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Spanish food? Sí, por favor!

By Daniel Neman • May 22, 2018 at 7:00 AM

More than 46 million people live in Spain. And among them, they have more than 46 million different recipes for paella.

Spain is not large by American standards; in area it totals the size of California plus South Carolina. Yet it comprises 16 distinct regions, each with its own way of cooking — and in some cases, its own language.

Murcia, in the southeast, is home to traditional Mediterranean food, heavy on the olive oil with plenty of grains, vegetables and fish. Navarre, in the north, is known for its dairy products and the culinary influence from neighboring France. Andalusia, in the south, is where you find a lot of fried food, seafood and sherry.

The dish most closely associated with Spain, paella, originated in Valencia — known for its rice — something less than 200 years ago.

What Americans think of as paella would only draw a shrug, or maybe a laugh, in Spain. We want to see everything we can think of in paella: saffron-scented rice, of course, topped with shrimp, sausage, chicken, lobster, tomatoes, carrots, artichokes and olives, sort of like an everything pizza on rice.

Spanish paella has fewer ingredients, and they are not even necessarily the ones we think of. Traditional Valencian paella is made with rabbit and snails.

Which is why I made a seafood version.

Shrimp and mussels were the headliners and then, because my neighborhood store does not carry squid, I threw in a bunch of clams, too. With 46 million different recipes for paella, or thereabouts, I figure someone uses both mussels and clams.

The basic recipe — the one that calls for squid — is probably the most popular version in the entire country, because it comes from the most popular cookbook, “1080 Recipes,” by Simone Ortega. This book, which first came out in 1972 and is still in print today, has sold millions of copies in Spain. Its influence is so far-reaching that it is considered the Spanish equivalent of “Joy of Cooking.”

I could not get the distinctive crust on the bottom of the rice that distinguishes a true paella, perhaps because I was not using an actual paella pan (the word “paella” refers to the pan, not the food). But I was more than happy with the result.

A subtle flavor of the sea ran throughout the dish, accented by just a touch of saffron. Mussels and clams were hidden in the rice, like jewels, and it all could not have looked better, which is important.

I next moved on to another popular dish forever associated with Spain, a Spanish omelet, also called a tortilla española. This is both remarkably satisfying and versatile; it can be served hot, cold or at room temperature, it can be served for breakfast, lunch, dinner or late-night snack, and when cut into small pieces and stabbed with a toothpick it can be tapas.

All a Spanish omelet is is an omelet made with a large amount of thinly sliced potatoes; it is more like potatoes that are held together with egg. The potatoes have to be completely cooked before they are added to the egg mixture, so I did it the Spanish way, by heating them in a full cup of oil.

Actually, the original recipe by Sra. Ortega calls for 21/4 cups of oil. This may seem like a ridiculous amount of oil for a single omelet, even though it is large enough to serve six, which is why I reduced it to a mere cup.

Many Spanish recipes call for a great deal of oil, but little of it is actually consumed. It is just used for heating, like the oil we use to fry chicken, and is drained away and often strained for reuse before the food ever reaches the plate.

That is the case with the next dish I made, a beef stew with tomatoes and olives. Could there be anything more Spanish than a beef stew with tomatoes and olives?

This is a simple stew, but highly flavorful. Along with the stewing beef (seared in a cup of oil, which is then nearly all drained away), it is made with a lot of onions and tomatoes, some white wine — which is less intrusive than red would be — and a pinch or two of herbs.

Two other ingredients make the difference. Chopped serrano ham or prosciutto adds a subtle burst of flavor, and pimento-stuffed olives bring a bright brininess that brings the dish the edge it needs, and also makes it stand out from other stews.

When you think of Spanish food, of course, you think of tapas. I made one tapa that seems to epitomize everything that is so appealing about those delicious little plates.

Mushrooms with garlic begins with ordinary white mushrooms, which are then transformed by olive oil (this dish is a little oily, but the serving portion is small) and a lot of garlic. An optional dash of crushed red pepper adds heat, with lemon juice providing an acidic counterpoint.

In its own small way, it’s glorious.

Dessert, naturally, was flan. If any dish speaks to the soul of the country as much as paella and Spanish omelets, it’s the caramel-coated custard called flan.

