A La Parrilla, Grilling Across Spain

Jonathan Harris | May 2013

There are some who dream of a 20 course meal at a cutting edge restaurant like Arzak or El Celler de Can Roca, temples to Spain's gastronomic revolution. But for me, nothing can surpass a humble fish or leg of lamb prepared a la parrilla - on the grill in a simple restaurant.

Don't get me wrong - the spectacular creations of Spain's cutting edge chefs should be celebrated. Most importantly, these inventive chefs bring attention to Spain's amazing cuisine and most of them revere the pure, fresh ingredients and deep roots of traditional Spanish cooking. And they often strive to showcase local produce and seafood. For me, their delicate creations and surprising revelations are entertaining and delicious, but are somehow not as satisfying as the wonderful typical meals I have enjoyed across Spain.

Simplicity and pure flavor are what resonate with me when I seek out the aroma of the grill in towns across the country. Charcoal and steel elevate the freshness of seafood, meats and vegetables to the highest level of importance. There is no sauce to run to, and no pasta in which to hide!

Spain celebrates the grill from coast to coast, and there is a great variety of fire roasting traditions. One of the first meals in Spain that sticks in my memory was of cochinillo at Mesón de Cándido in Segovia. There they roast suckling pig al horno - in the blazing heat of a wood fired oven. I could hardly believe the tender, delicate pork on my plate, covered in crunchy cracklings as I sat with a friend looking out at the Roman aqueduct that dominates the city. There didn't seem to be any seasoning used beyond sea salt, and yet to this day I can still taste every bite of that wonderful meal. 

The owner, with the apt last name of Candido, turned out to be as warm and welcoming as the meals he provides. For decades he has cut the cochinillo with a plate to prove its tenderness, all the while wearing medallions awarded to his restaurant. Now, I must admit that this restaurant is a tourist favorite in a famous tourist town, and not a secret restaurant discovery in a far flung village. But that makes the quality and freshness of its menu even more remarkable. The owner doesn't just do the minimum, counting on the endless flow of uninitiated visitors - he offers an authentic example of his region's cuisine. 

Another great example of this pure pride in authentic, quality foods is the offerings at the chiringuitos, or beach bars you will find across Spain. Unlike our summertime beach shacks, which serve the world's finest corn dogs and soft serve ice cream, these temporary restaurants feature amazingly fresh seafood of great quality. At one chiringuito in El Puerto de Santa Maria, I remember seeing sunbathers walking right off the beach to enjoy fresh-harvested sardines charred on the grill, washed down with ice cold Cruzcampo beer from the tap. Later, I savored each delectable bite of a steak of grilled almadraba tuna from the nearby fishing village of Barbate, paired with a pile of fried fresh green peppers. All this while seated at a table in middle of the beach, sheltered by the plastic roof as my family and I watched the waves splash on the shore!

A third example is the calçotada fiestas every spring in Cataluña. Are the Catalans satisfied to simply enjoy fresh green calçots onions at home every April? Of course not! It is time for a celebration. Family and friends gather, often right in the fields, and toss bunches of calçots on the grill over a searing hot fire. Afterwards the charred green onions are peeled to reveal a sweet, tender center that is dipped in nutty romesco sauce. Juicy butifarras and other sausages are grilled and the meal is shared among friends, all consuming generous amounts of beer and wine. The party lasts for hours! And remember, this is all to celebrate a simple but remarkable fresh green onion.

Back home in the US, I try to adapt this tradition of quality to my grill. One revelation for me was the pork I tried first a few years ago in Córdoba - Ibérico de Bellota cooked at an outdoor parrilla. Years ago I had accepted the idea that the sad dry white pork served in the US was normal and that every pork tenderloin needed to be wrapped in bacon, that every pork chop should leave your jaws aching. Then along came the Ibérico pork and a whole world opened up to me! The grilled presa was so red and juicy that my father swore it was a beef steak. The pluma was marbled with flavorful fat that literally melted in my mouth. What was going on here?

The answer is that Ibérico represents what pork used to taste like before industrial farming and genetic engineering. Pigs are supposed to be fat and run around outside. How silly it is to think of skinny pigs, and of pork as a low-fat white meat! Ibérico de Bellota is the pinnacle of porkiness - beautiful juicy meat, marbled with acorn-flavored fat from animals that live outside.

I try and keep it simple on the grill, following the path blazed by countless Spanish parrilla masters. My spices are restricted to sea salt, black pepper and pimentón de la Vera paprika on occasion. I prefer to sear meats, cooking quickly, and keeping them rare when possible. Fish and shrimp should be cooked soon after they leave the sea, vegetables soon after they are picked or pulled from the ground.

Finding high quality foods to prepare this way is not necessarily easy, but the results are so much better. I even find that I eat smaller portions because the food is so much more satisfying. Growing up in the US, we've become accustomed to eating not-so-fresh foods from stores that value volume and long shelf life over quality. But my years in Spain have taught me to expect more from my food. And the ultimate proving ground for quality and freshness is the grill! 

So clean off your grill and get ready for summer! I hope you share some great times outside with family and friends enjoying delicious fresh grilled foods like they do in Spain.

¡Buen provecho!
Jonathan Harris

This month's guest writer is Jonathan Harris. He is a co-owner and son of Don Harris.