Barlata owner Daniel Olivella says that to know how to cook Spanish food, you don’t have to know how to cook tapas.
You have to know how to cook onions.
The second-most important ingredient in Catalan cuisine — after olive oil, of course — is the backbone of every dish he grew up eating in a small town outside Barcelona called Vilafranca del Penedes.
Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which lasted from the 1940s through his death in 1975, everyone in Spain had to be resourceful, including home cooks. Onions were one reliable vegetable that went into everything from the sofrito that seasoned the stews to the caramelized onion marmalade that went with the paella.
Olivella has been working in the United States for more than 35 years, first as a musician and then as a chef and restaurant owner in California.
After moving his family to Austin in 2010 to open Barlata on South Lamar Boulevard, he split his time between Texas and California. Now, he’s splitting his time between Austin and that same Catalan town he grew up in.
For many years, Olivella has traveled home to compete in the annual human-tower-building festival, a regional tradition in Catalonia where teams of people build towers that can be more than eight stories high. He’s part of Vilafranca’s tower-building group, which is one of about 100 teams that compete every year. The groups also function as year-round social clubs, and his town’s team has a 200-year-old building where they have hold gatherings. Earlier this year, organizers decided they wanted to open a restaurant in it. Who better to do so than the hometown kid who went to the U.S. to share Catalan food with Americans?
“They called on May 1, and we opened on Aug. 1,” Olivella says. “It was crazy. I’d never worked with liters and kilos and centigrade and the European laws of labor.”
Now that the restaurant, Cal Figarot, is open, he’s making frequent trips to make sure things are running smoothly.
But back to those onions.
In his new book, “Catalan Food,” which was published last month, Olivella has written an ode to onions, olive oil, paella, pimenton and all the other cuisine-defining foods from his beloved Catalonia.
The book is packed with history about the region, including its past and present political climate, as well as stunning photos from North Carolina-based Johnny Autry of Barcelona and the towns, beaches and mountains around it.
There are some tapas recipes, but it’s not a tapas book.
A few years ago, a food writer named Caroline Wright approached Olivella to write a cookbook about Spanish food, but all the publishers wanted one about tapas. That didn’t interest Olivella. Even in southern Spain, where tapas originated, the cuisine is more than the small dishes or snacks often served in bars and restaurants.
“I love Madrid and Sevilla and other parts of Spain, but I believe that Catalan cuisine is one of the most unique in the Mediterranean diet,” he says.
The book covers the basics, including those onions he’s so passionate about. “I’m very picky about the way we cook the onion,” he says.
Cooking them down with tomatoes and bell peppers forms the sofrito that is in many of Olivella’s recipes. "Sofrito" comes from sofrier, which means to sweat: “We want to sweat them to the point that they are sweet, but we aren’t burning them.”
Taking the time to cook the onions down gently until they are so soft they form a sauce — that’s the kind of cuisine Olivella remembers from when he was a kid and the kind of cooking he does now.
In the book, you’ll find traditional Spanish dishes, such as salt cod fritters and a whole chapter on paellas, but you’ll also find dishes that hint at Olivella’s time in America, including the chorizo burger served at Barlata or his “arros Austin,” a Texas-inspired smoked rice dish.
Olivella says that the best cooks let the region and season influence what’s on the stove or in the pot, using whatever is freshest and most tempting at the market.
“When you are a cook, you only think about what you are doing right now,” he says, wherever you are. That adds a sense of terroir and personality to your food. “That’s the best way to mix it up.”
He says that Americans have a much more open palate than Spaniards, thanks in part to grocery stores that carry such a large international selection and restaurant owners who immigrated to the U.S.
He tries to introduce some of the American flavors to his customers in Spain, but they aren’t nearly as receptive as American diners are to Spanish cuisine.
What American cooks can learn from their Spanish brethren is to shop more frequently, he says: “We buy bread every day in Spain. We go shopping for what we are cooking that day. Food is the center of everyday life. Here, we go shopping once or twice a week.”
Olivella is happy to have a foot in both places. “In all these years of believing in my culture, they like what I am doing,” he says.
Beef-Chorizo Hamburger With Manchego
Americans enjoy burgers as sandwiches, while Catalans prefer chorizo sandwiches. I thought: Why not combine the two? I like to use fresh Spanish chorizo, called masa. It’s the loose pork mixture before it is stuffed into casings and cured. But fresh Mexican chorizo, which is much easier to come by, will work well. Serve these burgers with a cold beer and some fried or roasted potatoes.
