The Reign of Spain

San Francisco Chronicle


January 10, 2007

Specialty Spanish ingredients are spicing up kitchens throughout the Bay Area
Janet Fletcher, Chronicle Staff Writer

Now that you've made a permanent place in your pantry for balsamic vinegar, Arborio rice, Tuscan olive oil and other Italian essentials, you'll need to clear space for the next must-haves: the flood of fine ingredients from Spain.

They aren't all new to the West Coast -- local stores have long stocked sherry vinegar -- but the availability and prominence of first-rate Spanish groceries has skyrocketed in recent years. Imported chorizo, serrano ham, pimenton de La Vera and piquillo peppers have captured the attention of Bay Area chefs and home cooks, boosting sales at specialty retailers like the Spanish Table and

The marketplace "has changed completely," says Penelope Casas, whose influential first book, "The Food & Wines of Spain," (Knopf, 1979) had to guide readers in making paella without the right Spanish rice, and romesco without the appropriate dried peppers. "It's easier to get the proper taste now," says Casas.

Spain now rivals Italy as a food lover's destination, with tourists lured by the gastronomic renown of towns like San Sebastian. Steve Winston, who opened the Spanish Table in Seattle in 1995 and now has four stores -- including one each in Berkeley and Mill Valley -- attributes much of his business growth to the fame of avant-garde Spanish chef Ferran Adriá. "El Bulli (Adriá's restaurant) changed everything," says Winston. "It made people really aware of Spanish cooking and raised its image a huge amount."

Each year, more than a million Americans visit Spain, says Winston, and they come home with the desire to duplicate the dishes they tasted there, especially paella. Any ingredient related to paella sells briskly at the Spanish Table, from Valencia rice, saffron, paprika and chorizo to the wide-bottomed paella pans themselves. Today's customers, to Winston's astonishment, are buying one pan for their kitchen and another, bigger one for cooking outdoors. "I never expected to sell more than one pan to a person, but we do," says the retailer. With the imminent arrival, anticipated for May of this year, of the first imported jamon iberico -- Spain's most esteemed air-dried ham -- the Spanish pantry in America will be all but complete. If you haven't stocked up yet, the following guide will steer you to some of the best foodstuffs from Spain.

Boquerones: These vinegar-cured anchovy fillets are typically packed in olive oil, sometimes with seasonings like garlic or hot pepper. Unlike the more familiar salt-cured anchovies sold in cans and jars, boquerones are snow-white from their vinegar marinade and have a pronounced pickled taste.

A single boqueron on a slice of baguette "is one of the original tapas," says Kevin Hogan, wine buyer for the Spanish Table in Berkeley. Spread aioli on the bread first, if you like, to balance the anchovy's tartness. Boquerones also play a role in banderillas, the colorful toothpick tapas that typically include olives, pearl onions, shrimp, piquillo peppers or other cold ingredients skewered together. Unlike salted anchovies, boquerones are never cooked or chopped. "They tend to be laid on top of things," such as salads, says Hogan. Although they are already marinated, you can enhance them by bathing them for an hour or two in extra virgin olive oil, finely minced garlic, chopped parsley and a pinch of hot pimenton (Spanish paprika).

Chorizo: Palacios, a firm in the Rioja region, was the first Spanish pork sausage producer to satisfy U.S. import requirements, and its chorizo began showing up in Bay Area markets a few years ago.

Unlike Mexican chorizo, a fresh sausage that must be cooked before eating, Spanish chorizo is fully cured and ready to eat. Seasoned abundantly with paprika and garlic, the Palacios product is available in both hot and mild styles and in two different formats. The longer link, weighing almost half a pound, is hard and dry, intended for enjoying like a cold cut.

"It's almost sacrilegious to do anything other than slice it up and eat it," says Hogan. Bring it to room temperature, slice it thinly on the diagonal, and serve it as a tapa with red wine. The smaller links, weighing about 1 1/2 ounces each, are a little softer and a better choice for use in paella and other cooked dishes.

