GUIDE TO THE SPANISH KITCHEN
& COOKING ARTICLE
the bay leaf to the tiniest strands of saffron, discover
what makes Spanish cuisine so special
and spices are derived from strong aromatic plants,
which have been cultivated for thousands of years to
add flavour and colour to our everyday cooking. Herbs
are usually the leaves of wild plants that grow locally,
but spices are considered the more exotic of the two
and tend to be imported from the Far East or the Old
herbs and spices we use in food preparation come from
a variety of plant parts, everything from the root or
bark to the flower or the seeds. You can often tell
where a dish has originated just by the aroma and taste
created by the use of spices or herbs, whether Mexican,
African, Indian or Mediterranean.
dishes benefit from the careful use of flavouring, be
it a pinch of salt or a few chilli peppers, and Spanish
cooking is no exception with almost every dish calling
for the use of a chopped herb here or a dash of spice
there. However, apart from the spicy chorizo or alioli,
we never describe Spanish food as being particularly
spicy and that is because the use of herbs and spices
in Spanish cuisine is subtle and it is the gentle hint
of flavouring that makes Spanish food so special.
in worldwide cooking, the Spanish use a mix of various
imported spices and homegrown herbs. Below we shall
discover the most commonly used herbs and spices in
Spanish cooking and which the Spanish kitchen should
never be without.
and spices: Paprika
most famous of Spanish spices has to be "pimentón"
or paprika. This ground capsicum pepper comes in both
the hot or "picante" variety and sweet or
"dulce." Apart from its strong flavour it
is widely used in Spanish cooking for its beautiful
deep red colour and can be seen in many dishes from
the traditional chorizo, to chicken dishes to the paella.
and spices: Cayenne
pepper famously used in Spain is the chilli or cayenne
pepper. The smaller ones, which are also the hottest,
are called "guindilla" and often only the
tip is used in traditional dishes. The larger, sweet
variety is called "ñoras" and is best
used dried and then soaked before cooking. You can see
a variety of these peppers hanging to dry on strings
in patios and on terraces from about August as they
make up an essential addition to the home curing of
chorizo and salchichon from about November during the
and spices: Garlic
or ajo, like its use in other Mediterranean cooking,
is one of the most important additions to Spanish food.
No Spanish kitchen should ever be without this essential
spice and impressive plaited strings can be seen at
markets and hanging in shop doorways. Garlic is used
in such a wide range of Spanish dishes: rubbed on toast
for breakfast, fried either whole or chopped, used to
stuff lamb or beef and of course it is the main ingredient
in the famous Spanish garlic mayonnaise "alioli"
and other famous dishes such as paella and gambas al
and spices: Saffron
paella should be without the Spanish spice saffron whose
sweet aroma and beautiful yellow colour really is the
essence of the Mediterranean. Saffron comes to us thanks
to the Moors and although grown in Spain it is a very
expensive spice due to its cultivation. Approximately
150 flowers are needed to make one gram of dried saffron
threads which is how this spice is usually sold.
and spices: Cinnamon
of the oldest known spices used widely in Spanish cooking
is cinnamon which comes from the brown bark of the cinnamon
tree and is earthy, warm and sweet in flavour. It can
be sold in sticks, which occur when the bark is dried
and rolls up, or in its ground form. Cinnamon is often
reminiscent of Christmas for many people but is used
widely in savoury and sweet dishes alike. Cinnamon also
makes an excellent natural insect repellent!
and spices: Cloves
used alongside cinnamon and nutmeg, cloves are also
an essential Spanish spice. They go into almost everything
in Spanish cooking from soups and stews, to sauces and
sweet dishes. They can be cooked whole or ground with
other spices such as black peppercorns. They are highly
aromatic and have a beautiful intense flavour so are
and spices: Nutmeg
with cloves, nutmeg is used widely in Spanish dishes
such as the famous Creme Catalan and other custard dishes.
It is also used in many chicken or potato dishes and
is essential for cheese sauces and is often used to
flavour Spanish style meatballs or "albondigas".