I already knew how delicious flan was; what surprised me was how easy it is to make. The custard part was easy enough, if you have ever made a custard, and requires only whole milk, sugar, eggs and vanilla. What shocked me was how simple it is to get the caramel part on top.

You just make a caramel by boiling together sugar and water until it turns deep amber in color. Put this in the bottom of a heatproof bowl, and in the few minutes it takes to make the custard, the caramel will solidify enough that you can pour the custard over it.

Then you just bake the flan in the oven and refrigerate it for a few hours. When you are ready to serve it, turn it out onto a plate. The top will be a marvelous liquid caramel.

It’s all just too delicioso.

* * *

PAELLA DE SIMONE ORTEGA

Yield: 8 servings

12 ounces raw shrimp, shells on

2 cups chicken stock

2 pounds mussels or 1 pound littleneck, steamer or cherrystone clams

3/4 cup olive oil or much less, as necessary

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons tomato sauce, or 1 large, ripe tomato, chopped

2 small squid, cut into 1/4-inch rings

2 1/2 cups long-grain rice

3 sprigs fresh parsley

Pinch of saffron threads

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips

Salt

Lemon wedges

1. Peel the shrimp and reserve the shells. Set the shrimp aside. Put the shells into a pan, add chicken stock (and water, if necessary) to cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Strain the stock into a bowl, discarding the shells. If using mussels that have not been precleaned, scrape the shells with the blade of a knife and remove the “beards,” then scrub under cold running water. If using clams, scrub under cold running water. Discard any clams or mussels with broken shells or any that do not shut immediately when sharply tapped.

2. Put the clams or mussels in a pan or skillet, add 1/4 cup water, cover and cook over high heat for 3 to 6 minutes, until the shells have opened. Remove the mussels or clams with a slotted spoon, reserving the cooking liquid. Discard any shells that remain closed. Remove nearly all the mussels and clams from their shells, but leave a few in the shell for the garnish.

3. Strain the reserved cooking stock into the shrimp stock, using a strainer lined with cheesecloth or paper towels. Add enough water to make 71/2 cups, if necessary. Pour into a pot and heat gently, but do not let boil.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour just enough of the oil into a paella pan or very large, heavy skillet with a metal handle to cover the base and heat it. Add the onion and garlic and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Add the tomato sauce or fresh tomato and cook, stirring constantly, for a few minutes.

5. Reserve a few shrimp for the garnish and add the remainder to the pan with the squid rings and rice. Cook, stirring constantly, until the squid becomes opaque. Add the shelled mussels or clams. Season with a pinch of salt and pour in the hot stock. Gently shake the pan to make sure the liquid is evenly distributed.

6. Pound the parsley with the saffron in a mortar, or process in a mini-food processor. Mix in with 2 tablespoons water, and add to the paella pan. Add the peas. Gently stir with a wooden spoon. Garnish the paella with the strips of red bell pepper, the reserved shrimp and the reserved shellfish in the shell.

7. Cook in the oven for about 25 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with lemon wedges hung over the side of the pan.

Per serving: 525 calories; 23 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 119 mg cholesterol; 22 g protein; 56 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 672 mg sodium; 75 mg calcium

Adapted from “1080 Recipes,” by Simone and Inés Ortega

* * *

SPANISH OMELET

Yield: 6 servings

1 cup neutral-flavored oil

21/4 pounds potatoes, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

Salt

8 eggs

2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the potato slices and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned. Remove from the skillet, drain well and season with salt. Beat the eggs vigorously with a pinch of salt in a large bowl for 1 minute. Add the potato slices and stir gently with a fork.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Pour in the egg mixture and cook, gently shaking the skillet occasionally, until the underside is set and lightly browned. Invert the omelet onto the pan lid or a plate (place the lid or plate on top of the pan, then quickly turn it upside-down so the omelet rests on the plate), then gently slide it back into the skillet, cooked-side up. Cook, gently shaking the skillet occasionally, until the underside is set and golden brown. Serve warm, chilled or at room temperature.