Jamon serrano, jamon iberico: In 1996, Don Harris, a retired Navy chaplain who had lived in Spain, launched to sell Spanish tiles. The following year, he added jamon serrano, air-dried mountain ham from Spain, a delicacy unavailable in the United States before then because Spain had no USDA.-approved slaughterhouses. The serrano ham that Harris and others began selling in the late 1990s survived USDA scrutiny only because the Spanish curing plants had agreed to use non-Spanish pork.

"We built our business a lot on jamon serrano," says Harris. Similar to prosciutto but dryer, nuttier and more intense, jamon serrano is cured with salt, then air dried for 12 to 18 months. The more mature it is, the more concentrated its flavor. Few tapas bars in Spain are without a jamon serrano, the whole leg resting in a cradle on the bar. The barman slices it to order by hand with a long, thin knife and serves it without adornment.

Harris still has occasional difficulties with import inspectors, who don't understand the nature of the product. "We're educating them, but it's been a long process," says the online merchant. One inspector initially demanded that La Tienda put cooking instructions on packages of sliced jamon serrano because the product was technically raw.

"When we brought in jamon serrano with the bone in, they didn't want to let it in because it was moldy," recalls Harris. "Mold means it has been cured. It's a plus, not a minus. So we went to the undersecretary of agriculture and put one of these things on his desk, along with an Italian (prosciutto), which is moldy, and a Smithfield ham, which is moldy. Finally, they decided mold was OK." Andy Booth, a partner in the Spanish Table in Mill Valley, keeps a whole bone-in jamon serrano at home for entertaining. "It definitely gets everyone's attention," says Booth, who stores the ham in his unheated spare bedroom and brings it out for guests. After slicing as much as he needs, Booth lays scraps of fat over the cut surface to keep it from drying out. It will last for at least six months without becoming moldy if kept in a cool place, says Booth; a wine cellar would be ideal.

Later this year, serrano ham will likely be upstaged when the first Iberian ham arrives in the United States. Made exclusively from the pata negra (black-foot) pig, a Spanish breed renowned for its richly marbled meat, the silky jamon iberico elicits rapture from those who have tried it. Even more sought after is the bellota ("acorn") ham, an Iberian ham made from a pig that was fattened on acorns. "There's nothing like it," says Winston. "It melts in your mouth. The fat in particular is really buttery."

Currently, several thousand Iberian hams and several hundred bellota hams are aging at Embutidos Fermin, a small Spanish curing house with that country's only U.S.-certified slaughterhouse. Taylor Griffin, president of a Maine import company that is a partner in the venture, says he expects the first shipment of jamon iberico in May, with the bellota ham following a year later. Both will be gold plated -- about $75 a pound for the boneless iberico and nearly twice as much for the bellota -- but will not lack takers.

More than 200 La Tienda customers have put down $200 deposits to secure one of the first Fermin hams, despite estimates of $750 for the Iberian ham, $1,200 for the bellota.

"It doesn't faze them," says Harris. One California customer chided him for not offering a nicer slicing stand. "She said, 'You don't expect me to put my ham in that cheesy thing,' " recalls Harris, who previously offered only a $59 model. "So now we have one that's mahogany so you can spend another $700 to $800 on your stand."

For ordinary mortals, Harris says La Tienda will sell packages of sliced Iberian ham for under $40.

Pimenton: Spanish paprika, or pimenton, adds a warm, earthy fragrance to paella, bean soups, potatoes, lamb and seafood. Manufacturers package mild (dulce), medium (agridulce) and hot (picante) styles, depending on the peppers used, but the real excitement in recent years has centered on pimenton de La Vera, a paprika made in the Extremadura region from oak-smoked peppers.

According to Winston, pimenton de La Vera was little known outside its sparsely populated region until about a decade ago. In the past, the area's tobacco farmers would keep their harvest dry in Extremadura's damp climate by storing the tobacco in a barn heated with a wood fire. Peppers, hung in the flue to dry, were merely a sideline. Now all Spain has embraced this smoky seasoning, and La Vera has largely shifted its farm output from tobacco to peppers.

