FOOD WISE: Try Spanish cuisine for Mediterranean flare

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Bacon wrapped asparagus, mushroom fideo and pork in orange sauce, served with a glass of sangria.
(Photo by Chef Renee Morgan)

Yea me! I’ve stuck with my New Year’s resolution for two whole weeks so far. No comments from the peanut gallery please. See, that’s the beauty of my pick-something-you-already-like-to-do-resolution plan. Since I’m having fun, so far, so good.

Last week we visited the coastal region of Mexico, complete with homemade margaritas. It was awesome! Of course it’s fun and easy to stick to when it includes cocktails, which is mandatory if one is to truly immerse oneself and learn the cuisine and culture. Wink! Wink!

Since the wonderful food of Mexico is so highly influenced by Spain, that seemed the next logical stop to me. I think, many times it’s easy to confuse and intermingle Mexican and Spanish food since they do have a lot of common elements. The two cuisines are quite different, however.

Spanish food is more European in style and flavor and less spicy than Mexican food. Mexican food utilizes many varieties of chilis, masa, tortillas, cactus, moles, avocados and agave. It tends to be more tropical in flavor. Spanish food, on the other hand, leans more toward Mediterranean flavors, saffron, chickpeas and when they speak of eating a tortilla, they are referring to an egg dish rather than a corn or flour wrap for food. The Spaniards are also great makers of wine and sherry, while Mexico is better known for her tequila and beer.

However, the two countries also have many elements and ingredients in common, such as olives, fish and seafood, tomatoes, cumin, chocolate, milks and cheeses, although Spanish and Mexican cheeses are developed differently. Both countries enjoy a rice heavy diet, but Mexican diets place equal importance on beans. Both countries also consume meat products like pork, chicken and beef.

One of the things I love most about this journey is how each country’s cuisine is impacted by other countries’ cuisines. No one country’s diet is entirely indigenous. Last week, we saw how the Spaniards, along with other visiting countries, imported many key food products, which changed the face of Mexican cuisine to this day. Likewise, history begets history. What I mean by that is that other countries visited, explored or invaded Spain long before they did the same to the Mexicans.

The invasion of the Romans brought olives, olive oil, and thank the gods, wine. As a result, today we can be thankful for wonderful Spanish wines like Rioja and Cava. Thank goodness for the Arabs who introduced different kinds of gazpachos and almonds, without which the Spaniards never would have invented the decadent, sweet marzipan for dessert making. What about that beautiful piece of pork the Spaniards refer to as Serrano ham? Never would have happened if the Christians hadn’t introduced pork to the country to start with.

One of the great things about history is that it works both ways. In other words, it’s not just the older societies that introduce things to the newly discovered societies, but when explorers returned from these countries, they also brought exports from the newly discovered countries with them. For example, from the Americas, or the new world as they called it, cocoa, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers made their way to Spain and became a permanent part of its cuisine.

The invasion of the Moors brought many of my favorite “Spanish” ingredients. They introduced beautiful and intensely flavored dried fruits like dates and raisins, and many exotic spices. More importantly, although they did not partake in alcoholic beverages due to their religious beliefs, they taught the Spaniards how to build and operate stills for the purpose of distilling alcohols. They did this for medicinal purposes but those crafty Spaniards created many tasty distilled beverages as a result of this new technology.

Here’s another great thing the Moors did for Spanish gastronomy and therefore the world. They brought sugarcane to Spain and taught the Spanish how to refine it. If it wasn’t for the Moors, we wouldn’t have all the delightful sweets and pastries we enjoy today. I’m liking Morocco more and more. I think we may have to visit there next week.

I know you all are waiting with baited breath to find out what’s on the menu this week. The hardest part of only spending a week in each country is narrowing down the choices to one meal to share with you. There are so many dishes that sound yummy or interesting. This week I found that many of the dishes I discovered used Spanish sherry as an ingredient. That sounded like it could be intriguing so I geared the meal around a very special Spanish sherry called Pedro Ximénez, which is a dark and sweet fortified wine. The meal was incredible. The sherry makes the most wonderful rich, intensely flavored sauce I’ve ever experienced. Here’s what I cooked:

* Pork in Orange Sauce with Pedro Ximénez – Solomillo de cerdo ibérico con salsa de naranja al Pedro Ximénez

* Mushroom Fideo – Seta Fideo

* Bacon Wrapped Asparagus with Brown Sugar Butter Sauce – jamón serrano envuelto espárragos con salsa de mantequilla marrón azúcar

* Pedro Ximénez Bavarian – Baravois de Pedro Ximénez

Let me just say….it was, as we say, slap yo mama good. My husband is a lucky, lucky man. Sorry gentlemen. I’m already taken.

I have a whole new found respect for the cuisine of Spain. All of the flavor of Mexico and then some, but without the setting my face on fire heat. Another great thing is the food was pretty easy to prep and cook, despite the complicated sounding names. Additionally, much of the time, Spaniards prefer marinating meat to impart flavor, and meat is cooked with little to no grease making it a pretty healthy way to eat.

The best part? The pitcher of sangria I downed almost single-handedly. Nothing completes a good culinary tour like a great cocktail. Now it’s your turn. Don’t be scared. I included the recipe for the pork dish to get you started. It’s quite easy and you will love it unless you are dead inside. If you can’t find Pedro Ximénez, just substitute any sweet Spanish sherry made in the same style. Your local wine and spirit store clerk can advise you as to which sherry would be an appropriate substitute. Next stop, Morocco. Until then, salut!

 Pork in Orange Sauce with Pedro Ximénez

Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients:

2 Ibérico pork sirloins (You may substitute a pork tenderloin.)

6 tbsp oil

1/2 cup Pedro Ximénez

Juice of two oranges and the zest of one

2 tbsp soy sauce

2 tsp vinegar

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Salt

2 onions

2 tbsp sugar

Preparation:

1. Mix together orange juice and zest, soy sauce, vinegar, cayenne, salt. Season the meat and marinate in this mixture for 12 hours in the refrigerator.

2. When it is almost time to serve, remove the sirloins from the marinade and drain. Brown on both sides in the 2 tablespoons oil heated in a skillet. Remove from pan, add marinade and cook at a strong simmer for about 10 minutes to reduce to a thick syrup consistency. Add the Pedro Ximénez and bring to a boil, mixing in all the pan juices.

3. Slice the onion into rings and cook gently with the oil and sugar, until caramelized. Cut the pork into slices and serve with the Pedro Ximenez sauce and caramelized onion.