It can be used ground but freshly grated whole nutmeg
has the most flavour.
and spices: Vanilla
is the spice of sweet Spanish life. The "pod"
is more common than the bottled essence here and it
is hard to imagine any Spanish kitchen lacking in this
seductively enticing necessity. Cakes, ice creams, custards,
biscuits and pastries all benefit from this fragrant
addition, as do a few savoury dishes too.
homegrown herbs make up an important part of Spanish
cuisine, for adding colour and flavour and most of them
can be found growing on patios and in gardens across
the country. Some, such as parsley are used so commonly
that they are given away free in butchers or fishmongers.
and spices: Parsley
is added to just about every Spanish dish except sweets
and is indispensable. The typical variety in the Spanish
kitchen is the small flat leaved one. It is fresh, bright
and clean both in taste and in colour. It is used to
add colour to stuffing, to garnish soups, it goes into
salads, sauces and marinades and brightens up dressings,
meat and fish dishes.
and spices: Mint
next to parsley is the most widely used and favourite
of home grown herbs and as such is called the "good
weed" in Spanish. Unlike the UK when mint is used
with lamb, you will find it works really well with fish
in Spanish cooking and can also be found in gazpacho
and other tomato dishes. It is a great addition to the
patio, if you can control it and there is nothing better
than getting the cool scent of fresh mint on a summer's
evening. Its cool refreshing qualities make it ideal
to be added to bottled water (just a leaf or two) for
the perfect refreshment in the heat of the Spanish sun.
and spices: Basil
is considered to be the herb of the Mediterranean although
it is not widely used in typical Spanish dishes. Its
warm, sweet and mildly peppery flavour make it the perfect
accompaniment to tomato dishes and of course is the
essential ingredient is pesto sauce along with other
Spanish favourites, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil.
Basil is however an essential to the aromatic Spanish
kitchen and is found in pots on windowsills or on patios
where it is said to freshen the air. It is widely sold
at markets for this very reason.
and spices: Rosemary
is another intensely aromatic herb but unlike Basil
is used more frequently in Spanish cooking and as it
can be seen wild on mountainsides, it grows especially
well in Andalucian gardens. This lovely shrub has violet
flowers and is sweet and powerful both in flavour and
aroma. It is used to add interest to vinegars and marinades
and makes the perfect natural kebab stick, delicious
with pork, sausages and barbecued vegetables. It is
still sometimes used as fuel for bread ovens and wood
burning stoves and when it is put on the barbecue with
the coals, the most deliciously fragrant earthy smell
and spices: Thyme
has to be my favourite Spanish herb and many different
varieties can be seen growing wild and in Spanish gardens.
It has a very distinctive taste and smell and is a crucial
ingredient in Spanish cooking. It goes especially well
with garlic and lemon when preparing chicken and makes
up a fantastic marinade or stuffing. Thyme also is delicious
when cooked with rabbit, poultry and pork and can be
found in a variety of Spanish soups and stews. It is
still used traditionally in the home preparation of
olives and vinegars to create a hint of the mountains
and the wild Spanish countryside.
and spices: Sage
wild herb which makes a frequent appearance into the
Spanish kitchen is sage with its beautiful furry, silvery
leaf. Great with pork and like the UK is used to define
the perfect onion stuffing. It is also lovely with rice
and some vegetable dishes.
and spices: Oregano
considered to be mainly the Italian favourite, Oregano
is the essential Mediterranean herb. Of course no pizza
would be the same without a generous handful of this
delightfully flavoursome herb, but in Spanish cuisine
you will frequently find it in vinegar marinades, meat
casseroles, pickled vegetables and sometimes in salads.
and spices: Bay Leaf
to many stews and slow cooked casseroles is the noble
Bay leaf. Usually added whole to the dish or pot, this
bittersweet herb is popular for providing that little
bit of extra special something to most dishes. Makes
for a beautiful garden shrub too!
and spices: Tarragon
truly fine herb is Tarragon and as it grows really well
in poor soil and tolerates heat and drought, it is great
for certain areas of Andalucia where these types of
conditions are the norm. It is best used fresh and really
is very versatile. It adds the perfect hint of subtle
flavours to almost everything including egg dishes,
chicken and vegetables and is great in salads too.
and spices: Salt and Pepper
not only for Spanish cuisine, salt and pepper have to
be the king and queen of the spice world and indeed
no Spanish kitchen should ever be without. Pepper is
delicious in soup made from home grown pumpkins and
no tomato salad would be the same without a sprinkle
of salt before serving to allow the juices to thicken
slightly for the perfect and most simple summer dish.
gentle, time honoured way in which all of these herbs
and spices are used along with the quality of fresh
produce, almost always bought daily from local markets,
is really the true beauty of Spanish cooking. Daily
meals are still prepared by hand in the traditional
way and the subtle addition of either, imported or locally
grown herbs and spices create the true essence of Spanish
and written by Gayle Hartley
Copyright 2007 Orce Serrano Hams - www.orceserranohams.com
20 July 2007
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