"In the last year, sales have doubled for pimenton," says Harris, who mostly sells the smoked La Vera variety. "I don't know what (people) do with it all."

Sprinkle pimenton de La Vera on chicken, steamed cauliflower, braised pork ribs or buttered potatoes. Add a dash to homemade mayonnaise or a dusting on deviled eggs. Most first-time users quickly decide it's indispensable.

Pimientos de padron: In Spain's tapas bars, these tiny green peppers are blistered in olive oil, sprinkled with salt and served sizzling hot. Diners pick them up by the stem and consume them in one bite, a salty nibble as irresistible as French fries. Most of the peppers are mild, but a random few are spicy, which raises the excitement quotient.

David Winsberg, proprietor of East Palo Alto's Happy Quail Farms, planted a trial plot of pimientos de padron about six years ago, encouraged by a friend who had encountered them in Spain. The harvest from those first 100 plants found an audience, and demand has soared since. "We're up to 10,000 plants," says Winsberg, who sells the specialty peppers at farmers' markets and to restaurants such as Zarzuela, Delfina and Boulevard in San Francisco; and Cesar in Berkeley and Oakland.

At the going rate, pimientos de padron are not an everyday vegetable. A small plate of them commanded $12 at Bocadillos, the San Francisco restaurant, last fall. "We have to get a premium price," says Winsberg, who cites high labor cost. The peppers are so small -- about 200 to a pound -- that it takes two people almost two days to pick 300 pounds. Interested tasters have time to start saving: This year's harvest won't begin until June.

Piquillo peppers: Prized for stuffing, petite piquillo peppers have sweet red flesh and a wide-mouthed heart shape. They are imported from Spain in jars, already roasted and peeled.

Connoisseurs say the finest ones come from the town of Lodosa, in the region of Navarra; check the label for the Lodosa name. They are expensive -- about $9 for an 8-ounce jar -- but beware of cheap brands, some of them from Peru.

The peppers in the low-priced tins are often not as meaty or nicely shaped, and some taste strongly of citric acid.

How to use them? "You name it," says Hogan. "Everything from half a piquillo slapped on a hunk of tuna with a toothpick in it, to salt cod mousse-stuffed peppers with pepper coulis," the latter a creation of Basque chef Gerald Hirigoyen, at San Francisco's Piperade. Spanish cooks stuff piquillos with salt cod or ground meat and bake them, or fill them with tuna salad and serve them cold, a favorite staff lunch at Berkeley's Spanish Table.

They can be emptied straight from the jar into a frying pan with olive oil and garlic to make a quick side dish for roast lamb. Dice them and add them to rice salad. Slice them and arrange on paella. Or slit them and lay them flat in an egg salad sandwich or on a hamburger.

Happy Quail Farms began growing the peppers two years ago, so Bay Area shoppers may encounter some fresh piquillos this summer.

Rice: Successful paella requires a short- to medium-grain rice that absorbs a lot of liquid and produces a slightly clingy texture when cooked. In years past, American recipe writers, including Casas, often suggested Italian Arborio as a substitute for the Spanish rice that was unobtainable here. No longer.

Today, American paella enthusiasts can easily purchase the same Valencia rice that is used on paella's home ground. More particular cooks seek out rice from Calasparra, a growing region south of Valencia with a denominacion de origen, or protected-name status, similar to a wine appellation. And some paella enthusiasts go one step further, insisting on Calasparra-grown Bomba, a short-grain variety renowned for its absorptive capacity. Whereas most paella recipes suggest using twice as much broth as rice, Bomba can soak up 2 1/2 to 3 times its volume. "More broth in, more flavor out," says Hogan.

America's paella aficionados have embraced the costly grain. "The Bomba is around twice the price of the Calasparra, and we have twice the sales," says Harris.

Tuna: High-priced Spanish tuna packed in olive oil has burnished the image of canned tuna in this country. Spaniards have never looked down their nose at it, and rightly not. The firm, meaty and mild North Atlantic bonito packed by the Spanish firm Ortiz merits showing off in tapas and composed salads, such as Salade niçoise.

