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10 essential Spanish ingredients

10 essential Spanish ingredients

by Monika Linton 23 June 2017

Monika Linton, the founder of Brindisa Spanish Foods, shares her ten must-have ingredients and foods for anyone looking to explore the flavours of Spain.

The food of Spain has become one of the most beloved cuisines in the UK. Paella, chorizo, paprika – all dishes and ingredients that appear in restaurants and our weekly shopping baskets. But many of the highest quality Spanish ingredients imported to the UK are sold by Brindisa, with shops in Balham and Borough Market in London. Monika Linton founded the company in 1988 to spread awareness of her favourite Spanish ingredients, growing the business into what it is today.

If you’d like to hear more about Monika’s story and Brindisa in general, listen to the latest episode of The FoodTalk Show, where she shares her love for the country’s cuisine and how British awareness of Spanish products has grown over the years. And if you love to cook Spanish food at home, read on and make sure you have all of these ingredients to hand.

Bomba rice

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Rice dishes are food of the people, not the elite, and will often be eaten communally. Of the Spanish varieties, Bomba has achieved almost mythical status, partly because it’s one of the oldest and partly because its production is limited and its purity remains intact. The grains are very small and almost perfectly round, absorbing enough liquid to double in size whilst remaining loose, which means they’re easier to cook.

Whatever the region, rice plays a significant role in Spain and comes in three styles. The relatively dry dishes are called paellas or arroces secos. Then there are the creamy risotto-like recipes (melosos) and finally the soupy caldosos, made in a deep casserole. Recipes, as always, reflect the season and locality, so added ingredients might be wild mushrooms, seafood, rabbit, chorizo, garlic shoots or snails.

Saffron

Saffron has been grown in La Mancha for at least 1,000 years and the region is world-famous for producing the planet’s most expensive spice, and the short-lived bloom of purple Crocus flowers is a truly magical sight. Once the stamens have been carefully harvested by hand, that magic lives on in its splendid deep brick-red colour, heady aroma and natural remedial properties which add intense depth to a variety of dishes. It’s particularly wonderful cooked simply with rice and a good quality stock.

As with so many foods integral to Spanish gastronomy, the flower was introduced by the Moors and is most often consumed with rice, another staple food they brought to the country.

Sherry vinegar

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Traditionally, Spanish families would often make their own vinegar from leftover wine. This would be used to both enhance flavours and preserve fresh foods. A sophisticated sherry vinegar is a chef’s friend – bringing together flavours and providing balanced acidity to complex dishes. It’s especially good for meat marinades and in gazpacho. The longer the sherry vinegar is matured the denser, darker and smoother it becomes, with ‘gran reserva’ being aged for at least ten years. It is widely used in Spain and provides a taste which, whether in a vinaigrette, sauce or cooked dish, immediately brings the food of that country to mind.

Olive oil

Olive oil is fundamental to virtually all Mediterranean cookery and has been a significant Spanish export for more than two millennia. Spain is the biggest global producer, bottling twice as much olive oil as Italy. The best oils will usually be estate bottled and there is an incredible array of profiles to explore – from light and fruity to intense and woody. Where possible, look for new season oil and use within its first year. Cold-pressed oils are essentially fresh fruit juice – they don’t improve with age and their potency reduces over time.

Olive oil is used all over Spain but, unsurprisingly, it’s totally central to the gastronomy of Andalusia where the majority of the country’s olives are cultivated. The oil is not just used for dressings or fried fish, for which the region is famous, but also in less obvious ways such as baking and desserts.

Chorizo

Chorizo is almost a national emblem! It’s become the most recognisable and popular export – adding immediate ‘wow’ flavour. However, the Spanish tend to be far more judicious with their use of chorizo, because it’s fairly rich and fatty.

Given its iconic status abroad, chorizo is a relatively recent development but owes its existence to the great tradition of Spanish cured meats. Initially made with lamb or goat, the Christians introduced pork into the sausage recipe in the fifteenth century with paprika arriving in the years that followed.

Chorizo’s beauty is that there isn’t a single recipe so there is huge variety – fresh or cured, dulce (sweet) or picante (spicy). Its other selling point is its versatility; from breakfasts like huevos a la flamenca to hearty stews and casseroles – there are many recipes to explore. In the UK, we generally tend to presume that chorizo is a cured product to be cooked with, but in Spain you get both cooking and cured chorizo.

Cured ham

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An ideal combination of climate and traditional skills that date back millennia go into making Spanish air-dried hams, arguably one of the greatest food in the world. Taste and provenance are a priority; from free-range Ibérico acorn-fed hams to classic Serrano hams from white pigs. When serving quality ham simplicity is key; a cold beer or dry sherry with bread or breadsticks will suffice. Perfection on a plate!

Produced all over Spain wherever the climate and geography were suitable, cured hams are also consumed throughout the country. What makes Spain unique is the millennia-old breed of Ibérico pig which, when fattened on autumn acorns, has a good claim to being the finest ham in the world.

Salt cod

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Salt cod is familiar to everyone in Spain. Before refrigeration, salting was used to cure fish and it’s a tradition that has remained woven into the culinary fabric of the country. Perfected by Basque fishermen, it remains a staple of that region’s cuisine: however, due to the Catholicism of the country and the frequent fast days, there are recipes using salt cod from every part of Spain.

There are many specific cuts of salt cod which are used for different dishes:

  • Lomo (loin) – the best cut for dishes where you want to show off! Ideal for bacallà amb mel (salt cod with honey)

  • Morro (cheeks) – these have the longest, largest flakes, which are juicy and beautiful – great in salads such as remojón, esqueixada and xatonada.

  • Kokotxas (jowls) – delicate, tasty and textural, these are quick to cook, making perfect bite-size tapas. Coat in flour, egg and deep-fry before dressing with chopped parsley, garlic and lemon juice.

  • Colas y recortes (the tails and offcuts) – too good to waste, these are often breaded and fried for tapas or used in fish stocks.

Marcona almonds

Sourced exclusively in Catalonia, these almonds are lightly fried to enhance their sweetness. Larger than their Californian counterparts, Spanish Marcona almonds are plump with a pleasingly oil-rich, creamy taste and a crisp texture. They’re at their best with a chilled glass of dry sherry or accompanying fresh orange-stuffed Andalucian olives. Blanched, skinned Marcona almonds are also an important ingredient in many Catalan dishes, where they can add texture and richness to sauces.

Paprika

Along with Hungary, Spain produces and consumes the most paprika (pimentón) in the world. Added to stews and soups, it also provides the colour and flavouring for chorizo, as well as being a ubiquitous condiment that’s often sprinkled on eggs and salads or used in dressings and dry marinades.

The peppers from which the pimentón is made arrived in Spain with Christopher Columbus in the sixteenth century, and were first cultivated by monks who discovered they could be smoked, dried and ground into a spice. The Spanish rarely smoke foods to preserve them; it is the presence of smoked pimentón that often causes foreigners to believe that the food they eat in Spain has been smoked.

Piquillo peppers

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Roasted and preserved, red piquillo peppers were unheard of in the UK back in the 1990s. Grown in good soil, clean waters and with plenty of sunshine in Navarra, these peppers have a delicate, thin skin and intense flavour that exemplifies Spain in my mind. Once charred, the peppers are hand-peeled before being packed one by one. They go well with tuna and capers or soft cheeses, and are often stuffed with all manner of ingredients such as rice, breadcrumbs or sardines. The sweet acidity of these beautiful peppers provides an excellent balance to rich savoury foods, which is why it is often found as an accompaniment to grilled pork or beef.

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