Tapas Delight, or Living in a Catalan Paradise

An average small tapas selection

An average small tapas selection

Although 10am is a perfectly acceptable time to start drinking in Spain, God help you if you try to get a drink at 4pm. That’s because Spain shuts down in the afternoon, or at least the eating and drinking part of it, in preparation for the nightly phantasmagorical sensory onslaught and debauch known as ‘dinner.’ Dinner can be pretty much anything you want, but for my part, the chief reason to eat in Spain is tapas, also known as pintxos in Basque country.

The rules of tapas are delightful and elegant. After around 8pm you enter a tapas bar and select a bunch of bite-sized morsels from the arsenal of choices spread across the bar (or written up on the chalkboard), and then you order a glass of wine. Not ordering a glass of wine will earn you frowns. You eat tapas and drink your wine, leave, and enter the next tapas bar down the street. Repeat until insensate, which occurs around midnight. At that point, the nightclubs start to open…

I never really had true tapas before. I have eaten at tapas restaurants in Australia and the US (Toro Bravo, in Portland, being the most notable) but there the experience is slightly different, since you tend to be sitting down and ordering from a menu. In other words, not really any different from any other restaurant except the portions are smaller. Also, tapas can be staggeringly simple, such as a piece of Iberian ham on a slice of baguette, which I suspect would not fly in the US. Jamon iberic0, of course, is so good you can buy it in little French fry-style cartons to eat by itself, but you have to go to Spain to discover that, because that’s where they sell it.

gazpacho

Boquerones, chorizo sausage, and mini-gazpacho

Boquerones are a very tender white anchovy, locally caught, that has been marinated in vinegar. The Basques are fiercely proud of their anchovies (but then the Basques are fiercely proud of pretty much anything remotely Basque). Like jamon, you really can just eat them on their own. And I must work on a gazpacho recipe next, because it’s so good it’s brutal.

chicken drum

Jamon served wrapped around sausage, and jamon served on its own. To repeat myself, Jamon iberico really is the finest ham in the world, made from black pigs fed only acorns, salted and dried by the winds of the Spanish sierra and all the rest. It does not bear much resemblance to other forms of ham, so I suppose it should not be compared. I will miss it. A lot. That’s a boquerone under the egg slice, by the way. Like jamon, they go with anything.

ham market

An example of how seriously the Spanish take their jamon. Honestly, jamon-tasting bars were a common sight.

morcilla

A fried quail’s egg on top of a slice of morcilla (blood sausage) on top of a slice of jamon on top of baguette. At the back, boquerones on top of jamon. Do you like anchovies and ham? Yes I like them, Sam I am!

razor clams

How’s this for breakfast? Pimentos Padron (fried green peppers), razor clams, patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy red sauce) and, of course, cafe con leche.

veal

Getting a bit fancier here – veal cheeks in wine, pig ears in chimichurri, and foie gras terrine. Hey, you only live once.

pan con tomate

And the opposite of fancy, what to my mind is one of the finest breakfasts in the world, pan con tomate.

Pan con Tomate

1 large tomato

2 slices good crusty bread

1 clove garlic, halved

good extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

salt, to taste

  1. Puree the tomato in a food processor or blender until mostly smooth. I don’t bother peeling it but I suppose you could.
  2. Toast the bread until browned and rub each slice with a garlic half (it’s easier if you don’t peel the garlic first).
  3. Top with tomato, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

10 comments to Tapas Delight, or Living in a Catalan Paradise

  • War Pig

    Huzzah! Glad to see some activity here after almost 6 months.

    Tapas is only really good in Spain as sushi is only really good in Japan. You have to have a few hundred years (or more) of history with it to get it right.

    Italians would put prosciutto against jamon, but I agree that jamon is better. I believe it is because of the acorn diet, although some I have heard feed their pigs on chestnuts, which would probably be equally good. So they have not yet made foi gras illegal? Good!

    Great photos as always.

    -WP

  • Muzhik

    @War Pig, how much do you want to bet Spain is where the Food Police go on vacations to experience “things” so they know WHY these things must be denied to the ordinary population? Kinda like those politicians during Prohibition, who would fly down to Miami to take those ocean liners down to Cuba to experience liquor and gambling.

