I just got back from my trip to Spain, and boy did I eat well. We did a fair amount of tapas and a fair amount of sit-down dinners, and since I had my notebook with me, I brought back some ideas. And I'm sure that Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Coking School would have been going nuts sampling all that good food.
Click on the picture for recipes.
There was one ubiquitous dish that I kept seeing, and enjoying, and that was "patatas bravas", or "heroic p'taters," if you will. What looks sort of like chunky home fries with catsup is actually a little more complicated than that.
As Buffalo Wings are to sports bars, patatas bravas are to tapas bars: no two versions are exactly the same. However I think there are two basic types and it comes down to the sauce. There is a spicy puréed tomato sauce and there is a mayonnaise based aoili type sauce, or to put it another way, a red sauce and a pink sauce. Just like the Belgians like mayo with their fries, I prefer the mayo-aoili sauce with my bravas.
The technique is very simple. Take the potato of your choice and cut it up into 3/4" cubes. You can leave the skin on if you like. Parboil the potatoes in vinegar spiked water until they just become soft. Let them cool down and either deep fat fry them or toss them with olive oil and bake in a very hot oven.
If you want to go the mayonnaise route, here's a cheater's shortcut recipe: Start with some olive oil mayonnaise (a relatively new product out there), stir in some tomato paste, add a quarter cup of diced sautéed onions, mince some garlic, maybe a heaping table spoon's worth, sprinkle in a little cayenne, a little paprika, cumin, and a pinch of sugar. Add a little water, then put it all into a food processor and blitz it for a few seconds. Cook it in a sauce pan over medium heat to reduce and thicken.
Put the cooked potatoes on a platter, drizzle the sauce over top and throw in a few wooden skewers for authenticity. And there you have it, patatas bravas para su casa.
Pan con tamates
Another ubiquitous dish is amazingly simple. Originally from Catalonia,"pan con tamates," or in Catalan "pa amb tomaquet" is a common as buttered toast.
You'll need an interesting bit of bread, an oblong slice of baguette will do, but a narrow slice of ciabatta is even better. And you need a few big ripe tomatoes.
Using the biggest holes on a box grater, grate your tomato into a bowl working one tomato half at a time. This technique will automatically separate the skin, which you can discard. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper on the tomato, and maybe even stir in a little minced garlic, maybe some finely chopped parsley. Cover the bread slice with high quality olive oil, then rub each slice with a clove of garlic. Smear on the tomato purée, and.... that's it. Done. Great for breakfast or an appetizer at dinner.
As I roll along I continue to discover new food to try. A few years ago I became aware of the value of the so-called remnant cuts of beef. Things like tri-tip, skirt steak, and teres major have gained a significant following in this country. One other obscure cut is very popular in Spain, and that would be beef cheeks. Since the jaw muscles of a cow are almost always in use, the meat is very tasty, but quite tough. The solution, of course, is long slow cooking. In fact all three times I had beef cheeks in Spain, they had been braised. The cheeks are prepared in cut up pieces about the size of a biscotti. There have to be dozens of braising liquid recipes in common use, but nearly all of them include red wine. Not only will the wine help the flavor, but its acidity tenderizes the meat. A typical braising liquid will include beef broth, red wine, aromatic vegetables and a sprinkling of herbs such as thyme.
A lot of chefs will sear the meat in a skillet first to get a bit of crust on the meat. I like that idea. They also will not completely cover the meat with braising liquid, allowing a bit of the meat to bake. Of course you'll want to turn the pieces to give all bits a taste of the braise.
Whether you are using the oven, or a slow cooker, you can easily take 8 to 10 hours doing the braise. When finished, the beef cheeks are thoroughly tender, interlaced with little succulent streaks of fat. And of course, you will want to purée that braising liquid and reduce it until it becomes a rich, thick dark brown sauce.
Creamy mashed potatoes were a constant accompaniment to braised beef cheeks, as was a hearty Spanish red like Toro or Ribera del Duero.