Spanish Food Ignites Palates with Spice, Variety


NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — In gourmet circles, Spanish cuisine is among the hottest trends, thanks to premier chefs such as Ferran Adria of El Bulli restaurant in the resort town of Rosas, Spain, and Jose Andres of Jaleo and its six sister restaurants in Washington.

Here, local chefs and restaurateurs also are bringing a taste of the Mediterranean to the North of Boston region. Chef Monica Armstrong of Bistro 45 trained in France and Spain, and now serves tapas at the Haverhill eatery.

Tapas are appetizers and snacks that usually accompany sherry or other aperitifs or cocktails. They can range from simple items, such as olives, to more elaborate preparations, and can be an entire meal.

Many people trace the origins of tapas to Spanish siestas, where a little bread or snack was used to cover a drink, protecting it from fruit flies during nap time. Today, tapas are more associated with after-work fun, sort of like a foodie’s answer to bar pretzels.

“It’s a more social way of eating,” said Armstrong, who was raised in Northern Ireland. “I am one of those people, when I go out, I want to eat everything. This allows you to try four or five things, taste everything and not have a lot left over.”

Some of the most popular tapas at Bistro 45 are garlic crostini with red peppers and melted blue cheese, petit filet mignon, oven roasted herbed tomato with basil, and a mini-Beef Wellington.

“A lot of people are learning more about it,” said Bistro 45 manager and waiter Jax Linton, who seldom needs to explain much of the menu at the 6-year-old bistro to patrons anymore. “It’s on the cooking shows and a lot of people are intrigued.”

Sparking interest in traditional Spanish dishes such as tapas, paella and flan, as well as the contemporary Spanish food scene are three cookbooks released over the winter.

Tapas, however, rules the roost, thanks to the versatility they offer — ranging from a simple handful of olives to mini-puffed pastry.

“There are so many flavors and so many tastes they can enjoy without getting full,” Linton said.

Julie Scolnik of Andover tapped local chefs for tapas recipes when organizing “Tapas & Tangos,” a fundraiser for the Andover Chamber Music Series. The event features world-renowned pianist Pablo Ziegler performing some of the best-known tango arrangements in the world in concert.

“It just makes sense to have tapas,” said Scolnik, a fan since her first experience at a Newbury Street restaurant. “It’s a romantic hors d’oeuvres and cocktail party.”

Adria is among a group of chefs experimenting with new ways for presenting food. His name is synonymous with dishes made with foams and gels and the science of food.

Adria became famous for foams and gels flavored with of fruits and vegetables, and even some that taste like seawater or smoke. He even founded a “workshop” in Spain (called El Taller), a sort of laboratory where chefs go to experiment with substances like cellulose, sugar and a microwave to create innovate textures to accompany dishes.

He also experiments with cooking skills, one of his recent menus included a barely cooked quail egg yolk in a caramel shell. Mostly, his food is just plain surprising. He’s served ruby wafers that taste like raspberry, lemon and ginger, and marshmallows that taste like corn.

“I think it’s fantastic. You shouldn’t be afraid of food,” said Armstrong. “Food is like science, nearly everything works. There is no wrong thing because everybody’s palate is different. There’s no rules anymore.”

Andres, recently named Bon Appetit’s Chef of the Year, blends Old World traditions with New World flavors. Andres and Richard Wolffe are authors of “Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America” (Clarkson Potter, $35). Andres, who calls Adria “a Salvador Dali of cuisine,” offers the recipe Tomato and Watermelon Skewers “Ferran Adria” is a simple, refreshing balance of tangy and sweet flavors.

“The New Spanish Table” by Anya von Bremzen (Workman, $22.95) chronicles the transformation of Spanish cuisine in the last two decades via experimental chefs, traditional cooking and local ingredients.

Spanish chefs, who long played the ugly step-sisters to their French counterparts, also felt the effects of years of a politically oppressive regime. But with Adria and the founding of his laboratory, the world’s attentions have focused on Spain and its new culinary stars who continue to push the bounds of taste, texture and color.

Of Adria, she writes that he was the one to break down the boundaries between sweet and savory, hot and cold, liquid and solid, and to make use of foams and bubbly airs and hot and cold gelees. The cookbook includes Galician Tuna Empanada, Moorish Kebabs, Salt Cod and Green Pepper Tortilla, and Ferran Adria’s Rotisserie Chicken.

While these days, the focus of Spanish cooking is often on the new and strange, the culture’s version of home cooking still tends to be a strong draw for natives and visitors. So if quail egg yolk and caramel aren’t your couple of tea, look to hard-to-pass-up traditional favorites like paella, a rice dish made with meat and vegetables that vary by region.

Regional home cooking is the focus of “The Cuisines of Spain” by Teresa Barrenechea (Ten Speed Press, $40). This is a lovely picture book laced with history, geography and recipes such as Gambas al Ajillo (Andalusia), several gazpacho recipes, and Churros breakfast fritters.

“Latin food in general has really taken off. It’s hip to be Latin,” said California celebrity chef Laura Diaz, known affectionately as Chef LaLa by viewers. “People are getting more exploratory with their food choices and look for foods from different countries.”

Material from Scripps Howard was used in this report.

Gambas A La Plancha (Shrimp Tapas)

  • Extra-virgin Spanish olive oil
  • Coarse sea salt
  • Fresh lemon, cut in half
  • 8 large prawns, unshelled, heads on

On a griddle or grill pan set to medium-high, sprinkle some olive oil. Arrange prawns side-by-side neatly. Season with salt and cook for about 3 minutes. Flip prawns with the aid of a spatula and cook an additional 3 minutes until done. Squeeze the fresh lemon juice over the prawns and serve garnished with fresh lemon half.

Yield: 4 to 8 appetizer servings

— Chef Miguel Cueto

Champinones Al Ajillo (Sauteed Mushrooms Tapas)

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin Spanish olive oil
  • 1/2 pound mushrooms, medium size, stems trimmed, washed and drained (quartered)
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons dry Spanish sherry
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon Spanish paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red peppers
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon chopped flat leaf parsley

In a saute pan, heat the oil until hot, not smoking. Saute the garlic until it begins to color (it will happen quickly). Add mushrooms and toss one minute. Add lemon juice, sherry, broth, paprika, crushed red peppers, salt and freshly ground pepper. Let it simmer for 2 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with crusty European-style bread.

Yield: 2 appetizer servings

— Chef Miguel Cueto