Spanish ingredients guide
There’s a huge variety of these paprika-flavoured pork and pork-fat sausages available but whether the chorizo is raw or cooked when you purchase it is not an indication of flavour or quality. It will be obvious which you have purchased and, again obviously, you do have to cook the raw one first before eating! Simply fry it in a pan and serve as a sausage (great to add punch to your breakfast with tomatoes and eggs) or slice chorizo and add to braises and paella. There are many types of locally made chorizo on the market as well as imported ones.
Jamon Iberico (also called pata negra) is a cured ham made from black Iberian pigs. There are a number of different categories but the ultimate one is the pricy Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. This ham is cured for 36 months and gets its name from the acorn. The pigs graze free range, one pig to a hectare, and are fattened on acorns. The result is a sweet, nutty meat. Too expensive to cook with, serve thin slices of the Iberico de Bellota on a platter with a few marcona almonds and some lavosh bread. It’s made to savour. Then there’s Serrano jamon, made from white pigs. Air-dried, it, too, can be served in thin slices but because it is cheaper is also suitable for cooking. Italian prosciutto can be used as a substitute.
Spain’s best-known cheese is made from ewe’s milk. Serve it in thin slices with a sherry, a few olives and slices of jamon. It goes beautifully with Garrotxa quince paste. Aged manchego is yellow and crumbly and is suitable for grating. Buy manchego from supermarkets and at specialty stores. Although not quite the same, pecorino Romano can be substituted for the aged manchego or try a local ewe’s milk cheese, such as Nelson’s Neudorf Richmond Red, as a substitute.
Octopus and squid (see listing below) are everyday items on Spanish menus and both are cooked widely at home, too. Fresh whole octopuses are available from the Auckland Fish Market but pre-frozen, pre-prepared octopus - the whole tentacles or the sliced meat - can be found at good Asian food stores. Pre-freezing helps with the tenderisation process so is only a good thing where octopus and squid are concerned.
If you want to prepare your own whole fresh octopus, you will need to clean out the head (should you intend not wasting that part), washing away the ink and removing the beak. Then you will need to cut off the tentacles. Chef Mark Dronjak, who teaches classes at the market's seafood school, says tenderising is the key to preparing octopus and to do that he recommends boiling the whole cleaned tentacles and head, cut into smaller pieces, in a pot on a fast simmer for an hour. Mark uses a good amount of iodised flaky sea salt in the water, lemon halves to flavour and 1/2 cup of white vinegar to help bleach the flesh, along with a couple of bay leaves. After simmering, rinse in cold water to refresh, coating your hands in salt and working over the flesh to remove any traces of skin or any serrated calcium rings still adhering to the tentacles.A good sized octopus will feed between four and eight people. Lay it out on a board after boiling and cleaning and then cut accordingly. Mark cuts the head 'Asian style' on an angle to be barbecued or used in pasta dishes. The tentacles can be cut or used whole.
Frozen octopus, which has been pre-prepared, can be cut while still frozen with a sharp knife.Whether bought pre-frozen or boiled from fresh yourself, the large tentacles are great barbecued. "I dry them off and then, for Spanish flavours, coat them with a mix of Spanish olive oil, smoked paprika, garlic, a few chilli flakes, a little rosemary and sage [Mark uses a lot of sage in Spanish dishes], lemon zest and juice. The smoked paprika helps bind the flavours. Roll the tentacles in there and let it sit for 15-20 minutes, then barbecue."
Milder than many of our local varieties, Spanish olive oils complement the country’s cuisine. Look for the smooth arbequina oils.
Calasparra or bomba… the choice between these two authentic paella rices is yours. Which one is best is the subject of an absorbing argument that divides aficionados. Both rices are short-grained and Spanish. Calasparra grows slowly so is extremely dehydrated, ready to suck up your sauce. While bomba absorbs three times more liquid than normal rice, it maintains its al dente texture. Perhaps the final word should come from Sabato: Bomba rice is difficult to overcook, making it a great choice for busy kitchens or for those making paella for the first time.
Although chillies, these 7cm-long peppers are sweet rather than hot. They are roasted over embers, peeled and de-seeded then sold in jars or tins. Available from supermarkets or specialty stores such as Sabato. Whole ones are often stuffed with meat, such as crumbled chorizo, or with seafood or cheese, and are served as tapas. Sliced piquillo peppers are good blended into sauces.
An essential in paella, saffron threads are handpicked from the centre of the crocus flower, bringing colour and a musty, hay-like flavour to the dish. A little goes a long way; use about 8-12 threads per meal. And bear in mind that saffron’s flavour intensifies in a dish the second day. When buying, look for deep red saffron. Heat releases saffron's flavour so it needs to be steeped in hot (but not boiling) water, broth, or even alcohol before being added to food. For every teaspoon of saffron, add three teaspoons of liquid. Let the saffron soak for a minimum of two hours for optimum flavour or for as long as 12 hours. Saffron can also be toasted in a heavy pan over low heat. Be careful not to let it burn or it will be useless. Grind threads into a powder and use as directed in the recipe. From supermarkets or specialty food stores.
