Iberian Peninsula

There is a specific, smooth, pungent scent to saffron when it is brought to temperature, especially when the liquid in which it is steeped is white wine. The aroma is altogether captivatingly sensual and evocative of Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and the Middle East. Saffron has become, in its relatively short term of service in my kitchen, unmistakably one of my favorite spices. In turn, food of the Iberian Peninsula has become my favorite to experiment with. The manner in which it spreads its essence and color, so richly orange and deep yellow, denotes how complex a flavor saffron truly is. Quality saffron can be almost hallucinogenic to me in effect – it is manifestly that sensual.

Over the last year, it has become my mission to more fully understand the cuisine of Spain and Portugal. Except for the emergence of the tapas craze within the United States, authentic Spanish food is just beginning to make some sort of impact beyond the largest cosmopolitan cities. Admittedly, speaking relatively, I know next to nothing about Spanish cuisine. However, considering I lived amongst the Portuguese for a handful of years, I have some sort of idea of at least what Portuguese food should look like (considering I was much too fearful to actually eat the food). This is a new and exciting experience for me, although it is rather difficult simply because the ingredients are sometimes a little on the exotic side for my family’s taste, or perhaps too daring. I’ve come a long way in emboldening myself to take extra steps in trying new flavors and foods. My family, however, isn’t as bold at this point. I have a vegetarian 12 year-old daughter that thinks Boca Burgers are too much like meat, a 4 year-old (‘nuf said), and a wife that is consistently picky, but is a good sport and does like my culinary excursions often enough. Even with the roadblocks, learning new techniques, new flavors, and discovering cultural histories I’ve yet to learn is altogether exhilarating and satisfying.

Iberian Saffron Potato Stew

My concept this evening was based on several ideas and dishes I’ve made before, but have now enhanced. This stew is not specifically Spanish nor Portuguese, but is assuredly both. The flavors remain close to this week’s intention, which is to be fresh, bright, and spring-like. The stew ended up being heavier than I’d wanted, but that was due to a specific reason which I’ll cover shortly. The stew itself was comprised of:

  • large chunks of russet potatoes
  • chopped onion
  • whole cloves of garlic
  • red bell peppers, cut into strips
  • boneless pork chops, roughly cubed
  • free-range pork linguiça sausage
  • olive oil
  • saffron-infused white wine
  • crushed red pepper and Spanish paprika

Iberian Saffron Potato StewThe first step was to boil the peeled, chunked potatoes, which is where my lighter stew turned to heavy stew. As I was boiling the potatoes, I received a phone call and in my forgetfulness forgot to drain the potatoes when they were half-way cooked. I ended up with potatoes that were not only fully cooked, but over-cooked. It was a bummer, but I tried to work with it. While the potatoes cooled in the collander, I layered the rest of the flavors so that a certain depth and richness would be reached at the end. Beginning with the linguiça, I sautéed in succession each of the ingredients until almost cooked. So, what was being sautéed was being cooked in the flavors of the last ingredient. This built the flavor to a bold intensity. The crushed red peppers were added to the garlic and onion while the paprika was added to the pork. When the potatoes were added to the pan, the mixture of the rest of the cooked ingredients was added back in along with the saffron-infused white wine. The entire stew was then put into a 375 degree stove for an hour. I plated the stew flanked with flash-sautéed broccoli in olive oil and garlic and garnished with chopped cilantro.

Upon serving, I had one distinct reaction to the pork: Kim hated the fat on the pork. This is certainly something I could have eliminated with some handy knife work, but I also could have cooked the entire stew for some time longer. This would have both eliminated some of the fat and also would have made the pork a bit more tender, although they were tender enough for most standards. I was a little miffed at her criticism because this is something that happens when you eat meat, and one of the reasons Kim quit eating meat for a long time was because of fat like this. Begrudgingly, my first response was to say, “Well, don’t eat meat then if you can’t handle it!” I didn’t mean that, but I did mean things like this should be expected to happen now and then. I’ll make sure to take the necessary precautions to trim the cutlet of extraneous fat next time.

However, the rest of the dish turned out pretty fantastic, getting a thumbs-up from Kim. Aside from wanting the stew to be lighter, the flavors blended very well and the crushed red pepper gave the stew a very nice punch. The saffron was not overwhelming, but was most certainly the star flavor of the dish. The potatoes, especially, soaked up much of the wine/saffron essence and the sauce remaining was a lovely complement to the bold dish. There were some mistakes with the dish, but overall I learned a lot again, especially considering that there was no base recipe for the dish except for some past dishes I devised based on what I thought I knew about Iberian cuisine. I just might be getting there….

Take care, my fair readers (all few of you!) and remember this: Love your food like a family heirloom because you are creating memories that will last for a lifetime.