Spain's Greatest Hits: the Recipes to Make Now
What would happen if tortilla de patatas, Spain’s adored potato omelet, were to suddenly vanish? The entire nation would grieve the loss of its ultimate comfort food. The key to a Spanish tortilla is technique: frying the potatoes in plenty of oil until they’re silky; a high ratio of filling to egg; and the all-important vuelta—the dramatic flip—which results in a thick disk that’s perfectly golden on both sides.
Where to eat it: El Quim de la Boqueria, the famous tapas bar inside the Barcelona market—with a glass of Cava and crispy, garlicky pan con tomate, of course. .
Get the recipe: Vegetable Tortilla
Along with corridas (bullfights) and the wail of flamenco, thirst-quenching coral-pink gazpacho is the defining image of Andalusia, Spain’s sultry southernmost region. Gazpacho has been around since Roman times, at least in its basic form: a cold soup of leftover bread, water, vinegar, garlic and olive oil. Enriched later with New World tomatoes and peppers, it was pounded with massive pestles in a communal bowl to sustain laborers in the fields. Happily, gazpachos have gotten smoother since (gracias, el blender!), though the trick that imparts its velvety texture—soaking the bread in the liquid first—remains fundamental. The new millennium ushered in high-tech versions from creative chefs—spherified, liquid-nitrogenated, deconstructed into foams and gelées. The definitive postmodern version was created by Andalusian whiz-kid chef Dani García: Hot pink and cherry-based, it has a funky accent of anchovies, a bright note of basil oil, pistachios for texture and a flourish of tangy cheese “snow.” It might well be the soup of the century.
Where to eat it: García’s cherry gazpacho is on the menu at his tapas brasserie BiBo Madrid. The oxtail brioche there is pretty great, too. .
Get the recipe: Cherry gazpacho
Gambas Al Ajillo
This three-ingredient miracle of shrimp simmered in garlicky olive oil is one of Spain’s most castizo (rootsy) tapas, made to order at countless rustic taverns countrywide but most appreciated in Madrid and the south. The dish is so simple, Spanish home cooks can make it blindfolded, but it helps to keep an eye on a few rules. Commandment numero uno is a lavish amount of your most fragrant olive oil that’s not too heavy in texture. Equally crucial: letting the garlic slowly release its full fragrance (some experts start with cold oil), so the bitterness doesn’t overpower the shrimp. Finally, give the gambas the most gentle of baths in that oil—not a full sizzle—until just heated through and still jugocitas (super juicy) inside. Some cooks add a handful of finely diced jamón or chorizo along with the garlic; clams, too, do insanely well in this sauce. To serve, plenty of crusty bread is a must, because you’ll want to mop up every drop of that garlicky oil.
Where to eat it: La Casa del Abuelo, an atmospheric 1906 tapas bar in Central Madrid, is known as a shrimp shrine, whether cooking gambas in cazuelitas that continue to bubble right at your table, or preparing them a la plancha.
Get the recipe: Gambas al ajillo
Pungent with fried garlic and vinegar, ruddy red from dried chiles, textured with toasted nuts and pulverized bread, romesco is a Catalan treasure in sauce form. Its consistency, temperature and exact composition all get tailored to how the sauce will be used: whether to flavor a monkfish and potato stew on the coast, or to sauce a rustic fried rabbit dish in the Catalan hinterlands. But the truth is that a good romesco tastes awesome with anything, from boiled potatoes to grilled seafood to pristine stalks of asparagus—or on its own, with a spoon.
Where to eat it: Run, don’t walk, to Tarragona’s seafood mecca Barquet, where you can try chef David Solé i Torné’s famous romesco-flavored seafood paella.
Get the recipe: Romesco Sauce
These eye-catching bites are the Basque region’s answer to tapas. Usually mounted on rounds of baguette, pintxos preen on the bars of Bilbao and San Sebastián like minuscule savory wedding cakes—all mayonnaise ribbon swirls, Technicolor pepper confetti and grated egg that looks like edible lace. A Basque txikiteo, or bar hop, involves hitting several places each specializing in something different, be it glossy piquillo peppers filled with tuna confit, mini croissants with pink curls of Ibérico ham or the classic matrimonio (a pair of white and brown anchovies). More photogenic and flavorful than crostini, pintxos are ready to star at your next dinner party.
Where to eat them: Grab any pintxo featuring spider crab or wild mushrooms at San Sebastián’s Ganbara. You won’t be sorry.
