by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
On the first day of a two-week trip to Spain, we flew into Bilbao to visit the Guggenheim Museum. The museum, built alongside the Nervión River, was inaugurated on Oct. 18, 1997 by King Juan Carlos I of Spain and features works by Spanish and international artists.
One of many outstanding sculptures on the exterior of the museum is “Maman” by Louise Bourgeois. The sculpture, a tribute to the artist’s mother, depicts a spider that is over 30 feet high and 33 feet wide. Its body is made of ribbed bronze and includes 32 marble eggs.
Dining choices at the museum include a one-Michelin-star restaurant, Nerua, and the colorful and modern Bistro. A culinary highlight for us was our late lunch in the Bistro, and we had a wonderful window view of the river. The 30 euro ($33) preset menu, with many choices including wine, was a great value for the money. The food was brilliant and so was the service. If you are planning to visit Spain, we highly recommend taking a couple extra days to visit the Guggenheim.
The Guggenheim effect, also known as the Bilbao effect, has turned into the symbol of how art and culture can boost the struggling economy of a region. The Guggenheim opened its museum in Bilbao 20 years ago and turned a struggling industrial town into a cultural metropolis.
Spain is a Mediterranean country, and yes, Spaniards tend to eat copious amounts of olive oil and fish and other good-for-you foods highlighted in the Mediterranean diet. Main dishes are almost always some kind of protein like steak, fish or meaty stew, and they are usually accompanied by fried potatoes. We thought people ate late in Italy. In Spain, around the time we normally were finishing our dinner is when the restaurants were just starting to get busy!
Tapas and Pinchos
Pintxos/Pinchos (literally, toothpick food) is pronounced like “peen-chos.” Pinchos come from the Spanish verb “pinchar” which means to pierce. Tapas comes from the Spanish verb “tapear” which means to cover.
Both are small portions of food, but the difference is that tapas are normally served on a plate and just a smaller sized portion of a main dish, which you eat with cutlery. The pincho is typically served on a piece of bread with a cocktail stick. You can eat a pincho in one or two bites. One restaurant, Orio, located in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona, has a large pinchos bar from which you can choose. The bill was based on the number of toothpicks on our plate, plus of course a glass of Rioja wine.
Paella is one of the best-known dishes in the Spanish cuisine. The most appreciated variety of Spanish rice in preparing Paella is Bomba, which can be ordered by mail in the U.S., but you’ll also have success with the widely available Goya Paella yellow rice. Paella takes its name from the wide, shallow traditional pan used to cook the dish on an open fire. The pan is shallow and has sloping sides, which helps the rice cook evenly and develops more intense flavor. Paella is usually prepared with squid, prawns, mussels and clams.
All parts, and I do mean ALL, of the pig are featured in Spanish dishes. Do not be surprised to see violin-shaped pig legs hanging around just about everywhere — grocery stores, restaurants, bars and even in gas stations!
Currently, Spain has 69 major wine regions, the more correct term being Designations of Origin. Be careful not to mix up the name of the grape with the name of the wine region. You should know that when asking for a “Rioja,” you are referring to the Designation of Origin. Grape names traditionally were not used in Spain. Today however, most wine bottles include the name of the grape on their labels. Tempranillo is the best-known quality red wine grape in Spain.
I learned that Spain is the world’s largest virgin olive oil producer, and proof of its quality is the existence of a total of 27 Designations of Origin. As is the case with Spanish wines, the Designation of Origin label tells you where the oil came from. It also ensures that the oil has passed all the complex quality checks required within that area. Most extra-virgin olive oil is sold in darker bottles because it is sensitive to light and heat. Check the harvest date of the oil. Anything within the last year or two means it should be good quality.
As we traveled on our motor coach we saw acres and acres of olive trees. Olive harvesting was just beginning late-October.
If you should have the opportunity to visit Spain, here are a few quick traveling tips.
The siesta is a pretty big deal. Around 1-4 p.m., many shops, offices and restaurants will shut their doors for a little afternoon break.
Tipping in Spain isn’t essential, though it’s often greatly appreciated. If service is good possibly leave a tip, but do check before you double tip! Some restaurants automatically add a service charge.
If you’re planning on visiting some of the big-ticket sights like the Royal Palace, Alhambra or La Sagrada Familia, try and book your ticket online before you arrive. Queues can be long.
Try picking up a few phrases and sayings before you go, and most importantly — embrace the culture!
For some Spanish cuisine at home, try this Paella recipe from the New York Times. Enjoy with a good Spanish red wine and crusty bread.
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound meat, like chicken thighs, chorizo, pork, etc. (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, minced
2 cups Paella rice
1 pinch saffron
3 ½ cups liquid (chicken, lobster or vegetable stock; water; wine; or a combination)
½ pound seafood, like shrimp, mussels, squid, etc. (optional)
½ pound vegetables, like olives, tomatoes, snow peas, mushrooms
Put 3 tablespoons olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add about 1/2 pound of meat (or a combination of meats), sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook until nicely browned. Add one chopped onion and some minced bell pepper at the same time if you like, and cook until soft. (If you want a meatless paella, skip right to the onion.)
Add 2 cups rice and (if you have it) a pinch of saffron. Cook, stirring, until shiny. Add 3 1/2 cups of your liquid of choice, heated, and stir until just combined. Then stir in seafood (or lay it on top of the rice). Again, skip the seafood if you want vegetarian paella.
Cook over medium-high heat, undisturbed. If the pan is too big for your burner, move it around a little; but after that initial stirring, leave it alone. When the mixture starts to dry, begin tasting the rice. If the liquid amount seems OK, keep going. If the rice seems quite tough, add another 1/2 cup or so of liquid. If you can smell the bottom starting to burn, lower the heat a bit. About halfway through the cooking (about 10 minutes), add any vegetables, adjust seasonings and stir gently, just once.
The rice is done when tender and still a bit moist. If the mixture has stuck to the bottom of the pan, congratulations! You have socarrat, a characteristic of good paella.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, Hospitality Supervisor, Hospitality Professional, Culinary Manager, First Cook, Baking/Pastry and Value Added Local Food, and non-credit cooking and food classes through its Culinary Institute. For more information, visit www.llcc.edu.
Cooking or food questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.