Think of Spanish cuisine and giant flat pans of seafood paella with protruding shrimp heads may come to mind. The famous saffron-flavored rice is often mistaken as the national dish, but it is really only eaten in and around Valencia along the eastern coast. Traditional Spanish food is highly regional so today we moved beyond the stereotypes and prepared potaje (a Lenten soup of salt cod, chickpeas, and spinach), conejo a la cazadora (braised rabbit), and tarta de aceite (orange and olive oil cake). We also sipped two types of sherry with some simple tapas.
Deborah Hansen, chef/owner of Taberna de Haro, was our teacher and guide for the day. Deborah lived in Spain for many years (she ran a restaurant in Madrid) and gave us a whirlwind tour of the country's diverse regions and their accompanying specialties—like cooling gazpacho in the hot south and "feisty" blue cheese in the mountainous north. After the lecture, we began the afternoon with gildas (bite-size skewers of anchovies, olives, and cornichons) and alcachofas con jamon (artichoke hearts sauteed with garlic and serrano ham). The little salty treats were washed down with Manzanilla and Fino sherry. The first was bone dry, lean and bright with mineral-y seafood notes. The second, a bit darker and nuttier. Neither had a trace of sugar—another cliché debunked.
After gulping down the sherry we were all pleasantly buzzed and ready to face the rabbits. It's funny how such a common protein in Europe faces such hesitation in the States. But Deborah helped us put things into perspective. "Sticking them in cages as pets is the weird thing," she said. "Eating them is normal!" With cleavers and knives in hand, we broke down the 4-legged critters into 10 pieces and began the browning process for the braise. The flavorings included wine, tomato paste, leeks, dried lavender, mushrooms, and herbs. Similar to coq au vin, the meat and liquids simmer together to create a richly brown and flavorful sauce.
I don't know what I was expecting when I saw "Spain" on our calendar of classes. Maybe tapas. Maybe the ubiquitous tortilla Espanola. Certainly not a delicious and healthy soup made from salt cod, chick peas, spinach and egg. And definitely not a world of sherries that can pair with foods like anchovies and artichokes. I've never been to Spain, but when I do I'll be sure to drink Sherry with every meal and will not expect to find authentic paella in Madrid.
*A note on photography. I've become increasingly frustrated with the quality of photographs I've been able to produce during class time. The lighting is not ideal and there is nothing but stainless steel counters and white plates everywhere you look. To top it off, we seem to be making a lot of brown food lately. As a designer and aspiring food stylist/photographer, this bums me out. But here's hoping that the upcoming weeks will bring a splash of color and visual inspiration. Until then, hang in there!