Salt cod or bacalao
Bacalao (or salted cod) is an important Spanish ingredient that’s used in myriad ways, from delicious potato mashes to fish cakes to bean dishes. Norwegian salt cod is imported into New Zealand by Mercato in Christchurch and by Euro-Dell in Auckland. Don’t be put off by first appearances: it looks like old leather and needs to be de-salted and rehydrated before use. To do this the fish should be soaked in cold water for 24-36 hours, changing the water three-four times. Then it’s ready for your dish. Fortunately, it can also be home salted. Buy blue cod and give it a go yourself. You will find recipes online.
In New Zealand, fresh sardines are available from select fish markets and tend to be larger than those sold in the Mediterranean so should be treated as you would prepare piper. Gut them and remove the heads. Dip in flour and fry in olive oil with a little salt, pepper and garlic. Serve with aioli. Or butterfly and grill and serve with a squeeze of lemon. Look, too, for good-quality Spanish tinned sardines.
Sherry vinegar (vinaigre de Jerez)
This vinegar is made from palomino grapes. To be called vinaigre de Jerez it must come from the Jerez region, be aged in American oak barrels for a minimum of six months and have a minimum of 7% acidity. It is used to enhance soups, stews, sauces, casseroles and dressings.
Smoked paprika is made from small cherry peppers that are smoked over oak. In New Zealand we are most familiar with the Dulce (sweet) variety but there’s also Agridulce (bittersweet and the most traditional) and Picante (spicy). Forget the ‘chilli’ connotation. None is fiery but the three come in varying depths of smoky spiciness. The varieties can be used interchangeably in paellas and are also essentials in meat, cheese, bean and the cod dishes of the north.
If you want to add even more smoky intensity to your Spanish dishes, try adding a few dried, oak-smoked nora peppers. Available from specialty stores (look for La Chinata brand), these small peppers, a cultivar of the capsicum, can be added directly to rice and fish dishes and sauces or they can be rehydrated with water. Scrape out and use the softened flesh and discard the stems and seeds. Jacqui Dixon from Sabato advises using two to three nora peppers to a six-person paella.
In New Zealand, March is prime time for fresh arrow squid. As well as the already cleaned tubes, whole squid can be bought from fish markets. If you are fishing from a jetty at night, you could even have a go at catching your own. It can be a bit messy, however, when the just-caught squid decides to release its ink! Nevertheless buying or catching and preparing whole squid (or squid tubes for that matter) should not be feared. Squid is mildly flavoured, delicious and an economical choice.
To prepare whole squid, hold the squid tail in one hand and the head in the other. Twist and firmly pull apart. The head and innards should easily slip out of the body. The head is discarded but the tentacles can be used along with the squid tube which should be washed and the quill (bone) and skin removed. The black ink can be kept to flavour and colour Spanish rice dishes (see above). You will find the ink sac in the innards. It looks like a black vein, and it is easily removed with your fingernail. Simply puncture the ink sac and squeeze it into a tablespoon of wine or cooking liquid. Be sure, though, to wear gloves. The ink is very black! Tiny amounts of squid ink are also located behind the eyes.
Pre-frozen squid tubes make life easy. From the fish market or at your supermarket, the tubes are sold frozen. A bonus, the freezing helps makes the squid tenderer so it’s harder to overcook. As for whole squid, you may need to remove the quill if it’s there (simply pull it out from inside the tube). Bags of pre-frozen squid tubes are usually already peeled. Check first. Skin left on makes things chewy. Should you opt for small tubes or the larger ones? Auckland Seafood School chef Mark Dronjak says it doesn’t really matter. When buying frozen, he advises defrosting quickly under a cold, running tap. “You need to put your finger in there to open up the ring and you need to feel for the quill. When scoring squid, always score the inside not the outside.
”The key to tender squid is to cook it very quickly at high heat – between 30 seconds and two minutes. Alternatively, cook squid slowly for at least half an hour, roasting or baking it.
Although it may not be needed with most pre-frozen tubes, squid flesh can be tenderised by pounding it with a food mallet or immersing it in a liquid that contains the enzymes needed to break down protein such as milk, buttermilk, the juice of green pawpaw, pineapple or kiwifruit. Or try soaking the tubes in soda water for around 20 minutes before drying and frying. Works a treat! Do be careful not to tenderise for too long or you will get a mushy texture.
Squid ink is sold in sachets from specialty food stores (Sabato also has it in jars), it brings a subtle, briny taste and lots of colour to pastas and sauces. Try wowing guests with your own arroz negro (black rice and squid). Jacqui Dixon from Sabato recommends using two squid ink sachets in a dish for six to eight people.