For a transcendental experience, open a tin of Ortiz ventresca, the pricy tuna belly, which is as unctuous and silky as foie gras. In Spain, ventresca is used in ways that are "simple, simple, simple," says Hogan. "It's like a beautiful piece of serrano ham: The less you do, the more people are happy. Present it on a plate of dressed greens, or on a plate by itself."

Vinegar: Aged Spanish sherry vinegar contributes a nutty, mellow note to vinaigrettes, gazpacho and braises. Add a splash to roasted beets or braised red cabbage. Deglaze the pan with sherry vinegar when sauteing chicken or pork chops or roasting pork tenderloin. Some producers maintain their vinegar in a solera similar to that used for sherry, so each bottle is a blend of many vintages. Others, like the exquisite Toro Albala, are the product of a single vintage.

New on the American scene is Moscatel vinegar, made from the Spanish Moscatel (Muscat) grape. Some versions are dark and sweet, not unlike balsamic vinegar. The Mas Portell Moscatel vinegar, labeled as bittersweet, has an amber color and a more subtle sweetness, ideal for enlivening glazed carrots, parsnips or beets. Chef Hirigoyen likes to reduce Moscatel vinegar by half to give it the texture and concentration of balsamic vinegar.

Despite the warm reception for many of these Spanish products in the United States, Winston is not convinced that there is still more to plumb. His own recent buying trips for the Spanish Table have taken him to Latin America in search of new food items. "I think we've exhausted what's unique about Spain," says Winston, "but it doesn't keep us from looking."


Where to find some of the ingredients mentioned in this story:
Andronico's Market. Various locations.
Bi-Rite Market. 3639 18th St., San Francisco; (415) 241-9760.
Cesar Mercado. 4039 Piedmont Ave., Oakland; (510) 985-1222.
Lucca. 2120 Chestnut St., San Francisco; (415) 921-7873.
Lucca Ravioli. 1100 Valencia St., San Francisco; (415) 647-5581.
Mill Valley Market. 12 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley; (415) 388-3222.
The Pasta Shop. 5655 College Ave. (Market Hall), Oakland; (510) 547-4005 or (888) 952-4005 for mail order. Also at 1786 Fourth St.
Berkeley; (510) 528-1786 or
Rock of Gibraltar Comestibles. 1022 Alma St. (near Ravenswood and Oak Grove), Menlo Park; (650) 327-0413.
The Spanish Table. 1814 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; (510) 548-1383. Also at 123 Strawberry Village (800 Redwood Highway), Mill Valley; (415) 388-5043 or
Sabor of Spain. 1301 Fourth St., San Rafael; (415) 457-4088 or
Whole Foods. Various locations.

PESCADO A LA BILBAÍNA (Seared Fish Fillets with Sherry Vinegar & Fried Garlic)
Serves 2
In this preparation from Bilbao, Spain, the cooked fish is splashed with sherry vinegar, then topped with sizzling olive oil flavored with garlic and chiles.

2 skin-on 6-ounce mild fish fillets, such as Tai snapper
Kosher salt
2 teaspoons + 2 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, sliced
1 small dried red chile, seeds removed, broken into small pieces
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons minced Italian parsley


Instructions: Season the fish generously on both sides with salt.

Choose a skillet large enough to hold the fish and heat it over moderately high heat. Add 2 teaspoons olive oil and swirl to coat. When the oil is hot, add the fish, skin side down. Reduce the heat to moderately low and cook until the fish flesh turns from opaque to white, 8-10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets. If necessary, cover the skillet to complete the cooking.

Just before the fish is done, put 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil in a small saucepan with the garlic and chile. Warm over moderately low heat until the garlic begins to sizzle and color but do not let it brown.

With a spatula, transfer the fish fillets to 2 dinner plates. Sprinkle each fillet with 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar. Immediately spoon the hot oil, garlic and chiles over each fillet, dividing them evenly. Garnish with minced parsley.

