- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Food trends hover over the Mediterranean like a stationary weather cell, drifting between Italy and France, with occasional dips down to Morocco. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the rain is currently over Spain.

“Spain is the center of the culinary universe right now,” says Anya von Bremzen, author of “The New Spanish Table” (Workman).

This is not simply a matter of restless taste buds in a country undergoing a culinary revolution. At his world-famous restaurant El Bulli, north of Barcelona, chef Ferran Adria has snared the international spotlight by applying science to cooking, deconstructing traditional dishes and mixing unusual ingredients.

“People wanted to shake off the old lifestyle,” says Miss von Bremzen, whose book combines new and classic recipes. “Eating new food was part of being modern. The Spanish are very adventurous.”

While home cooks are unlikely to attempt Mr. Adria’s high-wire culinary theatrics, the buzz has pushed traditional and, until recently, little known Spanish foods into the stateside spotlight. The essential flavors of Spain rely on specific ingredients such as jamon (cured ham), pimenton (smoked paprika), olives and olive oil, cheeses and anchovies.

“The gastronomic range is huge but simple,” says Jose Andres, who runs the three Jaleo restaurants in Washington, Bethesda and Arlington and is author of “Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America” (Clarkson Potter).

“If you have olive oil and pimenton, you can do [many] different recipes,” he says.

Compared with the starch-mad Italians and the sauce-happy French, Spaniards are more restrained, allowing one major ingredient in a dish to solo. “Spanish cooking is drier, more singular, not as diffused,” says Miss von Bremzen. “It’s about one ingredient tasting very good, like tossing sardines with garlic and parsley and leaving it alone. Even when chefs riff on it, they don’t put a lot on the plate.”

Getting some of the ingredients may require planning. Internet sites such as www.latienda.com and www.spanishtable.com specialize in Spanish goods hard to find in most American grocery markets. Once procured, Spanish food is beginner-friendly, aficionados say.

“If you’re doing a dinner party, you can start with a spread of things that are very Spanish and easy to do, including jamon, olives and cheese,” says chef Andrew Zimmerman, who once cooked contemporary American dishes but goes Spanish at the new Del Toro restaurant in Chicago.

Spain’s most familiar and widely copied dining format — tapas served on small plates — puts flexibility on the menu. Entertaining with tapas allows you to show off your skills at multiple dishes or to fudge it by mounting last night’s stew atop crusty bread slices accompanied by bowls of olives and almonds.

“Tapas provide the freedom to have not one but six, seven, eight dishes,” Mr. Andres says. “It’s the union of the high-end tasting menu and informal cooking. Tapas gives you the freedom in a simple, informal way to share a lot of things.”

Sizzling garlic shrimp (Gambas al ajillo)

This recipe is from “The New Spanish Table.”

11/4 pounds small shrimp, peeled and deveined

Coarse salt (kosher or sea)

1 cup fragrant extra-virgin olive oil

6 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ small dry red chili, such as arbol, crumbled

2 to 3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Country bread, for serving

Pat shrimp dry with paper towels, then sprinkle salt over them. Place olive oil and garlic in a 10- to 11-inch earthenware cazuela, a very large, heavy skillet or a wide casserole, and heat over medium-low heat until oil shimmers and garlic begins to sizzle gently.

Cook until garlic is very fragrant but not colored, 2 to 3 minutes, reducing heat if necessary. Add the chili and stir for a few seconds. Add shrimp and cook, stirring, until they just begin to turn pink, about 3 minutes.

Season with salt to taste, stir in parsley and cook for a few seconds longer. Serve shrimp in the cazuela, skillet or casserole with plenty of bread alongside. Serves 4 or 5 as a tapa; 2 or 3 as a light main course.

Variations: This dish can be made with large shrimp, in which case I like to cook them in their shells to preserve their texture. You can also prepare mushrooms, clams or small pieces of chicken the same way.

Traditional rice with clams (Arroz con almejas)

This recipe is from Mr. Andres of the Jaleo restaurants.

2 cups fish stock

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

½ Spanish onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

1/4 carrot, cut in small cubes (about ½ cup)

½ cup Spanish bomba rice

1/3 cup dry white wine

Salt

12 Manila clams or other small variety

5 asparagus spears, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Bring fish stock to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat to low and maintain a simmer.

Combine 3 tablespoons olive oil, onion and garlic in a large saute pan over medium heat. Cook slowly for 5 minutes, or until onion is soft and translucent, being careful that onion does not brown.

Add carrots and cook for another five minutes. Add rice and cook for 2 minutes. Add wine and cook until reduced by half, about 30 seconds. Pour in 1½ cups hot fish stock and a little salt to taste. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until rice is silky and creamy, about 14 minutes. In a separate small pan, bring remaining ½ cup fish stock to a boil. Once it begins to boil, add clams and asparagus. Cover and cook until all clams are open; depending on their size, this will take 1 to 2 minutes.

Add clam mixture, parsley and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil to rice and stir well. Bring to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, remove from heat and serve immediately. Makes about 4 servings.

Tortilla with potatoes, artichokes and peppers (Tortilla de patatas, alcachofas y pimientos de piquillo)

This recipe is from “The New Spanish Table.”

