I’m not into celebrity chefs, per se. My favorite cookbooks are penned by self-taught home cooks with an interesting story to tell and a reverence for the craft of writing. Paula Wolfert, Nigel Slater, David Tanis, even Nigella Lawson. I want more than recipes. Give me history, culture, tradition. Let me be lost in your story and see the world through new eyes. I’m drawn to people who have a contagious enthusiasm for life. José Andrés is one of those cooks. He’s joyful and driven in his mission to share Spanish food with the world. Sure he is a celebrity, but to me, he’s not a celebrity chef. It’s substance and meaning and a new spin on traditional recipes that give his food depth. When I traveled to Washington D.C. for the first time (in April), eating at one of José Andrés’ restaurants was at the top of my list.
During the trip, my traveling companion and I ended up at Jaleo for lunch, José’s tapas restaurant just off the National Mall. From the street I just happened to see the big red letters on glass spelling out, “Jaleo,” and broke free from the crowded sidewalk, in through the glass doors, to be greeted by an über-professional hostess dressed in black from head-to-toe. It was a slick operation, the kind of service I miss out here in Boulder, Colorado. I was struck by the balance of genuine friendliness and confident professionalism exuded by the restaurant staff. The hostess led us through a lively restaurant with bright colors and modern decor, and we were seated at a table for two by the window. I eagerly grabbed a menu, scanning it for recognizable dishes I might have cooked from José’s books. I’ve got a real thing for Spain – the language, the small plates and brash flavors, the artisanal meats and cheeses, afternoon siesta, eating late- I love it all.
When it came time to pick a wine off the iPad wine list, I knew it had to be rosé. Each spring I look forward to the first bottles of blushing pink wine from Spain. Drinking rosé is a ritual meant for happy times and celebrations. I ordered us two glasses of Llopart Brut Rosé, 2008, an effervescent blend of Monastrell, Grenache, and Pinot Noir grapes. The cava was bone-dry with essences of strawberry and a minerality that begged to be paired with charcuterie, so I ordered a plate of Chorizo Palacios (spicy cured pork sausage flavored with pimentón) and the famous Jamón Ibérico Fermin (a salt cured ham). The Spanish are passionate about their pork, taking great pride in raising the rare breed of black-footed pigs native to the Iberian Peninsula. It’s a slow food, and after a life of grazing and happily munching on acorns, these pigs are slaughtered and cured in salt, hung in a breezy mountain cabin window to dry, then aged for up to two years until “the time is right.” The result is Spain’s answer to Italy’s prosciutto: jamón. Thinly sliced sheets of marbled ham, Jamón Ibérico tastes unlike any other- sweet and nutty, savory and mildly salty. I thoughtfully selected a slice to taste, and the meat was so delicate it practically melted in my mouth. The chorizo, a scattering of coin shaped slices on the wooden cutting board, tasted of that immediately recognizable Spanish spice – pimentón (smoked paprika), a brick red, lip-staining, smoky-sweet spice infused throughout the hard sausage of pork meat and fat. We lingered over each bite, washing it down with a sip of quenching rosé.
The whole idea of tapas is a steady stream of small plates, and we followed the charcuterie with a couple of dishes I recognized from José Andrés’ cookbook, Made in Spain: Pimentos del Piquillo Rellenos de Queso (seared red piquillo peppers filled with Caña de Cabra goat cheese) and Papas Arrugás (baby potatoes cooked Canary Island-style). The succulent, sweet red piquillo peppers with roasted, black-charred skins oozed soft-ripened goat cheese. One bite revealed a mingling of tangy cheese and mildly spicy, fruity, smoky red pepper. We finished off the stuffed peppers in a flash. I wished for more, but was promptly distracted by the bowlful of tiny potatoes, tan and wrinkled, crusted in salt, like beach bums who fell asleep sunbathing. I had cooked these potatoes in my kitchen at home, following José Andrés’ recipe inspired by melting pot cuisine of the Canary Islands, technically a part of Spain but geographically off the coast of Africa. The potatoes are simmered in heavily salted water until wrinkled and tender, then finished in a dry pan until their salt coating begins to crystallize. I popped one into my mouth and bit through its soft jacket into an unbelievably fluffy interior. Two sauces accompanied the wrinkled potatoes: mojo verde (green sauce) and mojo rojo (red sauce). The green sauce, a paste of cilantro, garlic, cumin, and sea salt thinned out with sherry vinegar and olive oil, had an electric zing from bright, herbal flavors and the sharp kick of raw garlic and vinegar. Maybe it was the American in me, that penchant for ketchup with fries, but I preferred the red sauce, a blend of garlic, cumin, pimentón, dried chile pepper flakes, olive oil, and sherry vinegar. Silently we popped potato bites, enthralled by their unique texture and earthy flavor so beautifully complimented by piquant sauce.
