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Are the Spanish eating their vegetables?


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Currently, Spain has arguably the best seafood and pork products in the Western world. Yet when it comes to how vegetables are treated, it is a sad state of affairs. What breaks my heart is that walking through the markets in Spain one is confronted by some of the best produce in the world. But what gives you wonder at the market bears little resemblance to what is served at the table—bland, textureless vegetables that have been so overcooked that might as well have come from the freezer.

Salads are lackluster—some lettuce, tomatoes, a few olives and onions. No interesting lettuce variety or inventive dressing. Peas and favas are almost always stewed with sausages to the point where the vegetable retains none of it delicate flavor. The most common way of cooking spinach, swiss chard, broad beans or cabbage is to boil for 20 plus minutes until it is mushy an textureless. Then it is often sautéed in pork fat as if the goal is to extract out the flavor of the vegetable so that you can cover it up with the taste of meat. I can understand how vegetables like eggplant, peppers and artichokes may benefit from being cooked in this slow-simmered approach but why would you do this to green vegetables?

Am I missing something? My experience is mainly with Cataluña and Andalusia. Maybe vegetables are treated differently in the north. Are things different in the Basque country, Galicia, Asturias, or Cantabria?

How can a cuisine reach such amazing heights in terms of its treatment of seafood and meat and simultaneously be so behind the times in its treatment of vegetables?

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I think that you must be eating in the wrong places! :raz: While Spanish cuisine may not be as vegetable friendly as some others, I have enjoyed a number of good vegetables throughout Spain, especially at the higher end. For example, I love the pimientos de padrone I had in the Boqueria and the vegetable platings from Maria Jose San Roman at Monastrell. In addition beans are rarely treated as well as those in the paella at Levante.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I have certainly heard this before...was it son's guitar teacher who told me that his guitar teacher in Spain maintained that tobacco was the only leafy vegetable needed?!

It is certainly a stereotype, but is less true today than it ever was. While maybe not universal in Spain, there is much good vegetable cookery going on.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Melimato, I understand your point and partially agree with you, but there are some places, specially in Navarra where they know how to cook their vegetables, I'm thinking about El 33 in Tudela or Maher in Citruénigo.

Edited by Rogelio (log)
Rogelio Enríquez aka "Rogelio"
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i have to agree mostly with that point, and if not try being on a vegetarian diet in spain... you will really get to know the ensalada mixta crossed with its asparagus (and make sure they hold the tuna and the eggs, please!), patatas bravas, pimientos...beyond that you better start closely interrogating the staff as to the menestra sauteed with ham, ditto the beans, peas or artichokes...which could be lireally swimming in pork fat... to give it flavour...

Ok I may be exagerating, and one exception would be the grilled vegetable plate which is most often a delight.

However, I ceratinly believe that we dont do as much justice as we could in the kitchen when it comes to the extraordinary vegetables that are available throughout spain.

And I believe that its the case in general with local vegetables, not only in this country.

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i have to agree mostly with that point, and if not try being on a vegetarian diet in spain... you will really get to know the ensalada mixta crossed with its asparagus (and make sure they hold the tuna and the eggs, please!), patatas bravas, pimientos...beyond that you better start closely interrogating the staff as to the menestra sauteed with ham, ditto the beans, peas or artichokes...which could be lireally swimming in pork fat... to give it flavour...

Ok I may be exagerating, and one exception would be the grilled vegetable plate which is most often a delight.

However, I ceratinly believe that we dont do as much justice as we could in the kitchen when it comes to the extraordinary vegetables that are available throughout spain.

And I believe that its the case in general with local vegetables, not only in this country.

I certainly would not want to be a vegetarian in Spain, but that is much different than saying that Spaniards can't cook vegetables. They may not be the stars of the plate, but I have enjoyed some very, very good supporting performances. I happen to like meat with my vegetables. :laugh:

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Making such a general statement always gets you into problems...I don't want to say that well-cooked vegetables do not exist. I love escalivada, pimentos de padron and samfina. And the occasional boiled plate of vegetables can make a nice foil to a plate of fried salty fish. I once had a delicious peas and black butifarra dish at Hispania where the peas were were still small and young (not too old and chalky). They were perfectly cooked so that they exploded in your mouth with all their sugary sweetness. That was a good day!

I am interested, however, in vegetable dishes from the North. I imagine that they must eat more greens in Galicia, Austurias and Cantabria. Are there any special dishes or vegetables that I should know about? I am going to Galicia for a week in August. We will have our own kitchen and hope to make a few trips to the market. Any advice would be appreciated! Thank you!

