A journey to Spain

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Let ingredients lead the way when creating an outstanding Spanish experience for your diners.

Born originally as small savory Spanish dishes that are often served as a snack with drinks, tapas have become a staple on menus at restaurants in the United States, catering to diners looking to expand their culinary horizons.

Tapas offer chefs the opportunity to impart some of Spain’s beautiful food culture onto their menus, lending diners the ability to explore a myriad of dishes in different flavors and combinations.

“I think there has been a growing trend towards casual dining with quality ingredients, and that is exactly what the tapas experience is all about,” says Seamus Mullen, an award-winning New York chef, restaurateur and cookbook author known for his inventive yet approachable Spanish cuisine. “The conviviality of sharing small plates with friends really resonates with American diners.”

For chefs who are always seeking to try new things in the kitchen, tapas help them communicate with diners.

“As a chef, ‘las tapas’ is a tool to explain our culture. They should be direct, simple and authentic,” says Chef Oscar Cabezas. “But let’s not forget that the style of eating tapas encourages communication and participation; no one feels excluded because it’s a feast for all palates.”

Because authentic tapas tend to be simple and ingredient-forward, chefs take pride in sourcing highquality meat, seafood, cheese and vegetables. According to Cabezas, the main factor is the product. “So we work with local supplies to ensure maximum freshness and seasonality.”

Here’s a tour of Spanish cuisine found at restaurants across America.

1. Spanish Pimiento Goat Cheese Spread
Castile Restaurant, St. Pete Beach, Florida
Chef Nicolas Lebas

Castile Restaurant in St. Pete Beach is known for its Old World-meets-new world Mediterranean- Latin fare. Chef Nicolas Lebas credits his upbringing in Marseille, a port city in France, for giving him an early exposure to many Mediterranean, Spanish and Italian flavors and spices.

“In addition, as a chef, I’ve had to do my share of research to really do the region’s cuisine justice. I’ve had to find and use authentic Spanish products. Spanish food is simple and delicious and very colorful. But, as chefs, if we choose to focus on a specific region’s cuisine, we need to do the legwork.”

One of Lebas’ standout dishes is his Spanish Pimiento Goat Cheese spread, a creamy goat cheese with julienned Pimiento peppers, basil chiffonade, smoked Spanish paprika, sea salt and Espelette chili pepper.

“We mix it until smooth and creamy and serve it with a generous portion of beef tendons. [We want to] cater to all of our guests, including those who are pork and non-pork eaters,” he says. “I love the originality of beef tendon. It hasn’t been overdone yet, and it’s lighter than a pork rind.”

To prepare the beef tendons, Lebas braises them for four hours and freezes them overnight. The tendons are sliced thin, and dehydrated for an hour before they’re fried in grapeseed oil and finished with a pinch of salt.

“Tapas are small, easy to share among groups of friends and affordable for guests,” says Lebas. “It’s really great for me as a chef to be able to offer a great variety of small bites. I love the relaxed and social approach of tapas.”

2. Albóndigas
El Colmado NYC
Chef Seamus Mullen

No matter what cuisine you’re serving, some mainstays transcend cultural parameters.One of those parameters happens to be meatballs.

“Everyone loves meatballs. At El Colmado, we make our albóndigas [Spanish meatballs] with ground lamb and Moorish spices,” says Mullen. “We serve them with a spicy red pepper sauce called Mojo Picón. A little fresh yogurt and cucumbers temper the heat. Skewered with toothpicks, they are the quintessential tapas dish.”

Having cooked throughout Spain, San Francisco and now New York City, Mullen has become fluent in all expressions of Spanish cuisine.

“There are some very unique aspects to the cuisine of Cataluña that make it stand out. Because Barcelona has been such an important port for hundreds of years, there is a significant influence in the cuisine that derives from other culinary cultures, including France, Italy and North Africa,” says Mullen. He cites the Pakistani and Filipino inspirations in particular for making their mark on the cuisine of Cataluña.