Before we could get too depressed by our empty potato bowl, the soup arrived. This is the beauty of tapas- each small bite leaves you wanting more. A bowl of Gazpacho, pretty much the national dish of Spain, was placed in front of me. I felt obliged to order it, this joyful purée of sun-loving vegetables: tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, thickened with bread and served chilled. It was indeed refreshing, but I coveted the bowl of Sopa de Ajo steaming in front of my friend. The aroma of garlic infused broth wafted in my direction and I was compelled to ask for a taste. Kindly, my dining companion complied, and I looked into a bowl of golden broth topped with a tiny poached quail egg. I brought a spoonful of steaming garlic broth to my lips and was overcome by the intensity of flavor. The taste of this simple broth was deeply comforting, like a mother’s embrace, yet held a mystery. I recognized it as umami, the strange and wonderful fifth taste associated with savory, meaty flavors we mammals can’t help but respond to- it’s in our genes. Reluctantly, I passed the bowl of Sopa de Ajo back to my friend and finished off my Gazpacho. Like Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings, I just wanted one more taste of “my precious.”
Fortunately, before I could lunge at my dining partner, the waiters came to clear the table and drop dessert menus. Dessert! I was back to my old self again. In my opinion, every meal must end with a little something sweet. We agreed to share a decadent dark chocolate mousse and hazelnut ice cream, and ordered two espressos to keep us going the rest of the day. The chocolate was decadent and the hazelnut ice cream vibrant with rich, nutty character. The dark, strong espressos jolted us back to reality, and we got up from our table, passing back through the crowded restaurant, waving goodbye to the hostess and exiting the large glass doors back onto the busy streets of Washington D.C. As the doors closed behind us the sounds of plates clattering and diners bantering faded away. I thought of the name, “Jaleo” which means “revelry” or “uproar” in Spanish. José Andrés credits the restaurant name to John Singer Sargent’s painting “El Jaleo,” which depicts a flamenco dancer frozen at the height of her performance- arms raised, skirt dramatically fanned. The term, el jaleo refers to the moment of music-induced fever inciting a spontaneous “Olé!” during the climax of a performance. During lunch, my friend and I had reveled in the spirit of Jaleo, experienced the joy of Chef José Andrés’ food and savoring every bite of Spanish tapas. Looking back towards the restaurant I whispered a heartfelt “Olé!”
I returned home to Boulder, Colorado, inspired by the beauty of simply prepared ingredients and the brash Spanish flavors of brightly colored, spicy chili peppers. Nostalgia for that beautiful meal at Jaleo made me pick up José Andrés Tapas cookbook in the hopes of creating an Olé! Moment. I selected the most glorious, peak-of -season vegetable at the farmer’s market: a bundle of long, thin stalks of Egyptian Walking Onions, and remembered the Spanish tradition of celebrating spring outdoors with grilled spring onions.
In the Tapas book, José Andrés shares a recipe for Calçots al Estilo de Valls (Early Spring Onions with Romesco Sauce). Calçots are a type of spring onion, thicker than a scallion, with a sweet, mild flavor. In early spring they are harvested and friends and family gather in celebration to enjoy the onions grilled on a wood fire until charred and infused with smoke, then wrapped in newspaper and allowed to steam. It’s a messy, eat with your hands kind of meal that really reminds me of the revelrous spirit of Jaleo. The outer charred layer is pulled off the calçot, which is dipped in romesco sauce and eaten whole by lowering the onion carefully into the mouth. Romesco is a rustic, ruddy colored sauce made by blending smoky sweet chiles with onions, garlic, and olive oil in a purée flavored with Spanish smoked paprika (pimentón) and sherry vinegar. Ground almonds and breadcrumbs add body to the sauce, allowing it to cling to the slippery grilled onions. The spring tradition of grilling the calçots and sharing them with friends is known as a calçotada, and José believes it has a “great future in America.” I enthusiastically agree. We could all use a bit more jaleo, that Spanish flair for uproar and revelry, in our home cooking.
Each week I contribute an article to the Whole Foods Market Cooking Boulder website expanding on one of the 10 Ways Tuesday ideas. This week I shared a recipe for Grilled Spring Onions with Romesco Sauce. For the entire article and recipe, click on the icon below.