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Melimato, I understand your point and partially agree with you, but there are some places, specially in Navarra where they know how to cook their vegetables, I'm thinking about El 33 in Tudela or Maher in Citruénigo.

I am going up North this August so I will try to check out those places. Looking forward to it! Thank you!

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I couldn't disagree more with the whole subject, and I've only been reviewing restaurants for national Spanish newspapers for the past 27 years. The main distinguishing feature of vegetables in Spain's cuisines is that they tend to be served separately, often as first courses, and not so much as garnishes to meat or fish dishes. And indeed we have this mean, mean tendency to add some cubes of Ibérico ham (rich in monounsaturated fat and therefore 'almost like a vegetable oil', for those who want to know about these things). But otherwise, the use of vegetables in Spanish restaurants, both of the traditional and the modern persuasions, has increased about tenfold since I first began covering the scene here, and vegetables have always been a major part of the Spanish heritage of home cookery.

So in Spain we do, regularly and copiously, eat a huge array of vegetables, some quite uncommon: borage, Jerusalem artichokes, fresh regular artichokes (possibly the best in the world), twice-peeled broad beans (that's fava beans to you Americans), wild and cultivated green asparagus, tender monster-size white asparagus, fresh green and mangetout (that's snow peas to you Americans) peas, cardoons, bladder campions (the delicate wild green known as 'colleja' in Spanish), blinks (the mineral-tasting, tiny cousin of the watercress called 'corujas ' or 'pamplinas' in Spanish), chard stalks, fried aubergines (that's eggplant to you Americans), courgette crisps or stews (that's zucchini to you Americans), sautéed spinach with pine nuts and raisins, collard greens, cauliflower au gratin - not to mention Spain's unique trove of dried vegetables, or pulses if you will: kidney beans of all persuasions, green or brown lentils and chick peas (that's garbanzo beans to you Americans). Not to mention rice, rice and more rice!

Some notable vegetable dishes I've reviewed in recent months in Madrid restaurants include the 'puerros acompotados con espinacas tiernas, piñones y sal de jamón' (compote of leeks with tender spinach, pine nuts and ham salt), at Senzone; the aubergine tempura, at La Musa de Espronceda; the 'pisto manchego' (La Mancha's ratatouille - one of many La Mancha vegetable dishes!) with poached free range eggs at Zorzal; the Spanish 'toltilla' (a dim sum of poached onion and potatoes, quail's egg and an emulsion of red chilies and pinto beans, acoompanied by tea aromatized with rum, coconut and chilies), at Diverxo; the dry-fried Padrón green peppers, at Naveira do Mar; the wide roast Bierzo peppers, at Prada a Tope; the 'calçotada' (fire-charred tender scallions, eaten with a spicy almond.-based 'romescu' dip), at Can Punyetes; the Palencia 'menestra' (fresh mixed vegetable stew), at Támara-Casa Lorenzo; the fresh sautéed Asturias 'arbeyos' (green peas), at El Oso; the León-style, courgette-based 'pisto', at El Cardeño; the spinach-filled 'croquetas' at Platina Café; the Russian salad, at Sylkar and at Samm; the white bean-and-mixed vegetables soup, at Aldaba...

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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  • 1 month later...
I couldn't disagree more with the whole subject, and I've only been reviewing restaurants for national Spanish newspapers for the past 27 years. The main distinguishing feature of vegetables in Spain's cuisines is that they tend to be served separately, often as first courses, and not so much as garnishes to meat or fish dishes. And indeed we have this mean, mean tendency to add some cubes of Ibérico ham (rich in monounsaturated fat and therefore 'almost like a vegetable oil', for those who want to know about these things). But otherwise, the use of vegetables in Spanish restaurants, both of the traditional and the modern persuasions, has increased about tenfold since I first began covering the scene here, and vegetables have always been a major part of the Spanish heritage of home cookery.

So in Spain we do, regularly and copiously, eat a huge array of vegetables, some quite uncommon: borage, Jerusalem artichokes, fresh regular artichokes (possibly the best in the world), twice-peeled broad beans (that's fava beans to you Americans), wild and cultivated green asparagus, tender monster-size white asparagus, fresh green and mangetout (that's snow peas to you Americans) peas, cardoons, bladder campions (the delicate wild green known as 'colleja' in Spanish), blinks (the mineral-tasting, tiny cousin of the watercress called 'corujas ' or 'pamplinas' in Spanish), chard stalks, fried aubergines (that's eggplant to you Americans), courgette crisps or stews (that's zucchini to you Americans), sautéed spinach with pine nuts and raisins, collard greens, cauliflower au gratin  - not to mention Spain's unique trove of dried vegetables, or pulses if you will: kidney beans of all persuasions, green or brown lentils and chick peas (that's garbanzo beans to you Americans). Not to mention rice, rice and more rice!

