What’s the secret to great Spanish cooking?
To read a list of Spanish pantry staples is to feel instantly hungry. Extra-virgin olive oil, salt and sherry vinegar, as Andalusian master chef Dani García of Bibo in London points out, make an excellent gazpacho dressing, and are also the foundational trio of Spanish cuisine. To these, add aromatics: white onion (for sweetness), lots of garlic, pimentón (smoked paprika) and saffron, the latter both in moderation.
In terms of dry goods, Monika Linton, founder of Spanish delicatessen and tapas bar Brindisa, stocks her shelves with cans of tuna (for leaf or bean salads), anchovies (as a tapa and for cooking) and shellfish.She always cooks pulses from dry, but keeps emergency jars of cooked beans, too. And she recommends always having lots of (Mediterranean-sourced) nuts to hand – walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts and marcona almonds – for topping salads, rice dishes, veg, puddings, you name it.
Chef/owner of Paco Tapas and Casamia in Bristol, and executive chef at Decimo in London, Peter Sanchez-Iglesias, meanwhile, has two top tips. For proper pan con tomate, simply toast the bread, rub with garlic and squeeze on the tomatoes, rather than chopping them, before dressing with olive oil and salt. And for easy roast red peppers, blacken them directly over a flame, then wrap and leave to sweat for 10 minutes: the skins will then simply fall off, with no need for fiddly peeling.
A sofrito, meanwhile, is the primary base for many a Spanish meal. In Linton’s book The True Food of Spain, she warns that it is not a quick fix, nor does she advise using out-of-season tomatoes. Instead, make a big batch with the summer glut and preserve in sterilised jars. To make 600g, heat 50ml olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, add a large, finely diced, sweet white onion and cook gently for at least 30 minutes, until soft but not coloured. Grate in 1kg fresh tomatoes and cook down on a very low heat (use a diffuser, if you have one), stirring regularly, for at least 30-40 minutes and up to three hours, until you have a deep, thick, red sauce. Season with sugar and salt to taste, sieve and bottle, to freeze, or to refrigerate and use within a few days.
For Paco Martin Romano, chef at Tapa in Edinburgh, salsa española is another essential base. In a good olive oil, fry chopped onion, mushrooms and garlic, add a splash of Spanish brandy, then stir in a little flour to make a roux. Loosen with red wine and meat stock (or white wine and no mushrooms if using the sauce with fish), reduce, then blitz smooth; a vegetarian version is perfectly acceptable, too. Use with roast meat and as a base for paella and all manner of other rice dishes.
Romano also namechecks a third base sauce, also well suited to rice, salmorreta, which consists of garlic, parsley and tomatoes blitzed with rehydrated ñora peppers for extra punch. For paella, he slow cooks veg (bell peppers of all the colours, onions at a push, but cooked to get rid of all the water), then adds rice and toasts, moving it around constantly, before stirring in the salmorreta. Add two cups of stock per cup of rice, as well as a little more when you add pimentón, he advises, so it doesn’t catch and burn.
Where sofrito leads, picada finishes: much like pesto, it’s used to thicken sauces and stews, as well as to boost flavours. Ingredients vary, but usually combine a starch (roasted unsalted nuts, bread or biscuits, crushed) with an aromatic (saffron, herbs, peppercorns, chilli, ñora peppers, tomatoes, fresh peppers, garlic, even chocolate) and a liquid (olive oil, stock, wine).
And Marianna Leivaditaki, food writer and former head chef at Moro and Morito in London, suggests always having some frozen ibérico pork in the freezer and a bottle of manzanilla in the cupboard: both add great depth to seafood and chorizo dishes, especially. She also stresses that Spanish cooking is best when kept simple: good-quality meat or fish, oil and a strong vinegar are often all you need.