About 4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed

½ medium-size onion, quartered and thinly sliced

1 large boiled Yukon Gold potato, quartered and thinly sliced

3 marinated artichoke hearts (from a can or jar), rinsed, patted dry and thinly sliced

1/4 cup sliced Spanish piquillo peppers (from a jar or can) or roasted red bell peppers

4 large eggs, preferably organic

2 tablespoons chicken stock or broth

Coarse salt (kosher or sea)

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium-size skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until limp but not brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add potato and cook, stirring gently, for 5 minutes. Stir in artichokes and peppers and cook, stirring, for another 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer vegetable mixture to a bowl and let cool completely.

Place eggs, chicken stock or broth, and a few small pinches of salt in a medium-size bowl and beat until just scrambled. Add potato mixture and mix until well combined. Let stand for about 10 minutes.

Heat remaining olive oil in a heavy 8-inch skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium-high heat until it is just beginning to smoke. Pour egg mixture into skillet and flatten it with a spatula until the top is fairly even. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, moving and shaking the skillet, running a thin spatula around edge and sliding it into the middle so that some of the egg runs under. Cook tortilla in this fashion until top is a little wet but not liquid, about 5 minutes.

Run the thin spatula under the tortilla to make sure that no part of the bottom is stuck to the skillet. Top skillet with a rimless plate slightly larger than the skillet and, using oven mitts, quickly invert tortilla onto plate. If skillet looks dry, add a little more olive oil.

Carefully slide tortilla back into skillet, uncooked side down. Shake skillet to straighten tortilla and push edges in with spatula. Reduce heat to very low and cook tortilla until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry, 3 to 4 minutes.Invert tortilla onto a serving plate and pat the top with a paper towel to get rid of excess oil. Let it cool a little, then cut tortilla into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature. To serve as a tapa, cut tortilla into squares and serve with toothpicks. Makes 4 to 6 servings as a tapa, or 2 as a light main dish.

Clams in olive oil with ham and pine nuts (Almejas con aceite de oliva, jamon y piqones)

This recipe is from “The New Spanish Table.”

11/4 cups fragrant extra-virgin olive oil

2 small garlic cloves, sliced

2/3 cup pine nuts

1 3-ounce piece serrano ham or prosciutto, finely diced

2 pounds small clams, such as Manilas or littlenecks, or cockles, scrubbed

2 to 3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Crusty bread, for serving

Heat olive oil and garlic in a wide earthenware cazuela, a very large, heavy skillet or a wide casserole over medium heat. Add pine nuts and ham or prosciutto and cook, stirring, until nuts just begin to color, about 2 minutes. Add clams, cover and cook until clams open, 4 to 7 minutes depending on size, shaking the pan occasionally. Discard any clams that don’t open. Serve clams directly from the cazuela, skillet or casserole or spoon them into bowls, adding plenty of the cooking liquid to each bowl. Sprinkle parsley on top and serve with plenty of bread. Makes 4 servings as a first course.

Crisp potatoes with spicy tomato sauce (Patatas bravas)

This recipe is from “The New Spanish Table.”

16 small red potatoes (1½ to 2 inches in diameter)

Water

3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse salt (kosher or sea)

Spicy tomato sauce (recipe follows)

About 1/4 cup any allioli, thinned with 1 to 2 tablespoons water (see note)

Place potatoes in a large saucepan, add cold water to cover by 2 inches and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook potatoes, partially covered, until completely tender when pierced with a skewer, about 20 minutes. Do not overcook. Drain and let cool. When just cool enough to handle, cut into quarters. Place quartered potatoes, 3 tablespoons olive oil and some salt in a bowl and toss to coat evenly, adding more oil, if needed. Be careful not to crush the potatoes.

Spread potatoes in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet and bake in preheated 475-degree oven, turning once, until crisp and browned, about 45 minutes. Arrange potatoes on a serving platter and generously drizzle spicy tomato sauce and allioli over them.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: Mock allioli can be made easily by combining 1 cup store-bought mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons lemon juice; 4 large, crushed garlic cloves; 3 tablespoons fruity olive oil; and a little coarse salt. Let stand for at least 2 hours so flavors develop.

SPICY TOMATO SAUCE

(Salsa de tomate picante)

4½ teaspoons olive oil

1 small onion, minced

3 garlic cloves, chopped

3/4 teaspoon pimenton dulce — smoked sweet Spanish paprika

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1 medium-size pinch of hot red pepper flakes

1 15-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes, chopped, with their liquid (about 1½ cups)

Water

2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar

1 large pinch of sugar

Coarse salt (kosher or sea)

Tabasco sauce

Heat olive oil in a heavy medium-size saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until limp but not browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Add paprika, cumin and hot red pepper flakes and stir for a few seconds. Add tomatoes with their liquid and ½ cup water and bring to a simmer.

Cover saucepan and simmer until tomatoes have cooked down to a puree, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a little more water if sauce seems too thick. Add vinegar and sugar.

Season sauce with salt and Tabasco sauce to taste and remove from heat.

Let sauce cool for a few minutes, then puree in a blender. Let sauce cool to room temperature, taste again and add more salt and Tabasco, if necessary. Stored in a clean jar with a film of olive oil on top, sauce can be refrigerated for up to a week. Let it return to room temperature before using.

Makes about 13/4 cups.

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