Some notable vegetable dishes I've reviewed in recent months in Madrid restaurants include the 'puerros acompotados con espinacas tiernas, piñones y sal de jamón' (compote of leeks with tender spinach, pine nuts and ham salt), at Senzone; the aubergine tempura, at La Musa de Espronceda; the 'pisto manchego' (La Mancha's ratatouille - one of many La Mancha vegetable dishes!) with poached free range eggs at Zorzal; the Spanish 'toltilla' (a dim sum of poached onion and potatoes, quail's egg and an emulsion of red chilies and pinto beans, acoompanied by tea aromatized with rum, coconut and chilies), at Diverxo; the dry-fried Padrón green peppers, at Naveira do Mar; the wide roast Bierzo peppers, at Prada a Tope; the 'calçotada' (fire-charred tender scallions, eaten with a spicy almond.-based 'romescu' dip), at Can Punyetes; the Palencia 'menestra' (fresh mixed vegetable stew), at Támara-Casa Lorenzo; the fresh sautéed Asturias 'arbeyos' (green peas), at El Oso; the León-style, courgette-based 'pisto', at El Cardeño; the spinach-filled 'croquetas' at Platina Café; the Russian salad, at Sylkar and at Samm; the white bean-and-mixed vegetables soup, at Aldaba...

My experience does not come from 27 years of food writing and dining in Spain but from eating, cooking and living in Spain for the past 10 years. And from this perspective, I have often found the markets and home-cooking to be much more limited, although I can’t say the same thing for meat and seafood dishes. Many of the vegetables you talk about are actually difficult to find in the local markets in Barcelona and in the Maresme (which are my two points of references), mainly because they are still new to the population and not widely consumed. It is not easy to those white monster-sized asparagus in the markets that is not already preserved in a can or a jar. Outside of broad beans, snow peas, sugar peas, pea shoots and pea tendrils are still considered exotic items and difficult to find. Collard greens and kale, which are common in Galicia, are again difficult to find in regions outside of Galicia. This is surprising when you consider that even the smallest markets outside of Galicia are always well stocked with fresh seafood from the North.

I certainly agree that there are many great places in Spain that prepare vegetables well and that Spanish treatment of vegetables, both with respect to how it’s prepared “traditionally” and with respect to its many modern reincarnations, has improved over the years. Spain has some of the best of the best restaurants that are fully capable of producing creative and tasty ways of preparing vegetables that preserve the integrity of the produce. But I am not sure that examining how top, cutting edge restaurants prepare vegetables is the best way to measure a nation’s penchant towards preparing vegetables badly.

p.s. I fail to see why my nationality should matter but since you found it necessary to raise the point, my point of reference is not limited to the Americas, as you seem to imply, but originates from East Asia (that’s 5,000 years of culinary history to you Europeans).

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You have to find better markets, mielimato. The Boquería, for instance. And there are no better green peas anywhere in the world than the Maresme's in early spring. Also, I'd say that you certainly have to meet friends who cook better at home than the dreadful stuff you are reporting!

By the way: noweher in your first post did you mention you were talking about home cooking. (Generalizations are possible vis-'a-vis restaurants, but they are a lot riskier in the wildly varied world of real-life home cooking.) And nowhere in my first post did I mention or infer anything about your nationality, so I have strictly no idea where you're coming from on that score. When I say 'to you Americans', I mean the vast majority of eGullet participants, of course, who aren't used to broad beans or courgettes.

For your information: Zorzal, Naveira do Mar, Prada a Tope, Can Punyetes, Támara-Casa Lorenzo, El Oso, El Cardeño, Platina Café, Sylkar, Samm and Aldaba are anything but "cutting edge restaurants". They're as down home and traditional as they come.

One final point: I disagree with your notion that green vegetables must necessarily be undercooked to be tasty and attractive. That's a modern/Asian concept that's very widespread these days, but once you've tasted a great Basque menestra you will know that 'al dente' is not the only acceptable culinary proposition in the vegetable world.

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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My observation would be that there appeared to be plentiful amounts of vegetables in excellent condition at the markets in Cadiz, Jerez and even smaller cities like Sanlúcar. Somebody is eating these and judging from some of the unusual items I saw (especially various wild thistles/milk thistles), some effort is put into obtaining them and they are prized items.