— Daniel Olivella
1 pound fresh chorizo, casings removed
1 pound lean ground beef
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces Manchego cheese, coarsely grated
4 ciabatta hamburger rolls, split and toasted
Aioli (see recipe, or use store-bought), for serving
Tomato slices and romaine leaves, for serving
Pickled red onions, for serving
Heat a grill or grill pan to medium-high. In a large bowl, gently mix together the chorizo and beef with your hands. Divide the meat into 4 equal portions and shape gently into patties about 1 inch thick. Season all over with salt and pepper.
Grill the burgers to medium-rare, 6 to 8 minutes total, flipping once. During the last 2 minutes of cooking, pile the cheese on the burgers, put down the grill lid or cover with a large lid or baking pan and cook until the cheese melts.
Spread each toasted bun with aioli. Add the burgers and top with the tomato slices, lettuce and pickled onions. Serves 4.
Shrimp in Garlic Oil
My deepest memories come from playing around in the kitchen as a boy while my mother cooked. The savory aroma of sofregit, or sofrito, and the smell of frying garlic always remind me of her, as do the smells in this dish. I like to serve it to guests in small cast-iron skillets with the shrimp and garlic still sizzling. The aromas of garlic and oil waft up from the pan, engulfing your senses.
— Daniel Olivella
4 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
8 medium tail-on shrimp (21/25 count), peeled and deveined
1/2 teaspoon dried adobo seasoning, plus a generous pinch of pimenton (smoked paprika)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh curly parsley, for serving
In a cold 6-inch cast-iron skillet, stir together the oils and garlic. Tuck the shrimp together in a single layer on top. Place the skillet over medium-high heat and sprinkle a generous pinch (about 1/4 teaspoon) of adobo seasoning and pimenton over the shrimp as they begin to sizzle. Sear the shrimp until they are pink on one side, about 2 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice to keep the garlic from burning. Use tongs to turn the shrimp and cook until they are bright pink, about 1 minute more.
Sprinkle with the remaining adobo seasoning and remove the skillet from the heat. Let stand for about 30 seconds, garnish with parsley and serve the shrimp sizzling in the skillet.
Fideuà Paella (Fideo Paella)
Fideuà is similar to paella, but it is made with short toasted noodles called fideus, which you can find at Hispanic markets. You can also toast the noodles yourself as described here. The dish starts on the stove-top just like paella, but then it is finished in the oven. You can tell it is done when you look into the oven and the noodles are standing up.
— Daniel Olivella
4 ounces store-bought toasted fideuà, fideo or vermicelli pasta
3 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
About 5 cups fish stock, homemade (see recipe) or store-bought
1 small garlic clove, peeled
1/8 teaspoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons fresh curly parsley leaves
2 ounces firm whitefish, such as monkfish or snapper, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 ounces cuttlefish or squid steaks, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup squid bodies, sliced into rings and tentacles
1/4 cup sofregit (see recipe) or store-bought sofrito
1/2 teaspoon caramelized onion marmalade (see recipe)
1/2 teaspoon pimenton (smoked paprika)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 medium shrimp (21/25 count), peeled and deveined, tails left on
2 tablespoons frozen peas, thawed
2 tablespoons aioli (see recipe, or use store-bought), for serving
4 small lemon wedges, for serving
Pimenton oil (see recipe), for serving
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
If you use vermicelli pasta, use your hands to break the pasta into 1-inch pieces over a large sheet pan. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the oil over the pasta or fideus and toss to coat it well. Shake the noodles into a single layer, then toast in the oven until deep golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice for even browning. Remove and let cool completely. This step can be done a day or two ahead.
Increase the oven temperature to 450 degrees. In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a gentle simmer over medium heat.
Meanwhile, make a picada by mashing the garlic and 1/8 teaspoon of the salt to a fine paste in a mortar with a pestle. Gradually add in the parsley, mashing each addition completely before adding more, until you have a green paste. Stir in 1/2 tablespoon of the olive oil and set aside.
In a 12-inch paella pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the fish, cuttlefish and squid. Cook until the fish begins to shrink and turn opaque, 1 to 2 minutes, tossing frequently. Stir in the toasted noodles until they are shiny with oil.
Add the picada, sofregit, onion marmalade, pimenton, black pepper and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add about 3 cups of warm stock to the pan, shaking it to settle and loosen any noodle clusters as the stock begins to boil. Only shake the noodles at this point; if stirred, they will become sticky.