    Glad to see activity on the site, again, and glad you enjoyed your Spanish getaway. We’ll make sure the Food Police don’t know you’ve snuck (sneaked?) back into the country and have taken up your radical activities again. (”Tapas? These are delicious! They must be UN-AMERICAN! What’s wrong with a saltine and a little Cheez Whiz sprayed on it? If you want fancy, put a slice of cut-up fried hot dog on top of that!”)

  • Hey now, I have a lot of time for a slice of hot dog on a saltine. Same sentiment.

  • @Warpig, I know next to nothing about the hams available in the far East Coast, but I’ve heard they are good. Tips?

  • War Pig

    Jamon iberico uses, as you said, a special black pig (pata negra)with black hooves and is fed on acorns, although some use chestnuts. The acorn-fed-only hams are additionally called Bellota iberico in the east (bellota is Spanish for acorn, by the way). The pigs which make these hams are descended from wild boar I was told and are free-range in oak forests to feast on acorns. The free range hams cost more than acorn-fed feedlot hams but are much better. Very sweet and as you mentioned, nutty and a deep ruby red in color as opposed to the pinkish meat of the prosciutto. The flavor is much better than prosciutto, but by Godfrey, they are expensive. For an entire bone-in bellota(15-16 pounds)you can expect to pay a thousand US dollars, while a decent, 16 pound, bone-in prosciutto will run you $250 or so.

  • War Pig

    PS: Small wonder that many Barcelona chefs pair bellota with black truffles, expensive cheeses and other very pricey ingredients, considering the price of the bellota. Or that it is shaved razor-thin. The flavor of the ham stands up to thin shaving, though.

  • I actually meant American hams, like Southern country hams. I know there is quite a tradition but I have no experience of them.

  • War Pig

    Sorry, I thought you were still talking Spain.

    Southern country hams are a lot different than what you’ll see in the deli case at your local grocery store unless it is an unusual supermarket. They are either cooked, smoked or dry aged. Get one that is actually smoked with real wood and smoke, not one with liquid smoke injected as part of the brine.

    They’re a lot cheaper, usually, than the European hams. The one I like is about $70.

    There are also different textures. Biscuit ham is a little moist but firm and is best sliced about baloney thickness and put on a biscuit, as the name infers. Give me a biscuit with an egg and a slice of ham on it and I’m in heaven for breakfast (or a late night snack).

    The dry aged hams like those in Kentucky or Tennessee are more like prosciutto. They can also be smoked a bit.

    There are sugar cured/cooked hams which are great for slicing and then frying in bacon fat. Some of the hams can be both sugar cured and smoked.

    Other than biscuit ham, my favorite is the traditional smoked ham. I have a thing for smoked meats, anyhow. There is one you can get over the internet I think that is my favorite. I drive down there to Tennessee and pick one out and bring it home usually once per year. It is hickory smoked and brown sugar cured. The one I like is aged a further 12 months over the usual 9 months. The flavor in this is quite strong, but that’s perfect when you want to shave it thin to showcase the ham. My favorite is this one:

    http://shop.bentonscountryham.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=awch

    When I go down I also pick up a pile of their hickory smoked country bacon. This bacon can be eaten like regular bacon, but I prefer to spread the flavor around and use it to flavor other dishes such as baked beans, or to wrap around a tenderloin medallion when grilling, or to lay across or incorporate into a thick, juicy home-burger fresh off the grill.

    One of my favorite burgers is to make the patty 3/4 pound precooked size with finely diced red onion and diced, smoked poblano pepper mixed into the ground chuck, grilled medium, then topped with pepperjack and Swiss and also shavings of the Benton’s ham or a strip or two of the bacon. Dab of Poupon mustard and a couple of zesty bread & butter pickle chips and I’m ready to eat it on an onion or pretzel bun.

  • Just curious, what do you use to slice the ham? Deli slicer, mandolin, sharp knife?

  • War Pig

    I chunk it off the bone-in ham with a very sharp boning knife then deli slice it with a small, home slicer. I’m not good enough with kitchen knives to slice it as thin as required by hand. As you know, sliced prosciutto is almost paper thin and this ham should be just as thin. For biscuit hams I slice it myself by hand with the boning knife or a chef’s knife if already off the bone. Biscuit ham is not sliced as thin – more like thick-cut bologna, about a quarter of an inch thick is best or even thicker if you like. I slice ham for ham steaks for frying between 1/2 and 3/4 inch thick. OBTW, the bones on the smoked and aged hams are superb for soups, stocks or in a pot of beans (my favorite use for them). After that, I saw the bones up into discs and give them to the dogs.