I guess one thing to consider is personal preference vs an empirical measure of what is "best".

I wonder what percentage of foreign reviews on general Spanish food comments in the use of green/unripe tomatoes in salad? This is always given as a negative example of vegetable use, but is it?

While we are on the topic of Spanish veg., I must confess that I quite like some canned Spanish vegetables, especially peppers and white asparagus. In regards to the latter, I consider it a different item to the fresh and simply like it for itself.

Ooof, confessions of enjoying non-al dente and canned vegetables, I imagine this makes me a Philistine...

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I couldn't disagree more with the whole subject, and I've only been reviewing restaurants for national Spanish newspapers for the past 27 years. [T]he use of vegetables in Spanish restaurants, both of the traditional and the modern persuasions, has increased about tenfold since I first began covering the scene here[.]

So, Victor, if the last three decades have seen an order-of-magnitude increase, does that not speak to mielimato's point, at least in relation to the previous thirty years? And what has happened since 1980 or so that has caused this change?

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Many of the vegetables you talk about are actually difficult to find in the local markets in Barcelona and in the Maresme (which are my two points of references), mainly because they are still new to the population and not widely consumed.  It is not easy to those white monster-sized asparagus in the markets that is not already preserved in a can or a jar.  Outside of broad beans, snow peas, sugar peas, pea shoots and pea tendrils are still considered exotic items and difficult to find.  Collard greens and kale, which are common in Galicia, are again difficult to find in regions outside of Galicia.  This is surprising when you consider that even the smallest markets outside of Galicia are always well stocked with fresh seafood from the North. 

You're kidding, right? What markets are you buying from? Have you been to La Boqueria at all? I think there's not one day I'm not surprised by the quality and variety of produce there. I run into previously unkown (to me) vegetable varieties all the time, and if you take the time to look around and develop a relationship with the grocers you'll be rewarded with excellent examples of the products Victor mentions, and much more.

We''ve opened Pazzta 920, a fresh pasta stall in the Boqueria Market. follow the thread here.

My blog, the Adventures of A Silly Disciple.

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if the last three decades have seen an order-of-magnitude increase, does that not speak to mielimato's point, at least in relation to the previous thirty years? And what has happened since 1980 or so that has caused this change?

1) Please re-read mielimato's opening post - it certainly refers to the present state of affairs, not to culinary evolution: "Currently, Spain has arguably the best seafood and pork products in the Western world. Yet when it comes to how vegetables are treated, it is a sad state of affairs."

2) I first arrived in New York in mid-August, 1963. I just happen to be in New York right now - 45 years later. I can't tell you how much the culinary scene has changed since that day. But you already know that, don't you? So - what's so extraordinary about Spain's (or any other country's) culinary scene changing drastically over 30 years? There's more money, more health awareness, more product availability.

Back in 1980, there was a Barcelona teenager named Ferran Adrià who hardly knew how to fry an egg. And back then, the Michelin guide was still warning tourists to be wary of that dreadful, olive-oil based Spanish cuisine...

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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  • 2 months later...

I visit Mallorca more than other parts of Spain and it's in the traditional vegetable dishes that I often find most enjoyment - tombet, coca, sopas mallorquin, trempo, frit de verduras (although, in truth, I prefer the very meaty frit de matances) .

But, I agree, go to a restaurant and you are likely to be disappointed in not seeing them too often (except, perhaps, poor quality versions in touristy places). The brother in law explains it thus - veggie dishes came about from the times of poverty when folk couldnt afford meat so, if you can afford to be eating in restaurant, you are not poor, therefore why would you not want to eat meat or fish.

John Hartley

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go to a restaurant and you are likely to be disappointed in not seeing them too often  (...) veggie dishes came about from the times of poverty when folk couldnt afford meat so, if you can afford to be eating in restaurant, you are not poor, therefore why would you not want to eat meat or fish.

a. You're going to the wrong restaurants.

b. That's an original explanation, but untrue. There were far fewer vegetable dishes in Spanish restaurants in times of poverty (i.e., basically a half-century ago - too long ago for most people on this board to remember) than there are now.

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Well, I can only recount what the brother in law told me. He's Mallorcan; I'm not. But, please, do not suggest that a family member would tell me an untruth - your remark offends.

As to the restaurants I visit in Mallorca, I am happy to accept I may be visiting the "wrong" restaurants to find good quality "traditional" vegetable based dishes. I'd welcome recommendations (and I'm sure the brother in law would also).

