Spanish cuisine is all about flavor, but if you think that means "hot and spicy," take a closer look.
• Potatoes with Rosemary (Patatas Al Romero)
• Marinated Fish (Cazón En Adobo)
• Spicy Sizzling Prawns (Gambas Pil-Pil)
• Sautéed Clams (Almejas Salteadas)
• Thyme Soup (Sopa De Tomillo)
Once upon a time, I would look in the larder and wail, “We don’t have anything to eat.” Now I know better. After 20 years of living in Spain, I’ve learned the secrets of the Mediterranean diet and know that as long as I have plenty of olive oil, a head of garlic, and a handful of essential herbs and spices, I can conjure up dishes as delicious as they are healthful.
To understand how important herbs are in the Spanish kitchen, you need only see how they abound—in the countryside, in the shops, at market stalls. The butcher and greengrocer give away parsley as a matter of courtesy. Rosemary and thyme you easily can pick on the hillside, grow in your garden, or occasionally buy in bunches at the market. Bay leaves are sold on the branch. As for dried herbs and spices, every canny shopper knows that the best place for these is at an old-fashioned supply store, where, like rice, beans and other staples, they are still scooped up from tubs and giant cookie jars.
In Spanish cooking, almost all dishes require a generous pinch of chopped herbs or a dash of spice, but the resulting flavors are subtle and delicate, and only rarely blow-your-taste-buds-off hot.
Perejil is the most widely and abundantly used of all the hierbas aromáticas. This is always the flat (also known as Italian), not the curly, variety. It adds zip to grilled fish and meat, salads, and vegetable dishes with its bright color and taste.
Chopped parsley can be added at the last minute, as with mushrooms sizzled in garlic and white wine. For other dishes, the herb is pounded with other ingredients using a mortar and pestle to form a majado (a paste) or aderezo (dressing) to be added after cooking. One aderezo typically drizzled onto grilled fish and seafood, is made by blending chopped garlic and parsley in extra virgin olive oil. It’s fine to leave this sauce chunky; blend it for a smoother texture. Either way, the deep green mixture is buenísimo—very good indeed. It also is super-healthy, as parsley is an excellent source of vitamin C and other antioxidants.
Rosemary evokes the very essence of the Spanish countryside. With its needle-like leaves and violet-blue flowers, it spreads and blooms and pushes skyward, its pungency tempered by sweet-smelling lavender and not-quite-so-bitter thyme growing nearby. In my hodgepodge herb garden, it is the only plant that never runs down, that always needs cutting back, that the cats cannot flatten and destroy.
In Spanish cooking, rosemary is used judiciously to season chicken, game and lamb. Many restaurants convert the stripped twigs themselves into aromatic kebab sticks, and even the stove on which the meat is grilled may be fueled by rosemary wood. (Makes my nose twitch just thinking about it!) Then there is paella. The traditional Valencian paella is made with chicken, rabbit and haricot beans. This already delectable dish is more complex with the addition of a sprig or an infusion of rosemary while the rice is cooking. The rosemary does wonders for a purely vegetarian paella and is added to many potato- and vegetable-based stews.
Nothing grows in the rocky Mediterranean scrub quite like rosemary—except perhaps thyme. Hence the old saying: Romero y tomillo, en el campo lo pillo. “Rosemary and thyme, in the country you’ll find.” Like rosemary, this strong, sturdy plant has 1,001 uses in the Spanish kitchen. It is an essential seasoning for olives, and for flavoring oils and vinegars. Aromatic oils made by steeping thyme, rosemary, parsley and other herbs in extra virgin olive oil are excellent allies if you have high blood pressure and need to reduce your salt intake.
Long appreciated for its antibacterial and antiviral qualities, thyme is widely used in popular medicine, either in tisanes or inhaled in steam to alleviate coughs, sore throats and catarrh. Sometimes, medicine cabinet and cookbook coincide: My father-in-law used to swear by eating gallons of sopa de tomillo, or thyme soup (see recipe on Page 57), at the first hint of a cold.
When I rub a bay leaf to release its pungent aroma, I immediately think of the winter-warming lentil stew simmering away on my stove’s back burner. Spanish cooks use masses of bay—no country kitchen is complete without a branch of the leaves hanging somewhere. A leaf or two can be added to pasta and rice during cooking; can spice up an otherwise bland béchamel (white) sauce; and there are very few slow-cooked casseroles that do not require a hint of its sweet, spicy flavor. (See “Herb of the Year: Bay” on Page 38 for more information.)
Moths, however, are not so enamored of bay’s strong perfume. Drying your bay can do double duty—try drying branches of bay leaves in your clothes drawers and closets to keep away moths.
The esteem in which this aromatic herb is held is reflected in the popular saying: No todo el monte es orégano (“not all the hillside is oregano”). In other words, life isn’t always a bowl of cherries. To be honest, when I’m out and about, I rarely seem to spot its pale-purple flowers and soft clover-like leaves. It does quite well in my herb patch, though—when the cats will leave it in peace and the rosemary doesn’t crowd it out.
Like most of us, Spaniards use generous amounts of oregano in salads, tomato sauces, and cheese and egg dishes. A quick supper fix that I picked up from one of my 10 Spanish sisters-in-law (!) is simplicity itself: an omelette sprinkled with oregano and a little grated cheese. Try this with pan con tomate—bread rubbed with fresh tomato pulp and drizzled with olive oil—and your taste buds will think they’ve gone to heaven. Along with paprika, the versatile herb also is a key ingredient in marinades used to flavor bland, meaty fish, such as cod, pollock, swordfish and tuna.
Nothing adds color and depth to Spanish rice dishes, sausages and hot-pots like pimentón. It comes in two varieties, sweet and spicy. In English, we would think of these as paprika and cayenne pepper. Visit any market spice stall or delicatessen and see vast strings of garlic bulbs intercalated with corresponding strings of dried peppers (small and shriveled, the size of golf balls, the color of full-bodied wine). It is from these that mild paprika is made, the hotter variety deriving from crushed guindillas, or chiles. Paprika is used liberally and cayenne pepper sparingly, but with most recipes one can be partially substituted for the other, according to how hot you like your food.
One trick for jazzing up leftover vegetables and potatoes is to fry them lightly in olive oil, garlic and either sweet or spicy paprika or a mixture of the two.
Theresa O’Shea is a British freelance journalist who lives in the south of Spain—and adores Spanish cooking. She writes about all aspects of Spanish life for a number of international publications and is the co-author of In the Garlic: Your Informative, Fun Guide to Spain (Santana Books, 2007).
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