The smell of almond blossoms is thick in the air, mingling with the aroma rising off a freshly delivered plate of morcilla de cebolla, the earthy, intense blood sausage that is a local specialty here in Andalusia.
I’m sitting on a patio in the village of Melegis about 30 minutes outside of Granada overlooking a valley filled with orange trees, all of them heavily ornamented with bright fruit, and I’m having one of the great meals of my life. Vibrant padron peppers, slick with oil and crunchy with salt are taken between bites of grilled tuna dressed with a ham studded tomato compote.
The smoky, fat marbled pork chop, from the same black Iberian pigs that make the world’s great Iberico ham, fresh off the plancha, could give a well aged ribeye a run for its money.
It has become so ubiquitous and is interpreted in so many different ways that it’s sometimes easy to forget that Spanish cuisine might be the single biggest influence on the way we eat today.
Every time we order something from the portion of the menu that lists “small plates,” “dishes for sharing,” or “snacks”–to say nothing of the prevalence of restaurants serving traditional tapas–we are paying homage to the Spanish approach to dining.
Spanish cuisine might be the single biggest influence on the way we eat today
For all of its significance, though, it still sometimes seems that our understanding of Spanish food doesn’t extend much beyond tapas, paella and gazpacho. On my first visit to Spain it was the intense, buttery and herbaceous olive oils, the soft, vinegary anchovies and the cheeses: Manchego, Cabrales and Garrotxa that blew me away. A follow up visit the next year opened my eyes to the seafood both fresh and, believe it or not, from the can. The Spanish have raised canned seafood to an art form.
In the company of two of Canada’s best chefs, Grant Van Gameren from Toronto and Derek Dammann of Montreal, I toured some of the finest boutique producers of Jamon Iberico in the whole country and developed a deep appreciation for the intense, umami richness of Spanish charcuterie.
I’m back in Spain again, digging deep into the markets and learning how to get the most of the incredible Spanish ingredients. Most of all, on this trip I’ve come to appreciate Spain’s approach to the parrilliada, what we’d call barbecue.
In particular I’m inspired by the way the Spanish treat fish and seafood, especially shellfish on the grill and the annual calcotada where the season’s harvest of calcots, like a green onion on steroids, are grilled in huge quantities over roaring fires is a tradition that should be exported around the world.
Check out the rest of Sharp’s Entertain Like A Chef: Spanish Edition series.
Difficult to pronounce, easy to make, this phenomenal Catalonian sauce is a great thing to have in your repertoire. Ideally suited to the charred, mellow bite of grilled calcots, but supremely versatile, it makes an excellent accompaniment to roast chicken, grilled fish or any kind of roasted vegetable.
4 ripe tomatoes
1 red pepper
4 cloves of garlic
2 dried chillies, they use rosa in Spain, but they can be a bit tricky to find, so guajillo, New Mexico or cascabel chillies could be used.
4 Tbsp blanched almonds
4 Tbsp chopped parsley
1 sprig chopped mint leaves
2 Tbsp sherry vinegar
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
1. Heat the oven to 350. Place the almonds on a roasting pan and roast in the oven for five minutes, or until they start to smell delicious. Keep an eye on them, though, as they like to burn. Place the roasted almonds in a food processor or, better yet, in a mortar and pestle, and coarsely grind. Set aside.
2. Turn the oven up to 400 and put the tomatoes, pepper, garlic and chillies on a roasting pan, and place in the oven for 10 minutes. Remove the chillies, but turn the remaining ingredients and let them roast for another 20 minutes. The skin on the pepper should blister. Once this happens, place it in a bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap, so it can steam. When it’s cool, remove the pepper, peel the skin off and remove the seeds.
3. Peel the garlic and add to the food processor (or mortar and pestle) along with the tomatoes, pepper, chili and pulse a few times (or pound with the pestle) until you get a nearly smooth paste. Add the chopped parsley and mint and reserved almonds and incorporate. Add the vinegar and slowly drizzle in the oil, mixing everything together. Season with salt and pepper.
Grilled Razor Clams with Chilli and Mint
There’s no better way to prepare these long, narrow razor clams from the Atlantic—sometimes called Jacknife clams because of their resemblance to a switchblade—than to give them a few minutes on the grill. The little bit of smoke they pick up before cracking open to reveal the plump, tender clam within offsets their natural saltiness. A good fishmonger should have access to them and you can usually find them in Chinatowns across the country. In a pinch you could use another type of clam (cherry stone or little neck would be good) as long as they’re big enough not to fall through the grill.
16 Razor clams (between 2 and 3 pounds)
Handful of mint leaves, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, cayenne or serano pepper, thinly sliced into rounds
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and Pepper
1. Heat a charcoal grill (gas will work in a pinch) to medium (350F to 400F).
2. While your coals are heating up, wash the clams well under cold running water to remove any sand.
3. Combine the mint, garlic and chilli in a bowl with the juice from the lemon and slowly drizzle in the olive oil, while mixing everything together.
4. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Lay the razor clams in a single file across the grates of the grill. They’ll start to pop open in a couple of minutes, and as they do, remove each one from the grill and place on a plate. Don’t overcook them or they turn tough. If one or two refuse to crack throw them away. When all of the clams are done drizzle the mint, chilli dressing over top and dig in.
Calcots are a type of Catalonian green onion that are harvested and then reburied under soil so they keep growing. Grilled over a hot fire until they’re absolutely charred on the outside, their pungent interior mellows and becomes almost creamy. Do as the Catalonians do when eating them: pull off the burnt exterior layer (it should slide off in one go) then dip the bulb in salbitxada sauce and lower the whole thing into your mouth. It’s going to be messy, yes, but it’s worth it. Calcots are becoming more widely available, if not exactly common. If you can’t find them simply use the biggest green onions you can find.
2 bunches calcots or 3 bunches of thick green onions
1. Prepare a charcoal grill
2. Cut the roots and the last inch of the green tails off the calcots and arrange them over the grill. Cook, turning occasionally until charred on all sides. Serve with salbitxada for dipping.