The weather outside is frightful, so as I stare out the window at the February drizzle, I am daydreaming about my favorite heartwarming, rib-sticking Spanish foods. These are simple, satisfying recipes that fight off the winter chill and bring smiles to family and friends gathered around the table.
1. Tortilla Española Potato Omelet
No, I am not talking about the tasty flat corn tortillas of Mexico, though this Spanish favorite does feature another New World staple, potatoes. Ask anyone in Spain to identify who makes the best tortilla Española and chances are they will say their mother is the master. Fresh potatoes are simmered in bubbling olive oil, then mixed with whisked eggs and fried into a thick cake – tortilla literally means “little cake” in Spanish. Some purists swear that tortilla must have a soft, creamy center where the eggs are just a little runny. If you are not a stickler for tradition, you can add diced onions, bell peppers, mushrooms or asparagus to the mix. Chef José Andrés even has a version made from potato chips!I tasted one of my favorite examples of tortilla española in San Sebastián. I had just arrived with my wife, Stacey, after a long airplane journey and we stepped into a local bar on a chilly fall afternoon. We ordered a couple of cañas and a plate of tortilla. It was warm and welcoming with an enticing aroma of olive oil and Spanish potatoes, and quickly revived our tired bodies. It probably was not the finest tortilla in Spain, but at that moment it was one of the tastiest meals I’d ever had!I encourage you to prepare tortilla Española at home. It is a simple recipe and will warm up your day, plus cold tortilla leftovers are a great snack any time.
My father says that if you want to gauge the quality of a tapas bar, order a plate of hot croquetas! This bite-sized tapa is fundamentally a creamy béchamel coated in breadcrumbs then fried until crispy on the outside and creamy (and piping hot!) in the interior.
Croquetas are a favorite across Spain and often diced jamón, bacalao, mushrooms or other tasty local morsels are blended into the béchamel to create a flavorful and satisfying tapa.
3. Cocido de Garbanzos
This sustaining stew has deep roots in Spain. Featuring garbanzo beans, vegetables, pork belly, morcilla and chorizo, this classic stew simmers for hours, filling your house with enticing aromas. The stew has its origins in a Jewish Spanish dish, featuring beef and quail, called Adafina, which was prepared on Friday night to be consumed on Saturday the Sabbat. Over the centuries, pork and sausages were added as it was adopted by the Christian community as a hearty favorite.
I remember hiking through the province of León on the way to Santiago de Compostela some years ago. We stopped at a humble restaurant and inquired what was on the menu. The welcoming owner sat us down and went to the kitchen. A few minutes later, she proudly served us two giant bowls of cocido stew along with a fresh loaf of crusty bread. I have never had a more sustaining and delicious stew in my life!
4. Pollo al Ajillo (Garlic Chicken)
When our family lived in El Puerto de Santa María, one of our favorite restaurants was Venta la Rufana. Sitting in the shade of ancient magnolia trees that literally grow through the roof of the restaurant, we enjoyed some of our favorite Andalusian favorites: choco a la plancha, boquerones fritos and puntillitas, to name a few. But our favorite dish was the pollo al ajillo. A whole chicken is chopped into pieces, then sizzled in garlicky olive oil. It had a crispy, brown exterior and a juiciness I can taste right now. And sopping up the juices with the soft local bread was the prefect finish. Pollo al ajillo is easy to make at home and we often try and recreate the garlic chicken of Rufana.
5. Churros con Chocolate
Another favorite memory of living in El Puerto de Santa María was wandering the vibrant town market, watching the vendors standing behind beautiful displays of fresh seafood, colorful fruits and tasty cured meats. After making our purchases, we stopped by the local churreria. There, a masterful cook stood over a hot cauldron, squirting a spiral of dough into the bubbling oil. Deftly pulling the hot churros out with a metal rod, he quickly snipped the spiral into pieces and tossed them into a paper cone and passed them to eagerly awaiting patrons.
Nearby we ordered cups of ‘chocolate a la taza,’ the outrageously thick and creamy hot chocolate with an almost pudding-like consistency. Piping hot churros in hand, we dipped the crunchy pastries into the chocolate for a sinfully delicious combination. This was always the highlight of our frequent trips to the mercado.
As I write these words, I am transported to Spain and memories of these delicious and comforting foods that are so beloved by the Spanish people. While I will continue to try to recreate these tasty dishes at home, I can’t wait until the next time I am able to travel and enjoy the full Spanish experience.