The Flavors of Spain – An Interview with James Mellgren

by Laura on March 15, 2009

in From the Experts

James Mellgren has been in the food business since 1985 as retailer, importer, restaurateur, bartender, author and journalist. He is the author of César: Recipes from a Tapas Bar, chosen by Food & Wine magazine as “one of the 10 best cookbooks of the year,” and The Bar: A Spirited Guide to Cocktail Alchemy (both from Ten Speed Press), and has written or co-written for such publications as Food Arts andThe New York Times. He is currently Senior Editor for The Gourmet Retailer, one of the leading journals of the industry. He lives in Berkeley, California where he is at work on another cookbook and a collection of short fiction that will no doubt include food and drink.

(Laura’s note: James has a wealth of knowledge in all areas of food and drink. We have worked together for nearly 15 years, and in that time he has served as a big inspiration for my writing — as well as in the kitchen. Here he shares his thoughts on Spanish cuisine, I’m sure he will inspire you as well).

Can you touch on the Mediterranean diet and how Spain and its culinary traditions fit in with that?

Although Spain often seems at odds with the rest of Europe (“where Europe ends and Africa begins”), it is nonetheless firmly entrenched in the Mediterranean culinary trinity of bread, wine and olive oil and has been since the time of the Roman occupation.

The Romans used Spain as its breadbasket, producing enough wine, wheat and olive oil to feed the legions who marched across the known world.  Later, the Moors of North Africa brought their own foods and traditions, including lemons, oranges, almonds, saffron and rice, as well as instilling in the Spaniards a love of sweets. It was through the port cities on the Mediterranean coast, especially Barcelona, that many more foods were introduced to Spain from France, Italy and beyond.  Today, Spain continues these traditions, not only in what they eat but in how they eat. For example, the meals are broken up and enjoyed throughout the day, with the biggest meal at midday, tapas in the early evening, and a light meal late at night. The cuisine is based on grains – bread, rice, pasta – seafood, olive oil, and a host of seasonings including saffron, pimentón (Spanish paprika), and various regional spice mixtures. Of course, the Spanish love their meat too and are masters of roasting such things as lamb, suckling pig, and a large variety of cured meats and sausages.

What are the typical Spanish food flavors – what epitomizes Spanish foods?

I have often said that jamon Serrano, the delicious air-cured ham that is made throughout the southern mountain areas, is the quintessential taste of Spain. Its presence on the Spanish table is ubiquitous and the Spanish people eat it every day. While this might sound excessive and even unhealthy, bear in mind that Spanish ham undergoes a transformation when it is cured, turning the beautifully marbled fat into a predominantly mono-unsaturated fat, more akin to olive oil than to other meats.

Another flavor that seems to define Spanish cuisine is the unmistakable presence of pimentón. Pimentón is made of dried, ground red peppers and can be sweet or hot, smoked or not, and it is used in everything from simple seafood dishes to chorizo sausages.  The most common type of pimentón is from La Vera, one of the first places in all of Europe to receive and experiment with chile peppers from the New World. The peppers used in La Vera are smoked for several days over oak fires, resulting in one of the most distinctive flavors in Spanish food. Salt cod, or bacalao, is a favorite through Spain, and it is a staple food in tapas bars. Basque fishermen from Spain were likely hunting for cod off the coast of North America before Columbus was born.  It is a favorite food for those living inland too because it keeps indefinitely and is tasty and very nutritious. At the great indoor market in Barcelona, La Boqueria, vendors sell bacalaoin various stages of reconstitution, from completely dry to soaked and ready to use. Other familiar flavors in the Spanish repertoire include saffron, garlic, and of course, olives and olive oil.

How can our readers incorporate these flavors into their meals without preparing a full Spanish meal?

One can easily use the flavors of Spain without cooking Spanish cuisine per se. For example, the distinctive pimentón brings a delicious smokiness to all sorts of casseroles, vegetables, seafood and for marinating meats. Use it like you would use Hungarian paprika.

Try Deviled Eggs with smoky pimentón for a twist on a classic. Using one of the many olive oils from Spain can easily bring the Iberian Peninsula to one’s table.  Besides cooking with it, use it to drizzle on cooked foods like vegetables, seafood, steak, pasta, in salad dressings, as a bread dip, and anything else you would normally use olive oil. There are many styles to choose from – grassy green oils from the south and fruity, nutty, elegant oils from Catalonia are just two examples. Saffron is a lovely way to enliven almost any rice dishes, not just paella. Use in seafood dishes, as a flavoring for mayonnaise or aioli, and in soups.

Spanish cheeses can be enjoyed anytime, as can the unparalleled canned seafood such as bonito tuna, boquerones(sweet white anchovies packed in olive oil), and the distinctive piquillo peppers that can be stuffed with cheese, vegetables or seafood.

Please tell us about tapas.

