Cooking Tips We Learned in Spain

Jonathan Harris | September 2018

One of my favorite childhood memories growing up in El Puerto de Santa María in southern Spain is of wandering the town market, walking past piles of colorful ripe vegetables, aromatic cheeses and seafood fresh from the ocean. I remember one older woman sat next to a basket of brine shrimp. Every few minutes she would tap the basket, triggering the tiny crustaceans to jump in the air, proving their freshness. Another woman in a flowered dress sat with a folding fan, brushing snails back into a bucket as they tried to escape. We would always end our shopping trip with a visit to the “churro lady” who would snip crispy lengths of the hot fried dough that we would devour, dipped in thick hot chocolate a la taza.

What impresses me most about markets in Spain is the quality of the foods on display with the owner of each booth literally standing behind her products. I remember several times a vendor convincing me not to buy a particular fruit because it was not perfectly ripe, or another vendor steering me away from one fish to another that was better quality. 

This straightforward pride in quality local ingredients is typical in Spain. Spanish recipes are usually equally straightforward, allowing the ingredients to shine without elaborate sauces or technique. Over the years, we’ve cooked with friends from across Spain and learned some simple tips for enjoying Spanish recipes at home.

One of the first things my father particularly enjoyed at the markets was perusing the large ceramic jugs full of a dizzying variety of olives. One vendor had a wooden mallet and cracked olives on a cutting board so that they could absorb the brine flavored with garlic and spices. When we moved back to the United States, we found a source for big gallon jars of big Gordal (queen) olives. We added sliced lemon, onion, garlic, bay leaf and thyme to the brine and let the olives sit in the refrigerator to marinate. For weeks afterward, we enjoyed olives that reminded us of the market visits in Spain – usually paired with a cold glass of Fino sherry.

When we lived in Andalucía, our family became close with the family of Pedro Diaz. Pedro was a bright and expressive man who worked with my father on the Rota naval base. When we visited their apartment in the city of Jerez de la Frontera, Pedro’s warm wife Olga taught my mother the secrets to her Andalucian gazpacho. Ripe, fresh vegetables are essential, of course, but there are a few techniques we follow to this day. First, always peel the tomatoes. Second, keep any green peppers to a minimum. Finally, always use day old crusty bread and soak it in water before the gazpacho is blended. The more bread that is added, the less acidic the gazpacho.

Tortilla Española is another classic recipe that we picked up during our time in El Puerto. Our household helper Milagros was another warm, engaging young woman who became a good friend of the family. She cooked many wonderful dishes that the children enjoyed, but her Spanish tortilla was our favorite. This potato and egg omelet is beloved across Spain and there are as many varieties as there are kitchens. 

Rather than slice the peeled potatoes, Milagros preferred to dice them and cook them in olive oil with slices of onion and garlic. The eggs were mixed with crushed garlic and chopped parsley before they were added to the potatoes for their final cooking. She liked to fully cook her tortilla so that the center was firm, though some regions of Spain prefer a moist, almost liquid interior. For me, Milagros’s tortilla was the taste of my childhood, so hers will always be the best!

More recently we visited Jamie Jones, our purchasing manager, who lives in the beautiful oceanside village of Zarautz in the Basque Country. He is married to a wonderful Basque woman named Biki and they had us to their apartment for dinner. On the menu was Bacalao al Pil Pil. This classic Basque dish features a loin of desalted cod in a creamy garlic sauce with a touch of hot pepper. The recipe literally has four ingredients, so technique is of the essence!

Biki brought out a rustic cazuela dish with a beautiful dark patina from dozens of previous meals. When the cazuela had warmed on the stove, Jamie added a few tablespoons of olive oil and added the cod loins skin side down. He grabbed the side of the cazuela and slowly moved it in a circular pattern, so the cod swirled on top of the oil. Magically, within a few minutes the oil became cloudy, then thick and almost white. Jamie drizzled a little more oil into the dish and repeated the process until the sauce was thick again. Fifteen minutes of careful swirling and it was done – he plated the fish, poured the rich, creamy sauce on top and garnished it with roasted garlic and a few flakes of hot pepper.

What had just happened? How had a sauce appeared out of nowhere? It turns out the gelatin in the fish is released during cooking and gets emulsified with the careful movement of the cazuela. This is the essence of Spanish cooking for me – a few excellent ingredients and careful preparation are all that you need. Often a key ingredient can make all the difference – a spoonful of extra virgin olive oil, a dash of sherry vinegar or a pinch of pimentón de la Vera (Spanish smoked paprika) can transform a recipe. 

On a recent trip to Cordoba, a friend prepared a pork tenderloin from an acorn-fed Ibérico pig. He grilled the solomillo over hot charcoal and sliced it thinly, served with fresh sliced bread. The pork was delicious with a deep richness balanced by an aromatic wine marinade. I asked him his secret and he said one word – montilla. Montilla is similar to sherry and a source of fierce pride in Cordoba. My friend had marinated the tenderloin in this local dry white wine for a couple of hours, pairing two very local quality ingredients and allowing each to shine.

To this day I seek out local mercados every time I visit Spain. The Spanish pride of place, of great ingredients and traditions, shows in the faces of the vendors whose families have tended these market stalls for generations. Simple techniques allow these great ingredients to shine, and it is my favorite way to cook.

¡Buen provecho!
Jonathan Harris