It has been a while since my first of “Adventures in Cooking” blog, but I finally took some time this past week to create a few new recipes. This time, the theme was Spanish, inspired by a recent trip to one of my favourite restaurants, Columbia Restaurant (http://www.columbiarestaurant.com). This place holds a lot of meaning and special memories for me, as my husband and I have been there several times, and it was where we went for dinner the night he proposed (aww…).
I love Spanish food. It can be tough finding recipes that my husband and I can eat, since I’m vegetarian and he has Celiac, but we managed to eat really well on our “Spanish” night. If you’re familiar with Spanish cooking then you know that it is generally pretty heavy (rich and very high in calories…cheese, olives, meats) – and although perfectly ok for a treat, if we are planning to include a taste of Spain in our meals on a regular basis, we need to make some adjustments (I share some ideas for healthy tweaks a bit later in this blog). But first, let’s look at some healthy ingredients of Spanish cooking:
Spanish cooking would not be the same without olive oil. Did you know that Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world, a tradition that is over 3,000 years old? This important element of the Mediterranean diet serves many purposes in Spanish cooking, and it used for everything from salad dressing, to dipping bread, to even being a part of desserts. Olive oil ranges in quality; for the highest quality and most health benefits, look for cold-pressed extra-virgin.
Tip: When buying olive oil, look for a brand that uses coloured glass – this will help to keep the oil from turning rancid by filtering out light. Store the oil in a dark space, and try to use it within 4 months. The many health benefits of olive oil quickly disappear when the oil turns.
Of course, good oil comes from good olives. Spain is the world’s largest producer of olives and olive oil. There are many varieties to choose from (such as manzanilla and arbequina), each with their own qualities. Olives make a very easy tapas dish, as you can see from my recipes, add a little marinating and some herbs and olives are really tasty. Olives are very rich in antioxidants, with health benefits ranging from fighting inflammation to reducing the growth of unwanted microorganisms. Olives are a little high in fat (a serving of manzanilla olives is about 5 olives and contains 20 calories and about 2 grams of fat), but by limiting yourself to one or two portions, you can include olives in your meal planning. Most of the fat found in olive is the unsaturated kind and supports the health of your brain and heart. When buying olives, look for brands that are packed in olive oil rather than in vinegar, and rinse them in cool water before including them in your recipes.
The use of saffron dates back over 3,500 years. Now an essential part of Spanish cuisine, saffron is thought to be originally from Persia. This delicate spice is carefully extracted from a type of crocus plant, and is known to be the most expensive spice on earth (the highest-quality saffron can be more expensive than gold by weight). The stigma must be handpicked and it takes a lot of stigmas (200-500) to make 1 gram of saffron which explains why it is so expensive. When used in cooking it gives food a rich crimson color and a sweet, somewhat grassy flavor. In Spanish cooking, it is often added to paella recipes as well as stews, soups and sauces of all kinds.
Tip: Saffron has a unique taste and some chefs feel that there really is no substitute for the real thing. However, ground turmeric, also known as Indian saffron, can be used. Turmeric is a very healthy addition to any recipe. If the dish that you are preparing has a subtle taste, go light with turmeric as its can have a slightly pungent taste which can overwhelm.
Peppers and paprika
Another spice that is well-known for its use in Spanish cooking is paprika. Much easier to find that saffron (and more affordable!), there are three broad types of Spanish paprika: dulce (mild and sweet), agridulce (slightly bitter and with a bit of heat), and picante (spicy hot). Smoked paprika is a special kind of paprika produced in La Vera region of Spain where farmers dry and smoke the chilis over wood fires. This is great for adding a depth of flavor to dishes.
Two very different peppers are typically used in Spanish recipes. The piquillo pepper is a sweet variety of chili, has no heat and is about 7 cm long. Its name means “little beak” in Spanish, and it is traditionally found growing in pots, in Northern Spain near the town of Lodosa. These fleshy red peppers are harvested and roasted over wood smoke before being peeled and packed. Another variety of peppers used in Spanish cooking are Pimientos de Padrón. These are also small peppers (about 5 cm long), that range in colour from bright green to yellowish green, and occasionally red. While their taste is usually mild, a small percentage (10-25%) are particularly hot (although I haven’t tried them personally, I hear they are v-e-r-y hot). Whether a given pepper ends up being hot or mild depends on its growing conditions (the amount of water and sunlight it receives during its growth, as well as temperature).
Referred to as “ajo” in Spanish, garlic is a common ingredient in most European cooking. It is useful for adding flavor to sauces, soups and tapas along with a variety of appetizers in Spanish cuisine. Garlic contains sulfur compounds that are essential for supporting the liver and activating liver enzymes that are responsible for flushing out toxins and waste from the body. Garlic contains the compound allicin that has potent antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Tomatoes, Potatoes and Onions
While Spanish cooking may not be as vegetable-friendly as some, many dishes do focus on produce such as zucchini, eggplant, asparagus, tomatoes, potatoes and onions. One of my favourite recipe, Patatas Bravas, is a great example of a popular Spanish vegetable dish.
Of course, other ingredients are often included in Spanish cooking, such as chorizo (dry-cured sausage), Jamón Iberico (ham), manchego cheese, and many different types of seafood. For my Spanish night, I focussed on plant-based recipes.
Stay tuned for part 2, where I share the recipes we tried and the healthy tweaks we made to the recipes!
Sources: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2771684/; http://www.saffronspices.co.uk/content/16-saffron-history; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21179340/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19079898