The custom of tapas began simply enough, and was no doubt influenced by similar traditions of small plate noshes in other Mediterranean countries.  Tapas are believed to have started in the taverns located in Sherry country, an area in the southwest where Spain’s unique fortified wine is grown and produced.  To keep the flies and dust out of the copitas(traditional sherry glasses), innkeepers would place a small piece of bread or sometimes a plate on top of the glasses (the word means “lid” or “cover”). At some point, some savvy proprietor began to include small bites of food on the bread, included in the price of the sherry.

It probably started with slices of ham or cheese and gradually, as the concept began to move north to Seville and beyond, cooked food was added.

Today, there are tapas bars all across Spain. Some serve very simple fare, foods that basically don’t require a kitchen – cheese, ham, almonds, canned seafood, etc. – while others have elaborate menus that featured cooked seafood, meats, vegetables and even soups. They are accompanied by wine, sherry or beer, and the server counts the plates at the end to determine what is owed. Traditionally, tapas were the foods one had over drinks at the end of the day, before dinner. The tapas hour is a social institution where people could catch up on the news and see their friends. Increasingly, Spaniards are making tapas into dinner as the traditions and public life in Spain becomes more like the rest of Europe.

How can we apply tapas to our lifestyles?

I’ve often thought that the idea of tapas was Spain’s greatest culinary contribution to the world (aside from the individual foods themselves). There are several advantages to hosting a tapas party. Guests can sample a range of interesting food and recipes. Because the plates are shared, it creates a convivial social atmosphere just as it does in a tapas bar in Madrid or Barcelona.  There is no definitive list of tapas recipes so one is free to serve whatever they choose, Spanish or not. Throughout Europe there is a tradition of eating something when having drinks.  Tapas are a great way to offer your guests something interesting to go with their wine so they are not putting alcohol on an empty stomach.

For parties, informal get-togethers, birthdays, professional gatherings, summer barbecues, and anytime you want to get together with friends, family and business colleagues, tapas are a perfect way to feed a crowd.

What are some ways readers can incorporate Spanish foods and flavors into their daily and entertaining recipes?

Try hosting a paella party. Paella, what many consider to be the national dish of Spain even though it is native to the region of Valencia, is a great party food. First, it is designed to feed a crowd of people and you can make it as big or small as you wish, limited only by the size of your paella pan. Second, the guests can be part of the cooking since the whole thing is done in stages that can be watched or participated in by the guests. Serve some simple tapas throughout the event while the paella is being made.  Keep them light because the culmination of the party will be the paella, a delicious rice-based dish brimming with sausages, seafood, chicken, and whatever you decide to add. Be sure and mix up a large batch of sangria, a refreshing quaff made from assorted fruit – oranges, limes, lemons, peaches, for example – a little brandy and a bottle of red, white, or rose wine. You can even use sparkling wine if you choose. Like the paella, there is no hard and fast rule about how to make sangria.

Salt Cod and Potato Cazuela – Serves 8

This recipe is from César: Recipes from a Tapas Bar (Ten Speed Press) by yours truly and Chef Maggie Pond. At César, the Berkeley tapas bar where Maggie is executive chef and for whom I wrote the book, this is one of the most popular dishes, despite the unfamiliarity of salt cod to many Americans.  It’s not hard to make and once you get used to using salt cod you may want to make it all the time. It’s great with drinks, for hors d’oeuvres or as a component of a meal.

INGREDIENTS:

•  1 pound salt cod fillet, soaked in water for 2 days and water changed daily
•  1 1/3 cups milk
•  1 1/3 cups water
•  1 bay leaf
•  4 cloves garlic, cut in half
•  4 sprigs thyme
•  ½ yellow onion, coarsely chopped
•  1 teaspoon black peppercorns
•  3 russet potatoes, peeled
•  Salt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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•  ½ cup olive oil infused with garlic, or as needed
•  1 cup heavy cream, or as needed
•  2 teaspoons dried chile flakes
•  ½ cup bread crumbs from day-old sweet baguette
•  16 slices day-old baguette, each ¼ inch thick and toasted

DIRECTIONS:

Drain the cods and place in a large sauté pan. Cover with the milk and water. Wrap the bay leaf, garlic, thyme, onion, and peppercorns in cheesecloth and tie with a string. Drop the bundle into the pan, bring to a simmer over low heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain, discard the bundle, and let the cod cool. Pick through the cod and remove any bones.

Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in boiling water until tender. Drain the potatoes and mash them with ¼ cup of the oil and ½ cup of the cream in a large bowl.

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Slowly mix the cooked cod with the remaining ¼ cup of oil and ½ cup cream just until flaky. Fold the cod into the mashed potatoes. Taste and add more garlic oil or cream, if necessary. Stir in the chile flakes.

Divide the salt cod mixture among 8 individual cazuelas (terra cotta casseroles) or other small baking dishes, and top evenly with the bread crumbs. Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Stick 2 toasted bread slices into each portion and serve immediately.

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