“The use of dried fruits and nut-based sauces are at the heart of the cuisine as well as, of course, the myriad seafood dishes,” he says. “While rice is more prevalent farther South in the Levante region of Valencia, it does play a role in Catalan cuisine.”

Mullen typically keeps his dishes simple, with pimentón or smoked paprika as essential as spicy peppers like espelette and nyora pepper. He nods to a North African influence with the inclusion of cumin and coriander seed, as well as in the presence of dried fruit. “Olive oil remains perhaps the most essential ingredient in tapas preparation,” he adds.

3. Shrimp and Bone Marrow
Sopes Bracero Cocina de Raiz, San Diego
Chef Javier Plascencia

In the kitchen at San Diego’s Bracero Cocina de Raiz, Chef Javier Plascencia likes to source the freshest herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables and seafood from the fields, orchards, and farms at both sea and land.

“Pork and seafood are definitely on the top of my list,” said Plascencia, a Tijuana-born chef whose take on Baja Mediterranean cuisine has earned him accolades in Mexico and the United States. “There are also legumes, like fava beans and lentils, that are also a good combination for a lot of Spanish food.”

Plascencia cites spices like zaatar ash—a combination of dried herbs and spices—and mainstays like thyme, cayenne, cinnamon, paprika, oregano and garlic for adding flavor to his tapas dishes.

Some of those flavors shine in his Shrimp and Bone Marrow Sopes: shrimp and beef bone marrow sautéed with house tomatillo and chile de arbol salsas, veal demi glaze, lemon juice and butter, all served on a black bean masa sope topped with crispy parsley, avocado meringue and a watermelon radish wedge.

“We often play with ingredients that we are most accustomed to have available. Our food doesn’t always follow authenticity,” says Plascencia. “Of course, we always add that Mexican touch to our cuisine.”

4. Pulpo Trufado
Telefèric Barcelona, California
Chef Oscar Cabezas

At Telefèric Barcelona in the San Francisco Bay Area, genuine Spanish tapas pintxos are served dim sum-style. The Pintxos cart features ever-changing bite-sized snacks typical in Northern Spain, including the 2014 Best Tapa in Barcelona award-winner, Ma Premiere Foie with caramelized foie gras, roasted apple mousse, caramelized onion and cherry jam. Additional standout tapas include the El Torito, a puff pastry filled with chorizo, manchego cheese and honey; and the Pulpo Trufado, Galician grilled octopus with truffled potato purée.

“Let’s face it—tapas are fun because they allow us to try many products in a very short time. There’s always room to try new things,” says Cabezas. “The United States, like Spain, has created [its]identity through the integration of diverse cultures, and that flag of diversity enriches its gastronomy. Kitchens should have the taste of tradition and must encourage their own dialogue with modernity.”

Cabezas’ classic cuisine specialty is fish, so he has a natural tendency to work with protein from the sea in both his pintxos and tapas dishes. The main difference between the two is portion size, as pintxos are meant to be a bite-sized snack, and tapas are meant for sharing.

“If I am honest, we are more interested today in the origin and the intrinsic quality of the products, than in the product itself. I prefer to cook some local sardines than an imported lobster,” he says. “After all, I want the best for our customers, and we can only do this by ensuring the freshness of the product.”

One of Cabezas’ most popular tapas is a remake of a traditional Spanish dish: Galician octopus.

“We cook the octopus in a traditional way, scalding it in hot water and frightening it previously. On the other hand, we prepare a Parmentier cream, to which we add an essential oil of white truffle,” says Cabezas, whose Northern Spanish food nods to the region’s overall culture. “Finally, we grill the octopus tentacles and culminate with a Spanish paprika and Maldon salt.”

There are lines of union that link all regional cooking in Spain: techniques and products that are equal throughout the territory. However, each regional cuisine has its own taste, representing a code that explains the history of each region through the flavors. “In the north of Spain, there is a desire for vegetables and mushrooms, as well as grilled meats and fish,” says Cabezas. “It is a cuisine marked by temporality, an exciting dialogue between man and nature.”

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