15 February 2012

La Redneck Española

I love Spain.  I spent a semester abroad in Sevilla in college and am dying to return.  I miss my host family.  I miss all the places I frequented for five months.  I miss exorbitant amounts of Rioja, cafe con leche, olives, and fresh seafood.  It's almost painful thinking about it. 

In effort to satisfy my Spanish desires, I've been watching Spain On the Road Again.  Mario Batali, Mark Bittman from The New York Times, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Spanish actress, Claudia Bassols, eat and drink their way across Spain.  This has neither diffused my Spanish urges nor encouraged my efforts to get back into my bikini this summer. 

To indulge my craving for Spain without dropping two grand on plane tickets, last weekend we did Spanish cuisine meets Midwest preserved foods along with the only four bottles of Rioja I could find in a 30 mile radius.  Note to self: pick up Spanish wine next visit to Chicago.

The bottle of white was chilling.  Don't bother making note of any of these labels.  Mediocre would be a generous description. 

My objective wasn't to perfectly recreate my favorite Spanish dishes as I've already learned the hard way that grilled octopus and marinated anchovies aren't quite the same when prepared at home.  Instead, I wanted to take our preserved garden items and prepare them al estilo de España.  Finding new uses for the same old preserved items in like being on a daily episode of Chopped.  Fortunately, I don't have to make something edible with the combination of frog legs, starfruit, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and quinoa.  I am calling on my culinary creativity to work our way through the loads of garlic, dried hot and sweet peppers, frozen zucchini, dried eggplant, and canned tomatoes.  The following dishes are the result:   
Gambas al Ajillo (Prawns with Garlic)
Prawns with Garlic is admittedly a stretch as a Midwestern dish.  The prawns are obviously not local, but the garlic and hot pepper are from our garden. I had to include it because it's a popular tapa and also the most dangerous thing I've ever eaten.  Early in my abroad stay, a friend and I decided to make a night of trying standard local fare, including the gambas al ajillo.  Prawns are baked in a bath of olive oil, garlic, and the traditional guindilla--a very hot pepper. The prawns are delicious and the oil and garlic bits are great for dipping bread. I thought I had found a crispy bit of garlic and inadvertently ate the guindilla. I love spicy food. This was not spicy food--I had swallowed the atomic bomb and unfortunately, caused quite a scene. I was embarrassed;  the waiter was annoyed. The incident didn't go without reward though:  three gentleman from Amsterdam found the situation quite humorous, joined us, and ended up paying for our meal and wine. That was definitely the silver lining especially since the next day I woke up with the entire top layer of my tongue missing. I detailed the experience in my weekly email to my family.  My mother's response to my lengthy letter was one line: "Giana, please stop putting strange things in your mouth."  Even then, I couldn't make any promises.

The peppers are not guindillas.  Broken, dried cayenne peppers work well for the right amount of spice.


shrimp or prawns
garlic, chopped
dried hot peppers, such as cayenne
olive oil

Rinse raw shrimp or prawns.  Place in a baking dish with coarsely chopped garlic, dried hot pepper, and a lot of olive oil--enough to come at least halfway up the shrimp.  Bake at 475 for 7-9 minutes.  Every time I ordered this dish, it was always brought to the table sizzling.   

Pisto Manchego (Roasted Blended Vegetables)

Pisto Manchego is the Spanish answer to ratatouille.  It is a combination of roasted peppers, eggplant, onions, and tomatoes blended into a course puree.  This was a perfect dish to try since we've barely made a dent in our canned tomatoes and dried peppers and eggplant.  The Spaniards often serve it with meat or eggs.  We ate it all week with meat, on bread, in an empanada.  I think it would be fantastic on sliders with grilled sausage.  I'm looking forward to trying it with fresh vegetables this summer, but it was still very good using preserved vegetables. 

Preserved pisto manchego ingredients:

1 quart chopped tomatoes
1 onion
5-8 dried sweet Italian peppers, rehydrated
1 cup dried eggplant, rehydrated
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon tomato conserva (optional)
1 tablespoon pepper conserva (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
kosher salt

Coarsely chop onion and fry in olive oil until soft and a bit caramelized. Add chopped garlic. After a few minutes add rehydrated peppers and eggplant. After a few minutes, add tomatoes. Cook until all vegetables are very soft. Stir in conservas and kosher salt. Once cool, coarsely blend in food processor or blender.

the vegetables cooked and cooling

after blending


I don't recall eating very many empanadas in Spain.  I was too busy eating crustaceans. I vaguely remember my host mother, Charo, serving ones that could easily fit in my hand.  In Spain On The Road Again, they visit a woman famous for her empanadas.  Hers is very large, like a stuffed pizza, and filled with cured ham, chorizo, and onions.  I wasn't about to go on a Spanish meat hunt and my husband does not eat onions so I created my own filling of a layer of the pisto manchego and a layer of freshly-made ricotta.  This is certainly not authentic, but a tasty use of on-hand ingredients.  I look forward to trying an empanada with a more traditional filling. 

the mother empanada

served in individual portions

Empanada ingredients:

double batch of pizza dough
pisto manchego
olive oil
kosher salt

Roll out two rounds of pizza dough.  Place one round on a well-oiled pan.  Spread 1/2-inch layer of ricotta on dough leaving 3 inches around the edges.  Spread pisto manchego on top of ricotta.  Lay other round of dough on top and fold over edges.  Cut vents into the top of the empanada and rub dough with oil.  Bake at 450 for 25-30 minutes.

Croquetas (Fritters)

Croquetas are ubiquitous little fried morsels in Spain.  They are usually filled with ham or cheese or some sort of shredded meat.  I used our frozen shredded zucchini.  While these aren't like the croquetas de Sevilla, they were still good and a much more exciting use of shredded zucchini that its typical place in soups and stews. 

zucchini mixture rolled in seasoned breadcrumbs

crispy croqueta goodness


1.5-2 cups of well-drained shredded zucchini
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg, beaten
2 cups seasoned breadcrumbs
olive oil

Mix zucchini, flour, salt, baking powder, and egg in a bowl.  Drop small spoonfuls into breadcrumbs and roll into small balls or logs.  These are best small to ensure they cook all the way through.  Drop into hot oil and fry until crispy and golden brown.  Serve with dipping sauce. 

Our weekend certainly didn't take the place of tapeando por Sevilla.  I dream of dining on coquinas on the banks of the Guadalquivir, an afternoon Cruzcampo after walking extensively through my old neighborhood, Los Remedios, and of course, late-night churros con chocolate.  Until my long-awaited Spanish reunion arrives, it's exciting to recreate tapas with the ingredients from my winter pantry while sipping a glass of mediocre Rioja.  It will make the real thing all the more delicious when it finally comes, provided no one eats the guindilla.


  1. Sounds delicious (as usual....)!

  2. I absolutely love your blog! This post inspired me to try some Spanish dishes again - I studied abroad in Alicante and dearly miss the food and wine (and pretty much everything else too). However, every time I try one of my old favorites (paella or tortilla espanola), they just never turn out the same and my nostalgia leaves the table unsatisfied. The gambos al ajillo sounds easy enough. Thank you for sharing your recipe!

    1. Thanks Sara! The gambas are super simple. Sometimes my tortilla tastes spanish and sometimes it doesn't. I included it in a post several months ago--'The Potato Project'. I have yet to make a paella that really tastes authentic. Might be time for 'The Paella Project'!