The Spanish Meal
Dining in and out in Spain
Spain seems to revolve around food, with the main meals of the day — a late lunch at about 2 p.m., and a late dinner at 10 p.m. — supplemented by many smaller ones. Bars fill up with hungry people in search of drinks, conversation, and little dishes called tapas at about 1 p.m. and then again at about 8 p.m. The entire country grinds to a halt for three hours while most people enjoy a three-course lunch, consisting of a first course, a hearty main dish, and coffee and dessert. Dinner is just as elaborate if taken in a restaurant, though simpler when eaten at home.
Throughout Spain people congregate in lively tapas bars to talk, drink, and share little plates of food. Tapas can be simple finger foods like olives or almonds, canapés or Spanish omelets, cut into squares and served on toothpicks, or deep-fried croquettes. Or they can be more elaborate hot, saucy foods served in small earthenware casseroles.
Unlike here in the United States, eggs are not breakfast food in Spain. Egg dishes are on every menu: they're served as tapas, light lunches and suppers, and first courses. Beyond the famed Spanish omelet, eggs are poached or fried (always in olive oil), scrambled (plain or with other ingredients) or hard-boiled.
There are two types of Spanish soups: Light, thin soups and thicker, full-meal varieties. Lighter soups, such as gazpacho, are eaten as first courses and sometimes served as tapas in shot glasses. Heartier soups are made with beans, fatty meats like oxtail and bacon, potatoes and other vegetables.
Meats and Stews
The Spanish love meat, especially big roasts of lamb and suckling pig cooked over an open flame. They also love hearty meat stews. Every region in the country has its version of cocido, a hearty boiled dinner that usually includes beans — chick peas or limas or white beans or broad beans — with cured pork products, meats, and vegetables, simmered slowly for hours. The fragrant broth is served as a first course before the meat, beans and vegetables.
Fish and Seafood
Spain has over 3,000 miles of coastline, and seafood is important everywhere, even in the landlocked city of Madrid. Fish dishes tend to be simple, the best just quickly grilled or fried in olive oil, their quality a function of the utter freshness of the fish. Shellfish and anchovies, sardines and marinated fish dishes escabeches also show up on tapa menus.
Rice dishes are often the main attraction of a Spanish meal. Paella is the most famous Spanish rice dish, and the most festive, traditionally cooked in the open air in wide, flat pans over wood fires made with vine cuttings. Spain's rice dishes don't stop with paellas. There are soupy rice dishes (arroces caldosos) and creamy ones (arroces melosos). If they are cooked in earthenware or cast iron casseroles, rice dishes are called cazuelas.
Vegetables and Salads
Vegetables and salads in Spain are rarely served as side dishes, but as a course unto themselves, and sometimes as a feast. Every region has its own particular classic ratatouille-like medley made with eggplant, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and squash simmered slowly in olive oil. Greens, particularly spinach and chard, are much loved in Spain, as they are throughout the Mediterranean. Other favorites — peppers, tomatoes, and especially potatoes — came from the New World.
Spain has a rich dessert tradition, dating back hundreds of years. Traditional sweets include marzipans and rich, eggy confections called turrones, almond cakes and ices, fried pastries (churros) and candied fruits in sugar syrups, sponge cakes, rice puddings, custards (natillas) and flans. But rather than eaten after a meal, these treats are usually eaten at as late-morning or mid-afternoon snacks, and sometimes at breakfast.