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Fresh, colourful, delicious and healthy, Spanish food has a lot going for it. It’s also very adaptable and easy to make, since most Spanish dishes rely on the great natural flavour of fresh ingredients simply prepared, rather than fancy cooking techniques. The quality of things such as olive oil and spices is paramount, too. After all, flavour is everything – and who could argue with that? Whether you’re living in Spain or not, we could all use a little Spanish inspiration in our own kitchens. So here’s our essential list of ingredients no self-respecting Spanish cook would be seen without.
Since this staple is used in every Spanish dish you can think of, it’s the most important ingredient in the kitchen and you want to make sure it’s the best quality. Every Spanish kitchen will have a big bottle (at least one litre) of extra virgin olive oil to hand, plus usually a couple of smaller bottles of extra virgin olive oils for salad dressings and the like. Spanish shops stock a bewildering array of olive oils, but the choice is simple enough: go for extra virgin first cold press and look for an oil with a fairly dark green colour. It doesn’t need to be expensive, but it is worth buying the best oil you can find within your budget. Skip any bottles labelled ‘blended’ or ‘light’, as they won’t have much flavour and, because those terms are unregulated, you can’t be sure of the quality.
Red peppers or pimientos are used in many different Spanish dishes; there’s an endless number of recipes for peppers stuffed with different combinations of fish, meat and vegetables. A lot of recipes also call for paprika, or pimento, made by drying the peppers and grinding them into a fine powder. Spanish pimienton is such a prized ingredient in its cuisine that there are not one but two Denominations of Origin for paprika in Spain. Spanish Paprika can be sweet or spicy, smoked or not. Sweet Spanish paprika, used in lots of recipes including the original Valencian paella, can be found outside of Spain in upscale supermarkets and Spanish speciality food stores. It’s worth seeking out the real thing because, as any local will tell you, using inferior paprika will affect the flavour of your dish.
Another ingredient used almost constantly in a Spanish kitchen. And again, you can’t just buy any old garlic. (Are you noticing a pattern here?) If possible, bypass the small, white bulbs usually imported to Europe from China and try to seek out something local. In Spain, that would be the fat, purple-tinged cloves grown locally and other parts of Europe. Because – flavour.
Parsley is used so much in Spanish cooking that many butchers and grocers in Spain actually give it away for free with your purchases. You need the flat-leaf (sometimes called Italan) type, not the one with curly leaves. If your parsley starts to wilt in the fridge, trim the stems and place in a glass of water in the fridge for an hour to liven it up.
Rosemary is used to flavour paella, among many other dishes, and is one of the most-used herbs in Spain alongside thyme and oregano. Even the smallest balcony or terrace in Spain is used to grow a pot or two of these fresh herbs.
Saffron is the spice that gives paella rice a golden yellow hue. It’s the most expensive spice in the world – but it’s actually a lot cheaper in Spain. Still, most household kitchens stock a much cheaper alternative, an orangey-yellow food colouring called colorante. Whatever you do, don’t use turmeric to colour your Spanish dish, as it will just taste wrong.
Go out and buy a couple of bottles of rioja (red and white), because you’re going to need a good splash of either one for cooking a lot of typical Spanish dishes. And of course, no Spanish dinner would be complete without a good glass of wine to go with it.
In Spain, tomatoes come in all kinds of shapes, colours and sizes. Many Spanish recipes call for either tinned or fresh tomatoes, and the Spanish have a unique way of preparing the fresh ones that brings out the flavour: they grate, rather than chop, tomatoes before adding to soups, stews or paella. You can also mix the grated tomato with with olive oil and sea salt and spread on top of a slice of toasted baguette for a traditional breakfast.
You’ll need at least half a dozen large eggs on hand – many recipes for Spanish desserts, such as flans, require at least two eggs. You’ll need even more if you’re planning to make a tortilla de patata for four, which takes five or six eggs by itself. And of course, they need to be as fresh as fresh can be. It’s very common for any Spanish family with a country house to keep a few chickens around.
You’ll need these for the tortilla, and countless other Spanish soups, stews, casseroles and side dishes.
Every Spanish kitchen has cupboards stocked with a few white onions, the last ingredient in the tortilla de patata, and also used in a huge number of other Spanish main courses and side dishes. There might also be a couple of red onions kept on hand for salads, since they have a milder, sweeter flavour.
This might not be the case in every corner of Spain, but certainly in the south you’ll find oranges and tangerines growing everywhere and you’ll see people snacking on them at any time of day. At certain times of year there’s such an abundance that it costs next to nothing at the market, and friends, neighbours and colleagues will be giving you boxes of fruit in an attempt to get rid of the glut from their gardens. Unsurprisingly, oranges are used in an awful lot of dessert recipes, and freshly-squeezed orange juice is an integral part of a good breakfast.
Again, in the warmest parts of Spain you’ll find country kitchens stocked with piles of lemons from the tree in the back garden, and heaps of extremely cheap, fresh and flavourful lemons in abundance at city markets. Wedges are used to freshen all kinds of meat and seafood dishes
A couple of baguettes or barras de pan, should be on hand at all times. Think of French-style baguettes – this crusty white bread is essential to any Spanish meal. Bread is often eaten at breakfast and/or for almuerzo (a mid-morning snack, or brunch), perhaps with a little olive oil and grated tomato. Bocadillos, hot or cold filled baguette sandwiches, are a very popular lunch option, and then you might also have more bread later with your merienda, or afternoon snack. At dinner a basket of sliced bread is always on hand, just in case you want to mop up any of those delicious oils and sauces.
Every Spanish kitchen has at least one type of ham and/or sausage around at all times. The famous jamon serrano or iberico might be used cold for salads or sandwiches, or put out on a plate when guests arrive or as a tapas-style starter. Sausages like chorizo or sobrasada can be eaten cold too, but are also used to flavour all kinds of hot dishes. Spanish supermarkets stock a huge and baffling array of sausages, with many types that most visitors have never even heard of, so don’t be afraid to try something new and experiment with your Spanish cooking.