Up first, we were to have been shown a grilled salt cod dish. When the two chefs arrived and saw what was available locally in the way of salt cod, they changed their plan. They explained that in Spain, shops selling salt cod offer a vast range of options from heads and tails to small cuts to larger, thicker pieces. Since what they found upon arrival was smaller pieces of salt cod, they changed their plan and chose not to grill it. Instead, they prepared a xato or Catalonian salad. The salt cod had been soaked, rinsed, and dried and was cut into small segments. A dressing was prepared from a classic romesco sauce and was tossed with frissee leaves. The salad was built from the dressed frissee, chopped black olives, cherry tomatoes, and salt cod pieces. I've used romesco sauce as a salad dressing before, and it works perfectly. The briny fish and olives matched well with the flavors of pureed tomato and chiles in the sauce/dressing.
Next, a simple snack, something to serve with cocktails before a dinner party, or a tapa was presented. Coca is an easy to prepare, cracker-like flatbread. Chef Olivella explained that coca is made with flour, water, and leftover food. It's a casual thing to make that's topped with whatever is on hand. Ordinarily, it would be made in a large circle like a pizza, but for this dish, it was cut into small rectangles to make it finger food. The coca base was topped with sliced tomato that had been skinned and seeded and dressed with olive oil, some roasted onion and red bell pepper, a piece of sardine, a sliver of Iberico ham, and some grated Idiazabal cheese. This all made a very flavorful bite.
Our next seafood dish was made with octopus. Because cooking octopus can take up to two hours, it had been prepared in advance, and the technique was just explained without an actual demonstration. The suggested technique was to bring a large pot of water with peppercorns and a bay leaf to a boil. Once boiling, you should hold the octopus at the top and slowly dip its legs into the boiling water, then lift it out, dunk again, and repeat three times before placing the entire octopus into the water. Chef Olivella told us he didn't know why it worked, but it does, so that's how he boils octopus. For this dish, potatoes were also boiled, and that involved an interesting technique as well. The potatoes were placed in a pot and just covered with water. Then, as much as two cups of salt was added to the water, and the water was boiled until it evaporated. When the water evaporated, the potatoes were cooked and well-seasoned. The octopus legs were chopped into small pieces which were tossed with the potatoes and olive oil, and all was sprinkled with pimenton.
The next dish was very simple to prepare, but its fresh flavors jumped off the plate. It was a simply seared piece of tuna that had been crusted with a mix of crushed black, red, Jamaican, and Sichuan peppercorns. Both cherry tomatoes and roma tomatoes that had been skinned, seeded, and diced were sauteed in olive oil with basil leaves, and that mixture garnished the sliced tuna. The basil was intensified by the brief cooking and combined with the tomatoes for a bright, herbal note on top of the pepper seared tuna.
Our last dish of the evening, which was also the crowd favorite, was seafood paella. There were ooh's and aah's as the rice began to cook in the paella pan and the seafood was added. Chef Olivella spoke about the various rice dishes from Spain and how paella is traditional to Valencia but all regions of Spain have come to adopt the dish. There are many versions of paella and many other rice dishes that are similar but might not be called paella. The most important thing about the dish is the rice. Chef Olivella said, "Paella is all about the rice. Don't make paella with bad rice. You can't make paella with Uncle Sam rice." We all got a good laugh and realized he meant to say "Uncle Ben's rice." The point was clear. Arborio is a good alternative, but if you can find a Spanish rice, you should use it. I remember the last time I was planning to make paella, I searched all over town for Spanish bomba rice with no luck. For this special event, Central Market has a couple of special Spanish rices for sale in the stores, and right after class I ran downstairs to grab a bag of bomba. Hopefully, this will become a very popular product, and they'll continue to carry it. To make the paella, first a sofrito of onion, bell pepper, garlic, and some chopped fish was cooked slowly for several minutes to develop a flavor base. More olive oil was added, and then the rice was stirred into the mixture and cooked. Fish stock was added and allowed to cook down and be absorbed by the rice a bit. Shrimp, mussels, scallops, and chopped fish were added on top. Last, the paella pan was placed in the oven for a few minutes to dry the rice. It was a delightful, seafood-filled dish, and the flavors had permeated each grain of rice.
I left the class having learned some new things about Spanish cuisine, having enjoyed a few Spanish wines, and having a new sense of jealousy for the fabulous seafood both fresh and preserved that's available in Spain. Now, I'm hoping I'll one day have more options here when I go shopping for salt cod.