Stop by your favorite organic restaurant or natural and organic food store, and you’re likely to spot an emerging culinary trend. As the American palate grows increasingly adventurous, Spanish food has become the hottest international cuisine — more tapas (appetizers or snacks) than tacos, more gazpacho than guacamole. Think Mediterranean fare, chockfull of healthful olive oil, onions, olives, tomatoes, seasonal produce and seafood.
“Spain is the new France,” proclaims Teresa Mendez, a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor. In a recent article, she describes how “Spain’s gastronomy continues to grow” and “epicures are paying attention.”
Even the wine industry has noticed a shift, as Americans order Spanish sherry (wine fortified with brandy) to accompany platters of vegetable-studded paella and lamb chops with piquillo peppers. Spanish wine is “excitement in a bottle,” notes Penelope Casas, an adjunct professor at New York University and author of La Cocina de Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain and Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain.
According to the BBC, thirtysomethings are responsible for a huge boost in sherry sales. Los Angeles Times staff writer Corie Brown reports Southern California’s wine lovers can’t resist the newest whites and reds, and restaurant sommeliers have had trouble keeping cellars stocked. “Spanish wine sales in the United States rose 14.6% between 2004 and 2005,” Brown writes, “rising from 3.8 million cases worth $183 million to 4.3 million cases worth $209 million.”
And then there’s the glorious artisan cheese: “quesos” that have become commonplace even in mainstream supermarket deli cases. Casas describes the selection as “remarkable,” citing several popular choices, including:
- Queso Manchego: A sheep’s milk cheese that is perhaps the easiest variety to find in the United States, available semicured (mild) and well cured (sharper).
- Queso Cabrales: A blue cheese similar to Roquefort or gorgonzola, made from a mixture of cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk.
- Queso de Tetilla: A mild, creamy, slightly pungent cheese made from cow’s milk and shaped, interestingly, like a woman’s breast (hence the name).
Spanish cuisine varies by region. In La Mancha, Don Quixote’s home in central Spain, you’ll find dishes seasoned with paprika, garlic and the saffron “for which the region is famous,” notes Anya von Bremzen, author of The New Spanish Table and Fiesta! A Celebration of Latin Hospitality. In Basque Country, fish, seafood and mushrooms rule. Travel south to Andalusia, and you’ll feast on rich stews, soups, vegetarian dishes like espinacas con garbanzos (spinach with chickpeas) and tapas.
As von Bremzen writes, “It’s impossible to resist the siren call of those Mediterranean-Moorish ingredients: aromatic splashes of olive oil, almonds and hazelnuts pounded into simple but emphatic sauces, garlic and parsley, piquillo peppers, tomatoes and saffron, pungent olives and anchovies, coarse sea salt and smoky paprika, lemons and bitter oranges.”
Little Casa on the Prairie
Fortunately, Spanish cuisine is fairly easy to prepare at home, and recipes call for ingredients that are readily available at your local organic food store. Entrees are usually simple and down-to-earth—an approach that melds well with the philosophy of organic living. For example, at César, a tapas bar in Berkeley, California, chefs layer creamy queso de Tetilla and ham on a fresh baguette, creating an elegant take on the grilled cheese sandwich.
Organic Authority is pleased to present von Bremzen’s recipe for Minted Lamb Meatballs, which she adapted from Enrique Becerra, a tapas bar in Seville.
“Most Spanish meatball recipes are based on pork or beef,” she notes, “but these taste quite Moorish with their combination of lamb and mint. In my adaptation of the recipe, I add fresh mint to the meatballs and dried to the sauce, as it stands up better to slow simmering.”
Note: If the only ground lamb you can find is fatty, she says, use half lamb and half lean ground beef.
Albondigas de Cordero (Minted Lamb Meatballs)
Serves 6 to 8 as a tapa, 4 as a main course
2 slices white sandwich bread, crusts removed
1˝ pounds lean ground lamb
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
2 large cloves garlic, crushed with a garlic press
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg, beaten
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium-size onion, chopped
1 cup chopped canned tomatoes with some of their juice
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 cup chicken stock or broth
2 teaspoons finely crumbled dried mint
- Place the bread in a bowl, add cold water to cover, and soak for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain and squeeze out the excess liquid, then finely crumble the bread.
- Place the crumbled bread and the lamb, fresh mint, garlic, 1˝ teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and the egg in a large bowl. Gently knead the meatball mixture with your hands just until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined; do not overknead. Wet your hands, then break off a piece of the meatball mixture, shape it into a 1-inch ball, gently tossing it between cupped hands to give it shape. Repeat with the remaining meatball mixture, placing the meatballs on a small baking sheet.
- Heat the olive oil in a deep 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of the meatballs and brown all over, 3 to 4 minutes, shaking the skillet so that the meatballs brown evenly. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the browned meatballs to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining meatballs.
- If the meatballs have released too much fat, drain off all but 2 to 3 tablespoons. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat until soft and lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until they are thickened and reduced, about 7 minutes. Add the sherry and the chicken stock, and cook to blend the flavors, 6 to 7 minutes. Let the sauce cool a little, then puree it in a food processor.
- Return the sauce to the skillet, season it with salt and pepper to taste, and stir in the dried mint. Return the meatballs and any accumulated juices to the skillet and turn to coat with the sauce. Simmer over low heat, partially covered, until the meatballs are cooked through and the sauce has reduced a little, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the meatballs and sauce to an earthenware cazuela or another rustic serving dish, let cool for 5 to 10 minutes, then serve.
Recipe reprinted with permission from The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen. Copyright ©2005, Workman Publishing Company, Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.