Edited by Harters (log)

John Hartley

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do not suggest that a family member would tell me an untruth - your remark offends.

I am only suggesting that I'm writing from Spain, and old enough, so I have only to rely on my own memories.

There are always quite a few lovely vegetable dishes in traditional restaurants on the island.

Edited by vserna (log)

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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OK, I accept that your intent was not to offend.

I've no real wish to be pedantic here and, as I'm sure you've reread my original contribution which indicates that I enjoy eating vegetable based dishes on the island, it looks like we are well on the way to agreement. You can correctly infer from that contribution that I've found good places where I can eat them.

Based on that, I re-iterate my point that they are not often found on the menus of the better restaurants and, all too often, it's a touristy version on offer. And, that, my friend, is based my experience and my memories.

And, of course, why would anyone expect them to be? It's a rare treat when you do find them? As we know, it is most rare that "poor people's domestic food" finds its way onto the menus of "good" restaurants anywhere. It's not why folk go to eat out, generally speaking. It's something I'd say about my own country's food and its something my relative would say about his. Surely no disagreement from anyone on that?

John Hartley

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  • 1 month later...

One final point: I disagree with your notion that green vegetables must necessarily be undercooked to be tasty and attractive. That's a modern/Asian concept that's very widespread these days, but once you've tasted a great Basque menestra you will know that 'al dente' is not the only acceptable culinary proposition in the vegetable world.

I couldn't agree more-undercooking is the only way to make inferior produce acceptable but the glorious vegetables still sometimes to be found in Spain and Italy effortlessly deal with traditional techniques.

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  • 2 months later...

Not one mention of Murcia on this thread.

I admit I don't go to many restaurants in Murcia, but when it comes to dining at people's homes there is no end to the divine vegetable based dishes on offer.

I don't think there's a better place to eat vegetables than Spain's 'Huerta'. And I'm reliably informed that local chefs have caught up with the times and are finally offering traditional food that was never typically offered in restaurants (no matter how long your memory is) at rather extravagant prices.

But it's unlikely that I will be commenting on their skills from first hand experience in the foreseeable future, when people I know can cook so well, there's just no incentive. The last potaje I had in Murcia (pumpkin, various beans and legumes, potatoes, onions and pears with olive oil) was one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten and the area is noted for its 'paella' style vegetable rice dishes, amongst many, many others.

¡Viva la Huerta de Murcia!

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  • 1 month later...

I live in Granada, and I have always found an offering of vegetables, cooked well and in various ways, at restaurants. I think where they may be more likely dismissed is in tapas bars, but even there I have been served roasted pepper salads, pisto, and remojón (a delicious salad of bacalao/cod, tomato, and oranges). In the menú del dia, which is usually a 3 course meal in the middle of the day (lunch) ranging between 9-25 euros, I have always seen various options of vegetable dishes, even plates where they are the main focus- gazpacho, grilled vegetables, salmorejo, fried eggplant with honey or molasses, stuffed piquillo peppers, etc. From my experience and people I have spoken with, vegetables in Spain are highly regarded and there is a lot of respect and demand for fresh ingredients in both domestic and professional cooking.

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    • By Prawncrackers
      Hola egulleters! Those of you who know me know that I like to turn my hand at Charcuterie now and then. Nothing is more satisfying than breaking down a whole pig and turning it into delicious cured meats and sausages. I'm quite happy making a wide range of products but there's one thing that I just can't get right. Fresh Spanish cooking chorizo, in particular I want to try and recreate this wonderful stuff from Brindisa http://www.brindisa.com/store/fresh-chorizo-and-morcilla/all-fresh-chorizo-and-morcilla/brindisa-chorizo-picante/
      They're wonderfully red, juicy and packed with deep pimenton flavour. Now when I make them I can get the flavour right but the texture is all wrong, very mealy, not at all juicy and the colour loses it's vibrancy too easily. What's the secret to them I wonder? Some kind of additive and/or food colouring?
      My recipe sees me mincing 2.3 kg fatty pork shoulder through a fine die, mixing with 80g pimenton, 50g salt, 30g sugar, 35g fresh garlic and stuffing into sheep casings. Here's a photo of them:

      I rest them overnight in the fridge before cooking with them. Maybe I should be putting some curing salt in there and hanging them for a couple of days? Does anyone have any experience making this kind of juicy fresh Spanish chorizo or even chistorra?
    • By milla
      For mid-May in all categories.
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