Before it became a kitschy-yellow symbol of Spain and the world’s most celebrated—and misunderstood—rice dish, paella was a strictly regional masterpiece deeply rooted in the Mediterranean province of Valencia. The term paella describes both the flat steel pan and a super-Valencian dish of rice layered thin in that pan with well-browned chunks of rabbit (or duck), chicken, snails and a small handful of vegetables, all cooked in a broth bolstered with a tomato sofrito. Cooking is best done outdoors on a fire stoked with vine cuttings, with the whole extended family there, scraping up the socarrat, the crunchy bottom layer of rice. The secret to a perfect paella at home: Don’t mess with it too much. Use the same rice (a Spanish short-grain variety), the same pan and the same grain-to-liquid ratio until you can get your arroz perfectly plump but still slightly al dente. Method mastered, paella—or any of the other extraordinary regional rice dishes of El Levante, the stretch of Spain’s Mediterranean coast that embraces Valencia—is the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Need we say more?
Where to eat it: Chef María José San Román offers an array of vibrant rice dishes at her Michelin-starred flagship, Monastrell, in Alicante.
Get the recipe: Chicken and Pork Paella
One can construct an informative map of Spain from all its regional bean stews, but it’s the Asturian fabada that’s enshrined in the legume hall of fame. For that, give thanks to fabes,the region’s large, amazingly creamy white beans, and also to the fact that Asturias is home to Spain’s best embutidos (cured and smoked porkstuffs), which form the fabada’s meaty base. More elegant and a lot easier to prepare than French cassoulet, a good fabada exemplifies the simple beauty of Spanish cuisine.
Where to eat it: All Asturian restaurants excel in fabada, but Casa Gerardo, run by the hotshot chef Marcos Morán and his dad, wins our prize.
Get the recipe: Fabada (Spanish Bean Stew with Chorizo and Blood Sausage)
Devoured at tapas bars, passed around at cocktail parties, enjoyed for Sunday supper, albóndigas are the embodiment of Spain’s carnivorous vigor—especially as served at bullfighting taverns—and at the same time a nostalgic tribute to mamá (whose meatballs are, obviously, always the best). The classic pan-Spanish recipe? It usually features albóndigas in a salsa española: a sauce of pan drippings, carrots, flour, a bit of tomato and a splash of white wine.
Where to eat them: At Echaurren Tradición, Riojan star chef Francis Paniego’s tender albóndigas come with a flourish of shaved truffles.
Get the recipe: Albóndigas with Mushrooms
Maybe you know the empanada only as a crescent-shaped Latin American handpie. Well, meet the original: the elegantly rustic, pan-size, savory pastry enjoyed throughout Spain’s green northwestern Galicia region. The empanada Gallega is a beauty: golden pastry, in rectangles or rounds, often decorated with elaborate dough designs and cradling a moist, glossy filling—chicken, pork or that beautiful Galician seafood, depending on the cook’s preferences. The one constant is a sofrito of onions and peppers cooked in olive oil until sweet and nearly jamlike, which gives empanada fillings their luscious texture. In medieval Galicia, empanadas flourished as a fast food phenomenon, sold to pilgrims walking the ancient Camino de Santiago. Today, modern food pilgrims make a trip to Galicia just to eat them!
Where to eat it: Head to the old-school O Gato Negro tavern in Santiago de Compostela for sublime seafood empanadas. 011-34-981-583-105 (no website).
Get the recipe: Empanada Gallega with Tuna
Of all the rich, eggy sweets perfected by nuns in medieval Spanish convents and then exported to the New World, flan became by far the most popular. Related to crema catalana, with its brittle caramelized sugar on top, a good flan is all about the primal pleasure of spooning the dark, bittersweet caramel sauce over the milky, jiggly custard. In the northern Asturias region, creamy flans are usually bolstered with queso fresco, a ricotta-like cheese, for an even silkier body and denser texture. Think of it as a delicious cross between custard and cheesecake.
Where to eat it: A meal at Asturianos in Madrid always ends with chef-owner Julia Bombín’s legendary flan de queso. 011-34-915-335-947 (no website).
Get the recipe: Cheese flans
Pulpo á Feira
Often it's the simplest dishes that speak most to me as a chef, and pulpo á feira is one of my favorites. For hundreds of years, merchants from the province of Léon traded between the maritime villages of Galicia and inland Spain. On feast days, they’d cook ingredients from their travels, and in the town of Melide, on a route where pimentón, olive oil and octopus all came together, this celebratory dish was born. I love the rustic purity of the original: boiled octopus served with potatoes, rich olive oil and pimentón. In the US, it’s become a canvas for experimentation, with creative cooks taking advantage of the sunshine and grilling their octopus (p. 124), or tossing in parsley for a burst of freshness. But however you take your pulpo, it’s always a celebration, and one that’s brought people together for centuries.
Get the recipe: Pulpo a la Gallega (Grilled Octopus with Potatoes)