Sunday, May 25, 2008

In the Mood for Spanish

My brother recently returned from a month-long holiday to Spain and Paris and came home carting a bag full of delicious edibles for this grateful and gluttonous sister. There were macarons from Pierre Herme, jamon serrano from Barcelona, jamon iberico bellota from Bellota-Bellota in Paris (check out Chubby Hubby's post on this gorgeous ham), and a hunk of Manchego cheese.

Perhaps Spain's best known cheese, Manchego is typically made from sheep's milk in the central region of La Mancha. I like to think of it as the pecorino of Spain since it has a similar brittle texture and a sharp, nutty taste.

I used my stash to make a tapas of delicate triangles of bread fried in olive oil, layered with quince paste and topped with chopped toasted pine nuts. The honeyed flavour of quince paste provides a wonderful contrast to the sharp cheese, while the flavour of the olive oil which the bread is fried in just ups the whole Spanish-ness of it all. The recipe I used is from Spain and the World Table, a fantastic book filled with easy-to-follow recipes and lots of great information about Spanish ingredients, dishes and produce.

For this classic tapas of cheese-stuffed dates rolled in serrano ham, I used some leftover blue cheese that I had in the fridge and added a sprinkling of cocoa nibs for added depth and crunch. This surprising inspiration I gleaned from the same book, which uses figs instead of dates, but the principle remains the same. You could pop these sweet-salty dates straight into your mouth, but a short blitz in a hot oven intensifies its flavours, making the salty ham saltier, the sweet dates sweeter and endowing the blue cheese with added robustness — turning it all, quite literally, into a taste sensation.

More manchego went into this crab pasta, which is based loosely on a recipe for crab ravioli in Cocina Nueva, another book I turn to often when in the mood for Spanish. Plenty of freshly picked crabmeat is folded into a tomato sauce that is richly flavoured with carrot, leek, brandy, white wine, thyme, garlic and bay leaves. Before serving, the sauce gets a shot of cream infused with a flurry of Manchego shavings and a bay leaf.