Per serving: 320 calories, 24 g protein, 4 g carbohydrate, 23 g fat (3 g saturated), 42 mg cholesterol, 55 mg sodium, 0 fiber.

CALDO GALLEGO (Hearty Bean Soup with Chorizo, Potatoes & Cabbage)
Serves 6
Spanish and Spanish-style chorizos are made in a variety of styles. Some are relatively soft and intended for cooking; others are firm and meant for slicing and eating like salami. Either style will work in this recipe, but the softer style is preferable.

1/2 pound dried Spanish white beans or cannellini beans
1 pig's foot, halved lengthwise (ask your butcher to do this; see Note)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon pimenton dulce (sweet Spanish paprika)
6 ounces Spanish or Spanish-style chorizo
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut in large chunks
1 pound savoy cabbage, cored and coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon pebrella (dried wild thyme), optional
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions: Soak beans overnight in water to cover generously. Drain and place in a wide, deep pot with the pig's foot, garlic, bay leaf and water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat, skimming any foam. Cover and adjust heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook until beans are almost tender, 45 minutes or more.

Moisten the pimenton with some of the bean broth, then stir it into the beans. Add the chorizo (leaving links whole), potatoes, cabbage, pebrella (if using) and enough boiling water to just cover the meat and vegetables. Season with salt. Cover and simmer gently until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.

Lift out the pig's foot and the chorizo. Slice the chorizo 1/2-inch thick. While the pig's foot is hot, cut away as much of the gelatinous skin and meat as possible (it becomes harder to remove when the meat is cool) and chop coarsely. Return all the pork to the pot and stir it in. Season with black pepper and add more salt if needed. Remove the bay leaf. Serve the soup in warm bowls.

Note: Pig's feet are available at Ranch 99 and other Asian markets.

Per serving: 410 calories, 25 g protein, 39 g carbohydrate, 17 g fat (6 g saturated), 58 mg cholesterol, 392 mg sodium, 8 g fiber.

Serves 4

1/4 teaspoon cumin seed
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks or coins
Kosher salt
2 teaspoons minced Italian parsley
2 1/2 teaspoons Moscatel vinegar, or more to taste (see Note)

Instructions: Toast the cumin seeds in a small skillet until fragrant and beginning to darken. Let cool, then pound in a mortar until fine.

Melt the butter in a 10-inch skillet over moderately low heat. Add the carrots. Season with the cumin and with salt to taste. Toss to coat with the butter. Cover and cook until the carrots are tender, about 10 minutes, depending on size. Uncover, raise heat to medium, and cook, shaking the skillet often, until the carrots have a glazed appearance and are just beginning to color in spots. Add the parsley. Remove the skillet from the heat and splash the carrots with the Moscatel vinegar. Toss well and taste; add more vinegar or salt if desired, then transfer carrots to a serving bowl.

Note: Moscatel vinegar is a slightly sweet vinegar made from Moscatel (the Spanish name for Muscat) grapes. It is available at the Spanish Table (see Resources).

Per serving: 90 calories, 1 g protein, 12 g carbohydrate, 5 g fat (3 g saturated), 12 mg cholesterol, 41 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.

Serves 4

1 whole fresh chicken, 3 1/2 to 4 pounds
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons pimenton de La Vera, preferably bittersweet
1/2 small orange, in 4 pieces

Instructions: Preheat oven to 425�. Rinse the chicken well inside and out, removing any fat deposits. Pat dry with paper towels.

In a small skillet, heat the olive oil and garlic over moderately low heat until the garlic sizzles and begins to give off its fragrance.

Remove from heat. When cool, lift the sliced garlic out with a slotted spoon; set aside oil and garlic.

In a mortar, pound the saffron threads to a powder. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, the pimenton and the reserved olive oil. Stir until smooth. Season the inside of the chicken with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Tuck the garlic slices and the orange chunks inside the cavity. With a spatula, slather the chicken with the spiced oil on all sides.

