How to create the cuisine of colorful Catalonia
By Chris Utterback
Catalonia cries for independence. Centuries of bad blood and ill feelings between this, Spain’s eastern most province, and the Madrid government have fueled a latter-day secession movement. Millions have demonstrated in the streets, and a recent poll conducted by the Catalan Survey Center shows that 54.7 percent of Catalans support independence from Spain. There’s a word in Catalan for this kind of fierce spirit: rauxa, which translates very loosely to “uncontrolled passion.”
It should come as no surprise that Catalan cuisine is as iconoclastic and vibrant as the cultural identity that Catalans so fervently protect. As with most of the country, there is a reliance on cured meats, cheese, wine and deep-fried things, but a tendency toward more seafood, salads and vegetables. Compared to the meat-and-potatoes food of Madrid and the fish obsession on the Costa del Sol, Catalan meals are refreshing—if sometimes dizzyingly complex.
What sets Catalonia’s cuisine apart from Spain? “I would say the ingredients… and the traditions they have,” says Curt Steinbecker, Executive Chef at Ondo’s Spanish Tapas Bar in Cherry Creek, CO. “They pull these big onions out of the ground in spring—called ‘calcots’—and roast them. You can’t find that anywhere else in Spain.”
Also unsurprising, Catalonia is home to some of the best restaurants in the world, including Ferran Adriá’s legendary (and recently closed) El Bulli, and El Celler de Can Roca, which currently sits at the number two spot on the list of the world’s best restaurants. If you want to wow friends, family, and prospective lovers with your knowledge of Spain’s most iconoclastic cuisine, Chef Joan Roca’s Ebook, “Roots: Essential Catalan Cuisine According to El Celler de Can Roca” ($9.99, Librooks Barcelona) is a great place to start.
Don’t expect to be serving jellied Cava wine and eucalyptus ice cream like Joan Roca when you pick up this cookbook. The items here are the basics of any good Catalan kitchen, from the festival dishes like stuffed squid to peasant mainstays like ‘scalded’ soup that takes advantage of old bread. “Home cooking has never been sophisticated,” Roca writes. “It’s a cuisine based on ingredients, made from whatever is available locally at any given moment.”
The following recipes come from Roca’s tome, with tweaks here and there to accommodate ingredients that may be tough to track down at your neighborhood supermarket.
Les Básiques (The Basics)
Not all the classic Catalan ingredients are readily available here in Denver—just try asking for a calcot at King Soopers—but your first stop should be the EVOO Marketplace in LoDo, where you can find high-quality extra-virgin olive oils, like the Spanish Castile variety ($17.95), and a killer 25-year-old Sherry vinegar ($12.95) that’s worth every penny. Those will come in handy later.
And no Spanish meal is complete without wine. For the following recipes, a nice, crisp Cava is in order. Spain’s answer to Champagne, Cavas are usually intensely fruity and varyingly sharp. A popular bodega in Catalunya is Segura Viudas, which offers several different wines for under ten bucks. Boulder’s Liquor Mart often has a couple Cava varieties on sale as well.
El Entremès (The Starter)
Baby broad bean salad with mint
About three pounds broad beans (Fava beans)
1 small head of lettuce
Spinach to taste
About 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon mustard
A dash of wine vinegar (Preferably Sherry or red wine)
Iberian Ham (Jamon Iberico), thinly sliced, or pancetta, or salami
Salt to taste
According to Roca, this salad “was created by the mythical Josep Mercader at the Motel Empordá restaurant in Figueres and it can now be found in many restaurant menus and even private homes by mid-spring.”
This salad makes good use of the infamous “Jamon Iberico,” a meat renowned the world over for its subtle, yet rich flavor and decadent aroma. Your best bet is Marczyk Fine Foods in Denver, which can get it for you on special order, or at the nearby Truffle Cheese Shop. You can also order genuine Iberico from LaTienda.com—though it doesn’t come cheap. Depending on the flavor you want to go with, tossing in some freshly crisped pancetta will add brine and delicious fat to this salad, while a fine salami will preserve the cool, spring flavor.
Peel the fava beans. Heat a pot of water with a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Cook the beans for only a few minutes, leaving them undercooked. Transfer to a container full of ice water to interrupt the cooking process and drain well. Wash and chop the spinach and lettuce. Make the vinaigrette by whisking together the mustard, oil, salt and finely chopped mint. Toss greens and vinaigrette.
Historically, tapas have been decried in Catalonia as food for Castilian imperialists, but they’ve made a comeback in recent years as chefs like Adriá have embraced them. This salad makes for great tapas, just serve it on small plates and top with slices of jamon.
El Plat Principal (The Main Course)
Lamb shoulder with broken allioli
1 lamb shoulder
1 garlic head
1 sweet onion, chopped
4 slices raw bacon, chopped
2 red tomatoes, chopped
1 bay leaf
Sweet or bittersweet pimentón (paprika)
Allioli is one of the foundations of Spanish cuisine. A cousin of mayonnaise, another Spanish invention, allioli is the glue that holds together the rustic compositions of the countryside and the nouveau cuisine of the metropolis. It’s just garlic, salt and olive oil, not garlicky mayonnaise like the French aioli. It’s poured over street sandwiches, complements the classic Spanish tortilla, and, in this case, adds flavor to a good cut of lamb.
Allioli is tough for the first-timer to keep together, so follow the directions of the New York Times’ food contributor Edward Schneider: “I put three big, juicy, oily cloves of this season’s garlic into a container along with half a cup of olive oil and a big pinch of salt, and I obliterated this with an immersion blender, forming an emulsion that lasted longer than the eight nanoseconds that a mortar-and-pestle allioli tends to hold.” Thankfully, the allioli in this dish is intentionally broken. Again, if you can’t find a good lamb shoulder at your neighborhood market, head to Marczyk.
“Oven roasting lamb meat might be the easiest way to cook it, but not necessarily the least tasty,” Roca writes. Peel potatoes and cut into half-inch slices. Arrange on baking tray and add salt. Season your lamb shoulder with salt and pepper, and if you like, season it with a few dashes of pimenton to add kick. Add the bacon, onion, and tomato to the baking tray. Make a few incisions in the lamb, top with bay leaf, splash with olive oil and stick it in the oven on top of the potatoes and the rest to roast for one and one half hours at 350 degrees. When it’s half done, turn the shoulder and add a splash of water or stock.
Now it’s time for the allioli. Remove any germ from the garlic and crush it in a food processor, or use an immersion blender or mortar and pestle. When it becomes a paste, add olive oil and stir. After the roast comes out of the oven, add a few tablespoons of allioli and serve.
Les Postres (Dessert)
Torradetes de Santa Teresa
About a half-loaf of bread (Around 12 baguette-sized slices)
Half a gallon of whole milk
1 cinnamon stick
Olive oil (preferably non-extra virgin or canola oil)
Steinbecker makes a version of this for his dessert menu (In Castilian Spanish, they’re called “torrijas”). He serves them caramelized with vanilla ice cream, but Sweet Action’s Horchata ice cream plays well with the cinnamon in the torradetes. And yes, this is basically French toast, but in Catalonia it’s more commonly eaten for dessert. The best part of this dish is the versatility; dump whatever you like on it and it’s still fantastic.
Wash and zest lemon. Beat egg yolks. Bring milk to a boil with cinnamon and lemon zest. When it starts to boil, remove from heat and let stand. After the milk has cooled a little bit, dip the slices into the scented milk. Then toss slices in the eggs with a pinch of sugar, and fry them in very hot olive oil. Sprinkle sugar – and whatever else you like on top – and serve.