Per serving: 420 calories; 32 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 228 mg cholesterol; 12 g protein; 28 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 4g fiber; 130 mg sodium; 57 mg calcium

Adapted from “1080 Recipes,” by Simone Ortega

* * *

BEEF STEW WITH TOMATOES AND OLIVES

Yield: 8 servings

1 cup neutral-flavored oil

3 1/4 pounds stewing beef, such as chuck, flank, rump or brisket, cut into chunks

2 large onions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 pound, 2 ounces very ripe tomatoes, or 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes (without their juice), peeled and chopped

1 cup chopped Serrano ham or prosciutto

3/4 cup dry white wine

Salt

Pinch of mixed dry herbs or 1 bouquet garni (1 sprig fresh parsley, 1 clove garlic and 1 bay leaf tied in cheesecloth)

1 cup pimento-stuffed green olives

1. Heat the oil in a pan. Add the beef, in batches if necessary, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until evenly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Drain off most of the oil, leaving about 4 tablespoons to cover the base of the pan, and reheat.

2. Add the onions and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes, until beginning to brown. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the tomato and cook, stirring occasionally and breaking it up with the side of the spoon, for 5 minutes more.

3. Return the beef to the pan, add the ham and pour in the wine. Season with salt, add the dried herbs or bouquet garni, mix well and cook for about 5 minutes. Pour in water to cover, cover the pan and simmer over medium heat for about 2 hours, until meat is tender.

4. Meanwhile, put the olives in a pan, add water to cover and bring to a boil; then lower the heat and simmer for 1 minute. Drain well and set aside. Uncover the stew, stir in the olives and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes more. Remove the bouquet garni, if used.

Per serving: 541 calories; 39 g fat; 13 g saturated fat; 128 mg cholesterol; 34 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 534 mg sodium; 36 mg calcium

Recipe from “1080 Recipes,” by Simone and Inés Ortega

* * *

MUSHROOMS WITH GARLIC

Yield: 4 servings

1/2 pound button (white) mushrooms

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 to 5 garlic cloves, chopped or sliced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, optional

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or 1/4 cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Wipe any dirt off the mushrooms. If necessary, trim the stems and rinse them briefly under cold water. Cut in half, or in quarters if they are large.

2. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the mushrooms, garlic and crushed red pepper, if using, and sauté over medium-high heat, stirring and turning the mushrooms until they absorb the oil and then release it and their juices. Add the lemon juice or wine, lower the heat, and cook until the mushrooms are very soft and the juices have almost evaporated, so that the oil is sizzling. In all, the cooking may take 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Stir in the parsley and serve hot or at room temperature.

Per serving: 135 calories; 14 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 2 g protein; 3 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 43 mg sodium; 10 mg calcium

Recipe from “The Food of Spain,” by Claudia Roden

* * *

FLAN

Yield: 6 servings

1 cup granulated sugar, divided

1/4 cup water

21/2 cups whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 large eggs

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. For the caramel, put 1/2 cup of the sugar and water in a stainless-steel saucepan and heat over medium heat. When the syrup starts to bubble and color, swirl the pan to spread the caramel evenly, and then cook until it turns a deep amber, swirling quickly (watch it, as it can turn too dark very quickly, which will result in a bitter taste). Immediately pour the caramel into a heatproof mold (such as a bowl) that holds at least 4 1/2 cups, turning and tilting the mold to coat the bottom and sides. Do this fast, because the caramel hardens quickly.

3. For the custard, put the milk, the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and vanilla in a saucepan and slowly bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and cool for 10 minutes.

4. Lightly beat the eggs with a fork or whisk in a large bowl. Gradually beat in the milk, starting with a ladleful, until well blended. Pour into the caramel-lined mold.

5. Place the mold in a large baking pan and pour enough boiling water into the baking pan to come halfway up the sides of the mold. Bake for 1 hour, or until the custard has set. Take the mold out of the pan of water and let it cool; then chill in the refrigerator, covered in plastic wrap, for at least 3 hours or overnight.

6. Just before you are ready to serve, turn out the flan: Run a small, pointed knife all around the edges of the mold, place a serving dish on top of the mold (there will be a lot of caramel sauce, so the dish should be deep enough to collect it), and quickly turn upside down. Lift off the mold.

Per serving: 232 calories; 7 g fat; 134 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 38 g carbohydrate; 38 g sugar; no fiber; 88 mg sodium; 133 mg calcium

Recipe from “The Food of Spain,” by Claudia Roden

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