World Flavors: Spanish

Spain is a hotbed of culinary activity, leading the charge to transform traditional ingredients and preparations with cutting-edge techniques.

American restaurants are embracing the new while preserving the old, stocking up on Spanish foods and integrating regional flavors into the repertoire. Many distinctive ingredients characterize the cuisine, but these are must-haves.

Serrano ham is to Spain what prosciutto is to Italy. Until recently, it was not imported to the U.S., but now operators can purchase the jamon either whole or sliced in packages. Use Serrano for tapas or slivered into paella.

Cheeses from Spain number over 100, including the familiar manchego and blue cabrales as well as the lesser-known idiazabal (Basque sheep milk cheese) and ibores (goat cheese rubbed with paprika). Serve with figs or olives.

Spanish olives include the small Manzanilla Fina and the larger Gordal. Tiny, naturally cured, reddish-brown Arbequina olives from Catalonia are newer imports. Marinate in herbed olive oil and add to chicken and fish dishes.

Piquillo peppers are sweet, slightly piquant red peppers that are hand-picked and wood-roasted. They are available peeled, packed whole and ready to use in cans and jars. Stuff piquillos with a crab or salmon for a quick and easy tapa.

Sherry vinegar has been produced in Spain almost as long as the country's famous sherry wine and comes from the same source, the Jerez region in Andalucia. Mix with Spanish olive oil for salad dressing.

Spices indigenous to Spanish cuisine include pimenton (smoked paprika) and saffron. Pimenton comes in three styles, mild, bittersweet and hot. Saffron is available as both a powder and dried threads.

Ideation: It's tapas time

For johnpaul damato, executive chef of the three Jaleo restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, "it's all about the product" when it comes to creating classic tapas and pinchas (one-bite Basque tapas) for his menu. "We believe in keeping tradition alive, so we work with several suppliers to purchase authentic ingredients." He also attends Spain's large food trade show, Alimentaria, to gather ideas and spec products.

Jaleo's 40 tapas selections range from $3.50 to $9.95. Among the top sellers are piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese and mushrooms; gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp); croquetas with ham and chicken; skewered housemade chorizo; endive with goat cheese, almonds and orange (above); and boquerones en vinagreta (marinated Spanish anchovies).

"Spain grows and produces more food than any other European country, and the products are just becoming familiar here," Damato says. The number of importers has quadrupled in the last ten years, claims the Trade Commission of Spain, and items like chorizo, Serrano ham and piquillos that weren't around back then are now available.

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