefits. Wholesomeness, as far as I have noticed, is an assumed quality of food and not fussed over. This shifts the focus away from calories, nutrients, and labels. Without consciously setting out to create “nutrient-dense,” or “low-carb,” or “vegan,” or “dairy-free” items, Spain serves it all. People enjoy dishes because they taste good. And this unfussy approach to healthful eating is indicative of the Mediterranean diet as a whole.
Below you will find a classic tapa recipe from Valencia that is high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and packed with authentic flavor. It’s high in vitamin A, C, B6, and fiber. But that’s not important because flavor comes first, remember?
The magic of Spanish food — and where I believe it excels over French cuisine and other gastronomic countries — is the simplicity of preparation. I am always shocked to learn how few ingredients are involved in a gourmet dish, and how simple the process of its creation. For example, eggs, potatoes, olive oil, and salt form a decadent tortilla de patata. Just two ingredients, acorn-fed pigs and salt, come together as jamón Ibérico. A few vegetables, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and salt create gazpacho. And, almonds, butter, sugar, lemon, and eggs, combine to make an exquisite tarta de Santiago.
An Italian chef once told me: ‘‘The fewer the ingredients in a dish, the less sh*t you can get away with.’’ That is, using only five or six ingredients — as you will find in the recipe below — doesn’t leave room to mask poor flavor. But, on the flip side, if you use ripe and authentic ingredients, it is nearly impossible to go wrong.
Therefore, it is recommended that you use your best olive oil, vinegar (such as sherry vinegar typical from Jerez in Spain), fresh garlic and onions, and ripe red peppers. The special ingredient, bacalao, is a dried salt cod popular in southern Europe and sold around the world. It is a fantastic, cheap source of protein. You have probably seen it at the grocery store or fishmongers and steered clear. It looks mysterious and inedible to the wandering cook. However, it is very simple to prepare, and once you know how you can use it in soups, stews, and salads.
You can purchase salt cod two ways: dried or reconstituted. In its dried form, it needs soaking to reconstitute the moisture, draw out the salt, and re-bulk its size in preparation for a recipe. (This is my preference as the flavor is divine and the process is quite fun to try!) You can also purchase the salt cod in its ready-to-go, reconstituted form. Most often you will find it in the freezer section of a store. Either type will work perfectly for the following recipe, but know what you are buying and prepare it accordingly.
If using the dried version: Place the fish pieces in a bowl and cover with water. Leave in the fridge for 48 hours, dumping out the water and filling with fresh water 3 times/day. If using the reconstituted version: Simply thaw in a bowl in the fridge.
ESGARRAET: A ROASTED RED PEPPER AND SALT COD SALAD RECIPE
(makes 4 appetizer servings)
- 2 pieces bacalao (approx 500g)
- 6-8 red bell peppers** or 2 cups of jarred, roasted red peppers
- ½ red onion
- 1 clove of garlic
- Lots of olive oil
- Sherry vinegar, to taste
- Salt & pepper
- Place the fish in a pot and fill with room-temperature water. Set on the stove and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook for another 6-8 minutes. Drain and let the fish cool.
- In a big mixing bowl, combine the homemade or store-bought roasted red peppers, thinly sliced garlic clove, and minced onion. Use your hands to crumble in the cooked bacalao. Douse the entire mixture with lots of olive oil and a few glugs of sherry vinegar. Mix and saturate the vegetables and fish in the pepper juices and olive oil.
- Taste a little bit and decide how much you will season it. Add pepper and maybe salt, depending on how salty is the bacalao. Mix and let marinade in the fridge for 4+ hours. Overnight is even better. Serve with crusty bread to soak up the juices or salad greens such as arugula.
**Roasted Red Peppers from Scratch:
Turn on your oven to the highest temperature and switch to “broil” setting. On a parchment-lined baking sheet, place your peppers under the broiler. Let the top side blister and blacken, then use tongs to flip the pepper to another side. Repeat this process until all sides are charred. Remove them from the oven and place in a bowl. Seal the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let steam. After 10 minutes or so, remove the plastic and begin peeling. Do this over a big mixing bowl as you want to catch the falling juices! The skins should slip off easily after the steaming. Discard the skins, stem, and seeds, retaining the soft flesh. Tear into long strings and place in the bowl with its juices. Continue for all the peppers. This is messy process, but a fun experience to try at least once!
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