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olivia’s oxtail, olive oil, and other edibles – month six

September 10, 2010

To the surprise of many of my North American compatriots, Spanish cuisine isn’t really spicy or intricate. It’s more about letting the fresh food (because it’s always fresh) speak for itself. I hope this entry does the same.

You can just forget about cutting them out in Spain. Not that the Spanish go out of their way to eat carbs, but if they’re on your plate, it’s rude to ignore them. Besides, you won’t want to.

Olive oil
Costs about €3 per litre (or $4) and incredibly full-bodied, even when you pay less for it. Doesn’t need much help from vinegar, salt or pepper, but is served with these three so you can make your own salad dressing in a restaurant. Also used instead of butter to moisten bread. It’s the basis of most Spanish dishes, whether or not you think they need it. In any case, once you taste the dish, you won’t be able to imagine it without olive oil.

Tostadas con tomates
Spain’s national breakfast. You have your toasted bread (usually thick and mid-sized, a bit like Panini but fluffier). Use a whole garlic clove and scrape it on the toasted bread (I like to cut it in half to get a more concentrated garlic flavour). You don’t need a lot, just one or two scrapes per “section” will do. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the toast, then take some tomato spread and spoon it all over the toast. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with cafe con leche (it’s a latte, but don’t call it that in Spain).

That tomato spread is very messy to make, but if you’re so inclined, here’s how. This recipe yields one jar of tomato spread. Score the bottom of about 7 or 8 mid-sized tomatoes, but only enough to pierce the skin. Try not to cut into the flesh. Place them in a pot of boiling water and blanch for 1 or 2 minutes. Remove from boiling water and take the skin off (it should be starting to take itself off anyhow). Remember to take the core out as well. Then grate them in a food processor or chop them in a blender. Once that’s done, put a strainer over a bowl and dump the processed tomatoes into the strainer. Keep emptying the juices from the bowl if need be. And voila! There’s your tomato spread.

In Barcelona (and, I imagine, much of Catalonia), they still do the garlic and olive oil bit, but when it comes to the tomato, they simply cut it in half and scrape it on the toast. It’s simpler, not as messy, and the flavour is subtle but full.

Patatas alioli
If I eat emotionally, it’s because dishes like patatas alioli love me back. It’s the Spanish version of potato salad, but with a lot less fanfare. It’s just chilled boiled potatoes covered in alioli. This sauce is a bit like a really, really, really garlicky sour cream or mayo, only it’s much more yummy than what I’ve just described. There are recipes for alioli online, so I suggest giving it a go. It’s not too labour-intensive and you’ll be the star of your next potluck.

Baby pickles
Usually served with salad or tapas. Also my new favourite thing.

Spanish sausages. You can have them mild or spicy, though the latter won’t be that hot. They’re incredibly fatty and as tapas, they’re sliced and served in a generous goop of olive oil. They’ve also made me realize that whatever it is they served at that Spanish restaurant in Montreal wasn’t chorizo. To liven up your paella, add chorizo. Also, avoid wearing white while eating it.

Cured ham sandwich
You can find this almost anywhere in Spain. I usually like my cold cut sandwiches with a bit of mustard, but here I tend to do without. Again, the salty flavour of the cured ham is quite complete on its own.

Grilled sardines
Plenty nutritious and tastier than they sound on account of being fresh and not canned.

Sepia a la plancha tierna
This translates to “tender grilled cuttlefish.” It’s a bit like squid, but thicker. I discovered it at a beachside bistro, where we ordered just about all the tapas on the menu (they were only about €2 each). It’s generally served with – you guessed it- olive oil and a kind of herb. When we had it, they had chopped coriander and parsley all over it. Utterly uncomplicated and desperately delicious.

Tortilla española
In other words, a Spanish omelette. Don’t expect a tortilla shell in this dish. It’s basically eggs and potatoes all mixed up in one thick frittata. When I had it, it was at this tiny little restaurant by the mall. Their chef was gone for siesta, so they only had the “basics,” including this tortilla. They won’t taste the same everywhere, but here, they served it on a slice of baguette covered in alioli. Very more-ish.

Oxtail served in its own broth
My German friend and local politician Stefan Pokroppa wouldn’t tell me what I was eating until I was done eating it. It was oxtail. He knew it was oxtail, but for effect, he called it “a bull’s asshole.” We had it in this inconspicuous restaurant that clearly only caters to friends. The meal started with an entree of salad (see above about olive oil and baby pickles) and chorizo (see about again), followed by the main course.

Honestly, it couldn’t have been a less glamorous presentation. On a plain white plate was the meat, a couple of large boiled potatoes and some Brussels sprouts. The whole lot was drenched in broth. It’s been weeks since I’ve had this and I can still taste it in my mouth. The meat was pink in the middle, tender despite having come from the bullring. The restaurant owner got a bottle of red wine from his personal cellar: a slightly chilled bottle of 2006 Petit Verdot, hailing from our own region. It was incredible. The wine and oxtail ~belonged~ together.

Coffee, brandy and ice cream: all at the end. I’m not sure how we fit it all in.

Spanish time
That oxtail meal took about 3 hours to finish. And you know, that’s how long a meal should take if you’re surrounded by pleasant people and great conversation. It actually makes the food taste better too.

Olivia Collette

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