We’re heading to Spain in a couple of days en route to the south of France, and, as always, I’m looking forward to the eating. For me, no trip to Spain is complete without jamón ibérico, the cured ham made from the black-footed cerdo negro pig, a visit to one of Barcelona’s bistronomia venues, a glass of the Basque dry sparkling wine txakoli, and a shopping excursion to buy pimentón, tiny squid in their own ink (chipirones en su tinta), and the fine-flavored dried beans of Spain’s northern interior. More than just paella and jamón, sherry and tapas, Spanish cuisine encompasses regional influences from the Celts in the northwest to the Moors in the south.
Just as one would never confuse the cuisine of the Gulf coast of the United States with that of the Pacific Northwest, or New Mexico’s with Maine’s, the foodways of Spain’s regions vary widely. In Asturias and the País Vasco, you are as likely to drink hard cider as wine; in Andalucía, the peppers, tomatoes, and garlic that characterize many Mediterranean cuisines become gazpacho and escalivada. In Valencia, the spiny lobster (langostino) and plentiful squid of the Mediterranean Sea combine with the region’s short-grained Bomba rice for paella valenciana and numerous other arròs (rice) dishes. In the arid central regions of Castilla y León and Castilla-La Mancha, frugal dishes of dried beans, pork and lamb, like olla podrida, and aged sheep’s milk cheeses like the famous Manchego, evidence the role of preservation in more frugal, leaner times. And all over the country, you can find evidence of cocina de autor, modern cuisine reflecting the chef’s aesthetic, made famous by Ferran Adría but practiced coast to coast.
Galicia, in the far northwest corner of Spain, appears on a map as a bit of the Iberian peninsula that Portugal left behind when it claimed the lands bordering the Atlantic. Unlike its Arabic-influenced counterparts in Valencia and Murcia, Galicia shares its language and cuisine with the Portuguese and the Celts. In Galicia, rather than sitting down to cold, garlicky gazpacho as you might in the south, you more likely would find caldo gallego, a broth of potatoes and a kale-like vegetable, not dissimilar to the Portuguese caldo verde, alongside broa, the disk-like cornbread common to both Portugal and Galicia. Your octopus will arrive at the table stewed in pimentón and olive oil (pulpo gallego). And if you’re in Galicia in mid- to late summer, everywhere you go, you will encounter platters of jewel-bright green chiles called pementos de Padrón, fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. These are not jalepeños or serranos – indeed, most of the thumb-sized peppers are sweet and mild, grassy, with just a hint of a bite. But randomly, every fifth, or tenth, or twelfth pepper (depending whom you ask) packs a fiery punch. Or, as Galicians would say, “os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non.” For this reason, my husband calls them “The Gambler.”
It just so happens that our back garden is inhospitable to most vegetables. Tomatoes wilt from the extreme heat and never get quite enough water; zucchini plants sprout enormous blossoms, only to follow with shriveled, pinky-sized squash. The hot, dry conditions are perfect for chiles and this spring, I planted some Padrón seeds in a pot, hoping to enjoy this treat so uncommon outside Spain. Don’t ask where I got the seeds, because I won’t say.
Once plucked from the plant, the deeply wrinkled peppers are washed and dried, and fried in olive oil until they darken and blister. Drain them on paper towels and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Have a cold glass of Albariño and some bread handy to douse the fire of the occasional hot pepper. Some say the larger peppers tend to be hotter, but I don’t think you can tell by looking.
Pementos de Padrón
As I understand it, in the United States, you can buy The Gambler from the excellent Spanish food site La Tienda as well as the occasional farmer’s market. In London, Brindisa carries them fresh in cello bags. The only other chile I know that resembles The Gambler is the Japanese shishito pepper, which is not particularly easy to find either. If you have a high tolerance for heat, you can try frying up jalepeños, but the taste will not be the same.
1 lb Pementos de Padrón, washed and dried
1 c olive oil, preferably a Spanish or Portuguese oil
sea salt (I use Portuguese flor de sal)
Place the olive oil in a large sauté pan and heat to about 350F/175C. Add the peppers (in batches), frying on each side until the peppers begin to darken and the skin blisters. Drain on a rack or on paper towels. Plate and sprinkle with sea salt. Serve immediately.
Eat the pepper by grasping the stem and biting the entire chile. Discard the stem.