Place the chicken breast side down on a rack in a roasting pan or terra-cotta casserole dish and roast for 40 minutes. Turn breast side up, baste with pan juices, and continue roasting until the chicken is beautifully browned, the skin is crisp, and the juices run clear when the thigh is pricked, 20-30 minutes longer. Let rest at least 20 minutes before carving.

Per serving: 420 calories, 56 g protein, 4 g carbohydrate, 18 g fat (4 g saturated), 167 mg cholesterol, 1,211 mg sodium, 0 fiber.

Serve this tapa with a knife and fork and open a Spanish cava (sparkling wine) or an Albari�o. If you are feeling flush, replace the tuna with 1/2 pound of fresh crab meat. Bottled piquillo peppers are available from specialty food stores and the Spanish Table (see Resources). Serves 6

1 can (200 grams) Spanish tuna in olive oil, drained
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup finely diced celery heart
1 hard-cooked egg, chopped
2 teaspoons salt-packed capers, rinsed and chopped
Approximately 12 piquillo peppers, drained, or more if needed
Sherry vinegar

Instructions: Put the tuna in a bowl and mash with a fork. Add the mayonnaise, celery, egg and capers and mix with the fork until well blended. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Stuff the piquillo peppers with the tuna salad, filling them as full as you like. Arrange on a serving platter and sprinkle the peppers with a few drops of sherry vinegar. Serve with sliced baguette.

Per serving: 190 calories, 11 g protein, 4 g carbohydrate, 13 g fat (2 g saturated), 48 mg cholesterol, 354 mg sodium, 0 fiber.

PAELLA CON SETAS (Spanish Bomba Rice with Wild Mushrooms & Chorizo)

Serves 4-6

This simple mushroom paella contains just enough chorizo to flavor the rice. For a more substantial dish, double the amount of chorizo. Spanish and Spanish-style chorizos are made in a variety of styles. Some are relatively soft and intended for cooking; others are firm and meant for slicing and eating like salami. Either style will work in this recipe, but the softer style is preferable.


5 cups well-salted chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1 pound oyster or chanterelle mushrooms, or cultivated brown mushrooms
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 ounces Spanish or Spanish-style chorizo, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon pimenton de La Vera, preferably bittersweet
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
1/3 cup canned plum tomato, crushed with your hands
2 cups Bomba rice


Put the broth in a small saucepan and add the saffron threads. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat, then set aside to steep for 30 minutes.

If using oyster or chanterelle mushrooms, clean them with a mushroom brush or old toothbrush. Tear them by hand into bite-size pieces. If using cultivated brown mushrooms, wipe them clean with a damp paper towel, then slice 1/4-inch thick.

In a paella pan with a 12-inch base, heat 4 tablespoons olive oil over moderately high heat. When oil is almost smoking, add mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper and cook until they are tender and browned in spots, about 5 minutes. Transfer mushrooms to a plate and set aside.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the paella pan and reduce the heat to moderately low. Add the chorizo and cook the slices on both sides until they brown lightly and have rendered some of their fat, about 1 minute per side. Transfer the chorizo slices to a plate with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat behind.

Add the onion, garlic, pimenton and parsley to the pan and cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft, about 10 minutes. While the onions cook, bring the saffron-flavored broth to a simmer and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Add the tomato to the paella pan and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes to create a flavorful base. Add the rice and stir to combine it with the seasonings. Add the mushrooms and the hot broth and stir briefly to distribute the rice and mushrooms in an even layer. Adjust the heat to maintain a steady but gentle boil and cook without stirring until the rice has swelled and absorbed most of the liquid but the paella is still a little soupy, about 15 minutes. Arrange the chorizo slices on the surface, then transfer the paella to the oven for 5 minutes to allow the rice to fully absorb the broth. Remove from the oven and immediately cover the pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Let the paella rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Per serving: 430 calories, 13 g protein, 45 g carbohydrate, 22 g fat (5 g saturated), 12 mg cholesterol, 1,216 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.

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