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Spanish dinner

Great dishes to celebrate the gastronomy of Spain

I have been fortunate to have had two opportunities to live in Spain during my 35-year career in hospitality.  I spent close to three years in Barcelona, immediately prior to the Summer Olympics of 1992, and delighted in the gastronomy of Catalunya (aka Catalonia in English and Cataluña in Spanish).  It was in Sitges, a resort town outside Barcelona, where I became hooked on chicken roasted over a spit.  The vendor was on a popular pedestrian street and sold only roast chicken and French fries, which I carried away in white paper and ate on the beach overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.


My second posting was in Madrid in the early 2000s.  You can get any type of food in Spain’s capital city but there is an emphasis on fresh fish and seafood and Madrid’s restaurants get some of the best from around the country.  You can also count on finding great grill restaurants that specialize in massive grilled ribeye (chuletón de buey), roasted goat (cabrito) and suckling pig (cochinillo).  Alternatively, you can stroll the old neighborhoods sampling small plate specialties, or tapas, and make a meal out of three or four stops (called a tapeo, or tapa hopping).


One of our favorite stops on our Madrid tapeo was at a famous location for gambas al ajillo, called ‘El Abuelo’.  Like many tapa bars in Madrid, ‘El Abuelo’ specialized in only one thing, an appetizer dish comprising shrimp grilled in garlic, oil and chili pepper.  I would argue that it is among the best in the city.

gambas al ajillo

When we cook our version of this at home, it is in my favorite Calphalon frying pan, quickly and at a very hot temperature.  But we add sweet Spanish paprika to the dish and serve it in a cazuela, or typical ceramic dish, as they do in ‘El Abuelo’.  Our version does not come anywhere close to theirs, but we pair it with a less rustic Spanish vino (either a Rioja or a Penedès wine).


The thing about continental Spain is that it comprises 15 Autonomous Communities, each with their own distinct heritage and culture which influences the gastronomy of that region.  This makes it difficult to pigeonhole any one dish as emblematic of the country overall.  If you had to identify one dish, it would be paella.  But to do a paella properly requires a huge circular pan over a large open flame.  So, we resort to a risotto style dish combining seafood and rice, or one featuring squid in its own ink.

black rice

A favorite restaurant in Barcelona, Sete Portes, features a paella dish based on this called arroz negro, or black rice.  We have adapted that concept as a risotto dish in which the risotto is cooked traditionally in wine and a seafood stock, then finished in squid ink and covered with sauteed squid.

authentic Crema Catalana

Our favorite Spanish dessert is a fond remembrance of our time in Barcelona.  Crema Catalana is lighter than its French counterpart, Crème brûlée, because it uses milk instead of heavy cream.  This Spanish custard is flavored with citrus and cinnamon, which adds a toasty flavor to the sugary caramelized top.  We would almost certainly pair this dessert with a Catalan sparkling wine, or cava, such as Juvé y Camps Reserva de la Familia.


Que aproveche!

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