Using Dried Chillies

Dried Guindilla and Nora Chillies

A friend who makes chilli sauces once gave me a jar full of various exotic dried chillies, then gave me a concerned look and said “You do know how to use dried chillies, don’t you?”. I snorted and rolled my eyes a few times to imply that, yes, of course I did, how could anyone not know, but then sheepishly admitted, “No”.

And to be fair, most people would probably look at a dried chilli and make very little connection between this and a finished meal, but using dried chillies in cooking gives you a great resouce that unlike fresh chillies is always available.  Some chillies such as Chipotle (dried and smoked jalapeno chillies) can just be thrown in the pot whole with other ingredients and removed at the end, but traditional Spanish chillies such as the Guindilla and Nora from Brindisa Spanish Foods in the photo above require some simple preparation before use, as follows: Continue reading

A Life in Food – Ingredients – Salted Anchovies

Salted Anchovy next to an anchovy in oil

An unhappy brown anchovy in oil next to it’s bigger, pinker salted Bay of Biscay cousin

Opinions on anchovies are pretty much polarised – either loved to the point of obsession, or reviled and grimace-inducing at the mere mention.  I fall firmly into the first camp, but I really believe that most people can enjoy anchovies at least as an ingredient to bring out the flavour of other foods. Continue reading

Paella Valenciana – The Original Paella, Not a Prawn in Sight…

Paella Valenciana

Paella Valenciana, L'Establiment, El Palmar nr Valencia

Most of us are familiar with the seafood or mixed paella served at tourists spots across Spain, but the original Valencia Paella is a far cry from these modern interpretations.

The paella that most of us are familiar with (and is served in tourist spots across Spain) consists either of a seafood paella or a ‘mixed paella’; bright yellow rice with pink prawns and mussel shells strewn across the surface of the rice, and perhaps the odd lemon segment mysteriously nestling amongst its fishy neighbours.  But the original Paella can be found in and around El Palmar, a village hidden among the rice fields south of Valencia, where the shellfish don’t get a look in…

Traditionaly cooked over orange wood fires that imparts a smokey flavour to the dish, the dish uses ingredients that could be found in the paddy fields and the canals that feed them – specifically rabbit, little stripy snails and duck (though chicken is an acceptable substitute, shown in the dish above), together with various types of beans.  This is the true definition of local sourcing –  measured in food metres, not miles!

The photo above shows a huge wagon wheel sized Paella (the name for the pan as well as the dish) from the L’Establiment on the north end of Paella.  The restaurant somehow manages to be stylish and yet unpretentious and welcoming, and if the weather is good (it wasn’t) you can sit outside by the canal and paddy fields that have provided your meal.  A good Paella is a real treat – intense rich flavours with buttery rice and a range of textures that can make sharing with your dining partners somewhat precarious (tradition says you should never cross over the invisible line into your neighbours section – fork rapped knuckles ensue).  Paella is only ever eaten at lunch in Spain – restaurants will serve it to you in the evening, but expect to be eating it on your own.

I would recommend phoning and ordering ahead (ours took an hour to cook), and remember that the Spanish lunch runs later than most – we arrived at 3pm, and people were still ordering food at 4 and eating at 5. If you can’t get to El Palmar, then look for restaurants that serve Paella for a minimum of two people – then you know it is being cooked fresh each time.

Given that this is a dish that has evolved and changed to become different dishes within its own country, I also think that we should all worry less about using traditional recipes when cooking it at home.  Look to the original spirit of the dish, and use what is in your immediate vicinity; think local game and seasonal vegetables if you’re inland, or native shellfish like oysters, mussels and langoustine if you’re by the coast.  Just ensure that you’re putting plenty of flavour into the dish, and maybe serve it to your diners on their own plates – then fork blows to the knuckles can be avoided…

Valencia Mercado Central – A Market for Seafood Lovers

Jamones, Valencia Mercado Central
  Jamon, and on and on…

I’ve just come back from a holiday in Valencia, and if you get the chance, I highly recommend a visit to the ‘Mercado Central‘ market in the city, one of the largest and longest running markets in Europe.  The food market is divided into sections, with areas for vegetables, fish and meat.  It’s great to see so many things that you just don’t see in British markets, from unusual cuts of meat (sheeps head anyone?) to fish stalls that resemble alien invasions.  The seafood really is the star of the show too – the Spanish allegedly eat more seafood per person than anyone else at the world, and the range is really startling.  I draw the line at the rather bloody live eel executions though…

razor clams
Razor Clams – thhpppthpth

Razor clams are generally available at larger fishmongers and markets in the UK, though they can be quite expensive.  Cook as you would mussels – butter, garlic or shallots,  white wine, parsley. Now for something completely different…

Clams, Murex and Percebe Tellina, Canailla and Percebe.

Admittedly these are the spanish names for these little chaps, but the English translations won’t help you much either:

Tellina: As far as I can make out, Tellina is a type of clam, but many English recipes just refer to it as a Tellina.  Widely used in Italy, they are sweet tasting and can be eaten raw, or cooked in a tomato sauce.

Canailla: This is definitely the spanish term – the English term is ‘Murex’.  Which doesn’t help much… It is a type of whelk, widely used in Malaysia – it can be boiled and served with chilli sauce.  Apparently they used to be harvested to make purple dye.

Percebe: Known to the English speaking world as goose or gooseneck barnacle, I know of these from my childhood rockpooling days, though I had no idea they were edible.  And if I knew how expensive they were (£100+ per kilo), I would have gathered up the 200 or so of them that were dumped on Summerleaze beach in Bude about a month ago.  They have a similar taste to Lobster and are becoming rare, hence the expense. Boil them, strip the skin from the stalk, and eat the flesh.

Red Prawns
 Prawnography

The langoustines in the foreground seem like the standard fare we get in the UK, but of particular interest are the huge red prawns just behind them.  I can’t find anything about them online (they were labelled ‘Rojos Frescoes Especiales’), and I was already too laden down with food to buy them,  but if anyone knows what they are, please leave a comment! (EDIT: I think they are rose shrimp, Aristeus Antennatus, who knew there were so many kinds of prawn…)

 Mojama Time

This is another Spanish speciality – Mojama, or salt cured tuna fillets.  It takes like a cured ham, with slight fish undertones.  Not unpleasant, more surprising than anything else, it should be eaten finely sliced with good olive oil.

I’ve only included a sample of the food available at the market, round every corner there was something new and unusual, but hopefully this shows how you can really discover a lot about country and regional food from a visit to their markets.  And although we often think that we already get the best of a countries offering in our own supermarkets and markets, there really is a lot more to be discovered.