If you are going to make Spanish food a part of your entertaining repertoire, you will want to explore and familiarize yourself with the following nine ingredients or food products that are synonymous with Iberian gastronomy and which should be part of any Spanish pantry.
- Azafrán or a saffron thread is the stigma of the purple crocus flower. Each flower has only three stigmas. Because they are delicate, the stigma must be handpicked and then dried. Usually it takes 14,000 stigmas to produce one ounce of saffron, which explains why saffron is considered the most expensive spice in the world. In food, it is used both for flavor and color. In Spanish cuisine in particular, it is one of the key ingredients in Paella, the slowed cook rice dish often made with seafood and/or chicken, considered to be Spain’s national dish.
- Pimentón or smoked Spanish paprika is a powder made from different varieties of the Capiscum annum pepper. The peppers are harvested in the fall and then placed in a drying house where they are smoked-dried with oakwood for a period of two weeks. Each day, the pepper farmers go into the drying house to turn over the peppers. At the end of the drying period, the peppers are then milled and finely ground into a powder. Depending on which type of pepper is used, pimentón can bedulce (sweet and mild), agridulce (bittersweet and medium hot) or picante (hot). Pimentón is used to make chorizo, prepare authentic paellas, and in dishes where you want a deep, woodsy flavor. Pimentón is different from Hungarian paprika in that the peppers for the latter are air-dried and not smoked-dried.
Vegetables, fruits and nuts
- Pimientos de Piquillo or Piquillo peppers are delicate peppers that are slightly sweet and have no heat. They are about three inches long and derive their name from the pointed tip that resembles a “small beak” in Spanish. They grow predominantly in the Navarra region but have become popular throughout Spain and beyond. The harvest takes place in either September or December but because they are invariably preserved in brine, they are available as a shelf stable item all year long. The peppers are handpicked and roasted over coals and then peeled and de-seeded by hand before being packed in jars. Piquillos are frequently stuffed with seafood or meat and served as tapas in small cazuelas or plates.
- Membrillo - Quince is a Mediterranean fruit recorded back to Medieval times that is the European predecessor to the apple and is somewhat of a hybrid between an apple and a pear. Due to its dry flesh and astringent tart flavor, it is better consumed cooked than raw. Given that it is also high in pectin, in Spain, it is traditionally used to make dulce de membrillo, or quince paste whichgoes very well with a variety of cheeses and in particular with Manchego cheese.
- The wide, flat Marcona almonds are crunchy with an incomparably sweet delicate taste. Grown predominantly in the Catalonia region, these almonds tend to have a higher fat content than other varieties. They can be purchased raw and blanched (without skins) or fried in olive oil and salted. They are commonly eaten at bars along with drinks as well as used to make sauces, soups, and a variety of desserts.
- Jamón Serrano is a ham that comes from the hind leg of white Spanish pigs and dry-cured for 7 to 13 months. It has a deep salty flavor and a firm texture. In Spanish gastronomy, it can be eaten by itself, to make infamous montaditos (small bites stacked on small pieces of bread) or used to enhance soups and entrees such as trout, chicken and egg dishes.
- Manchego cheese is a rich, golden, semi firm sheep’s milk cheese originating from La Mancha. Aged at least three months, the flavor profile is buttery yet somewhat sharp and tangy. Manchego is often eaten as a tapa before a meal or it can be the filling of a bocadillo or sandwich.
- Spanish chorizo is a highly seasoned sausage made with coarsely ground, smoked pork and flavored with garlic, pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika, see above), and other spices. It is frequently added to casseroles, stews and soups for a more robust flavor.
- Unto is pork fat preserved in salt. It gives Caldo Gallego (a white bean and kale soup) its characteristic meaty flavor along with a buttery mouth feel. Unto can be found in Spanish or Latin grocery stores. If you cannot find unto, you can substitute equal amounts of fatback or pork belly.