Simmer over medium heat until some stock is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Test the noodles for doneness — they should be about halfway cooked by now. If the noodles no longer have room to swim, add about 1 cup more stock. Continue to simmer until only a thin layer of stock rests on top, up to 10 minutes more.
Bury the shrimp throughout the noodles and scatter the peas over the top. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook until the shrimp turn pink, all the stock has evaporated, and the crispy noodles stand up in the pan, 5 to 7 minutes.
Spoon the aioli onto the center of the noodles. Serve at the center of the table with spoons for guests to serve themselves and lemon wedges for squeezing. Stir the aioli into the noodles only after the dish is on the table. Drizzle with the pimenton oil. Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 to share.
Homemade Fish Stock
1 cup dry white wine
1 pound whitefish bones, rinsed and halved if large
1 small yellow onion, peeled and halved
1 fennel stalk (upper light green part), roughly chopped
1 celery rib, roughly chopped
1 Roma or vine tomato, halved
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
In a large stockpot, combine the wine, bones, onion, fennel, celery, tomato, peppercorns and bay leaves and add 1 gallon water. Bring to a simmer over high heat, then reduce the heat to low so the liquid barely simmers. Cook until the stock is flavorful and pale gold in color, about 1 hour, skimming off the froth occasionally.
Place a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl. Pour the stock through the strainer and use a pestle or wooden spoon to press all the liquid from the solids (discard the solids). Set the stock aside to cool.
Transfer the stock to the refrigerator to chill completely, then divide into airtight containers. Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Makes 4 quarts.
Sofrito is a saute of vegetables that is used as a base ingredient in many cuisines, and in the Catalan region of Spain, they make a version with bell pepper, onions and tomatoes that turns into a sweet, tangy sauce after simmering on the stove for more than an hour. This batch will make enough to freeze and use in plenty of other stews and sauces this winter.
— Addie Broyles
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
A few generous pinches of kosher salt
1 small green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce
In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the onion and salt and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook until the onion is translucent, about 15 minutes, stirring often to prevent burning. Stir in the bell pepper and cook until the onion is pale golden and very soft and the pepper is tender, about 15 minutes more. When it is ready, the onion will fall apart in your fingers. Give it time.
Add the tomato sauce, increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. You should see only a few bubbles here and there as the sauce cooks. The sofregit is finished when it concentrates to a thick, chunky texture and falls from a spoon in one dollop.
To store, spoon the sofregit into ice cube trays in 2-tablespoon portions. Freeze until solid, then transfer to freezer bags, squeeze out all the air, and seal. Store for up to 3 months. Thaw before using or add directly to the pan for dishes that will be simmering. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
Caramelized Onion Marmalade
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons salted butter
2 medium yellow onions (about 1 pound), halved and thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large Dutch oven or heavy skillet, heat the oil and butter together over medium-low heat. When the butter is melted and foamy, add the onions and season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, until the onions turn dark golden brown and sticky, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Be patient; don’t turn up the heat.
When the onions are caramel brown, transfer them to a blender or food processor and pulse until smooth. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months. Makes about 1/3 cup.
2 garlic cloves, smashed
Pinch of kosher salt
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Mash the smashed garlic and salt together in a mortar with a pestle until the garlic is completely broken into a fine paste. Combine the oils in a spouted measuring cup.
Scrape the garlic paste into a medium bowl. Whisk in the egg yolk until the yolk is loose and a bit pale.
Whisking constantly, begin adding the blended oil a few drops at a time. Be sure each drop is fully whisked in before adding the next. As the base thickens, you can add oil a bit faster down the side of the bowl in a steady trickle, continuing to whisk constantly. When thickened, begin whisking in the vinegar.
The aioli is finished when all the oil and vinegar is whisked in and the mixture is white or pale yellow, shiny, and stands up firm like Greek yogurt. Add a drop or two of water if it is too thick, and season with more salt if needed.
Spoon the aioli into an airtight container, cover the surface with plastic wrap, and store in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days. Makes about 1/2 cup.
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 small garlic cloves, peeled
1 small bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh oregano
3 black peppercorns
1/8 teaspoon pimenton (smoked paprika)
In a large skillet, heat 1/3 cup of the oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the onion and garlic, season with salt and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook slowly until the onion is translucent and the garlic is golden brown, about 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the bay leaf, thyme, oregano, peppercorns and remaining 1/3 cup oil. When the onion begins to sizzle, after a minute or two, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the pimenton. Set aside to cool completely, 15 to 30 minutes. Strain the pimenton oil into a Mason jar and store at room temperature for up to 4 weeks.