Simple Spanish Food: The Perfect Salad

by mary on June 16, 2013

Simple Spanish food: the perfect salad dressed with Spanish olive oil and sherry vinegar

When I get back from Spain I’m a bit overwhelmed by all the wonderful food and wine experiences. It’s hard for me to get down to writing about it, so I’m going to start today with some simple and perfect Spanish food: the composed salad. It’s anything lovely arranged on a plate and dressed most simply with top notch olive oil, vinegar and sea salt. These plates were mainstays on my Spanish family’s table…a favorite was tomato, cebolleta (baby onions), perfect oil-packed tuna or bonito. I used to have to avoid my American tendency to over-complicate and heap on ingredients…now I fully embrace the minimalism. My only concession to a US palate today is the use of fresh ground pepper and maybe a fancy salt. Look at this beauty I made the other day….just avocado, Kumato tomatoes and Vidalia onion dressed with Marques de Griñon olive oil, spectacular Romate aged sherry vinegar, and Soso chili sea salt. Perfect with a glass of rosado cava!

My relationship with Spanish salads has often been complicated. Not so with the dressing. There is nothing better than the last minute dressing of olive oil, vinegar and salt thrown together,without measuring, at the last minute. It’s the only dressing in Spain, the condiments arrive with your naked salad at the table and one lucky person is picked to dress the salad for the table. Such a simple operation, with no recipe, can seem complicated and intimidating to the uninitiated and the quantities of olive oil used can also be initially off-putting, but try it and you will come to love it. The lovely pool of oil and vinegar left at the bottom when you finish makes for spectacular bread dipping! Now that I’m back home, I can’t even touch most prepared dressings…they are seem so heavy and sticky.

Simple Spanish food: a perfect Salad dressed with Spanish olive oil and Spanish sherry vinegar

Marques de Griñon olive oil, Romate PX sherry vinegar and Soso salt make a perfect salad dressing

The salads, composed, or otherwise, in Spain are usually very simple. I confess that while I lived there, I often found the salads a bit repetitive. I craved the 15 ingredient, deluxe American salad so much that my secret vice was a regular trip to the fast food VIPS chain for one of their enormous, American-style salads. I loved those monsters!

More sophisticated salads have long been available in the Catalan region and other regions where vegetables are highlighted, such as Navarra, La Rioja. Tendencies are changing, but most salads remain pretty simple, with just a handful of ingredients. The truly inferior ones have iceberg lettuce, tasteless tomatoes, and pools of water at the bottom!

The longer I’m back, the more I appreciate and miss a top quality, simple salad. The ingredients are highlighted, you can taste and savor every one, and the meal leaves you lighter in every way. To get those lovely salads here in the US you often have to go to fine dining establishments…what is available at the more economical level leaves a lot to be desired.

The perfect Spanish salad with olive oil and sherry vinegar

The good stuff! Perfect for dipping bread!

Luckily those simple salads are so easy to make at home! I play around a lot but here are some classic Spanish combinations:

  • The basic ensalada mixta: romaine lettuce, great tomatoes, onions, great quality canned tuna in olive oil, and a few olives….I like the anchovy stuffed ones. There are many variations of this salad, but it is usually quite simple. Dressed in the typical Spanish way….heavy with both oil and vinegar
  • Green salad: just lettuce and sweet onions, often cebolleta, dressed heavy on the vinegar. Usually seen with the meat course. Perfect acidic foil for a fatty dish, such as roast suckling pig or lamb, or a chuleta (steak). Different lettuces are appreciated here, frisée, mâche, or whatever is available.
  • Tomato salad: we eat this at El Timonel in Marbella. Just great tomatoes, minced garlic, generous olive oil, salt, and a tiny splash of sherry vinegar. Left to marinate for a couple of hours to blend the flavors….amazing!
  • Roasted pepper salad: typical everywhere in Andalucia, each place has a slight twist. Fresh roasted peppers are best, but good quality jarred ones will do in a pinch. Lots of roasted red peppers, grated tomato (on a box grater..discard skin), minced garlic, rings of sweet onions, lots of olive oil, and some sherry vinegar, salt to taste. This salad gets better with time.
  • Roasted pepper with bonito: this one is just roasted red pepper with oil-packed bonito tuna on top, simply dressed. A perfect combination. Bonito is widely available in the US but is pricy. Good quality oil-packed tuna can be substituted, but you’ll be amazed at the bonito!

So many great possibilities…but simplicity and good olive oil are key to success!

Wine matching here can be a challenge, sherry vinegar is very acidic. The olive oil and any fat such as avocado or oil-cured tuna will also round out the salad and make it easier to match. I really like a cava with Spanish salads….the acidity and sparkle really stands up well. Also a great dry Spanish rosé is excellent…the lightness and freshness of white, with the aromas of a light red…perfect! The best of both worlds can be found in my favorite rosado cava de Nit by Raventos I Blanc!



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