Friday, June 27, 2008

Pata Negra: The Beautiful Black Pig of PB

Recently I had dinner at Costa Brava, the Spanish restaurant on Garnet in Pacific Beach. My friend Ines and I shared about half a dozen lovely little tapas dishes—briny aceitunas con anchoa (olives stuffed with anchovies), flaky empanadillas de Atún (tuna in pastry), sweet and salty dátiles con tocino (dates wrapped in bacon), a gorgeous tortilla Española (Spanish potato omelet with onion and egg) and a couple of other delicious plates.

So, I was looking forward to heading over to the little market, Pata Negra, that Costa Brava’s owner Javier Gonzalez also owns. It was closed by the time we had finished but I went there for a visit this week in anticipation of Javier being a guest on The Gourmet Club.

The shop is charming and filled with everything I’d imagine would make a homesick Spaniard melt in happiness. From cheeses and olive oils to wines and sausages, you could create some delicious meals from the products here with little effort. After all, much of what Gonzalez is importing comes already packaged. Of course, with some great effort, you also have the makings for traditional paella, from the rice and sausages to paelleras of every size—they have them from almost eight inches to 27 ½ inches in diameter, enough to feed 30 people.

Those mouth-watering olives stuffed with anchovies? You can buy a can of those as well as plain olives; mildly spicy long green pickled chili peppers (very similar in taste to pepperoncini), and tapeo Mediterraneo, a mix of pickled onions, carrots, capers, cornichons and peppers—all wonderfully crispy and briny.

Spain is known for its tuna fillets in olive oil and at Pata Negra you can buy them in a jar or a can. If you are looking for some other seafood in olive oil, there are also sardines, mussels and baby eels. I found cans of squid stuffed in their own ink—delicious with their soft flavors and chewy texture. You can also buy squid ink at the shop to color homemade pasta or rice—how about paella negra or black paella? I found this recipe on the Arizona Republic’s website:

Black Paella

2 cups Calasparra rice or bomba rice
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 cup tomato sauce
5 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons paprika
2 cups fresh or canned snails
3 pound squid, cut into medium sized pieces
1 teaspoon squid ink
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
Olive oil for brushing
1 lemon
Parsley for garnish

Add rice, garlic and tomato sauce to a 12-inch paella pan. In a medium stockpot, add chicken stock and paprika. Heat on medium until warm. Place paella pan on medium-hot burner, and add 2 cups of the chicken stock. Stir continuously until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Add another 2 cups and repeat until liquid has been absorbed. Add the remaining liquid, the snails and squid. Continue cooking, stirring constantly almost all the liquid is gone. Add the squid ink, salt and the peas. Stir to get ink evenly through the rice. Transfer to 450-degree oven and bake for 15 minutes or until rice is tender.

Remove paella, brush with olive oil. Zest the lemon and place on top. Squeeze the juice of lemon over rice and garnish with parsley.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

There must have been two dozen cheeses offered at Pata Negra. Certainly, the shop had a full range of Manchegos, a complex sheep’s milk cheese, but there also were the two Tetillas from Galicia—one a sweet and creamy cow’s milk formed in the shape of a breast, the other smoked in birch wood, also with its unique udder-ish shape. There was the semi-soft Don Wine goat’s milk, washed in red wine, and the Mahon from the Mediterranean island of Menorca, a very mild sheep’s milk cheese marinated in paprika. I picked up the Idiazabal, a sheep’s milk cheese similar to Manchego but sharper and about as close as it gets in Spain to a Parmesan.

Pata Negra also has a couple of pates—cod with baked peppers and the other, which I bought, made of anchovies. It has that lusciously smooth texture you expect from a pate and a sweeter than expected flavor. For those who turn up their noses at anchovies in all of these products, this is a very different fishy beast than the salt-laden, dried out flecks on pizza that can turn people off. The Spanish treat anchovies with respect. They’re rich and plump and a pleasure on the palate.

In fact, when I accompanied Gonzalez to the restaurant for a sampling of tapas, he put out plate of three anchovies, naked to the world. They were delicious on their own, similar to pickled herring, actually, but he showed me how to wrap one around an olive (stuffed with anchovies, of course) and then pop into the mouth. Absolutely delicious.

A good Spanish kitchen needs olive oil and vinegar and you’ll find a nice variety of quality goods here. I bought a bottle of the Castillo de Tabernas single variety olive oil (there’s also a blend of three olives). At .1 percent in acidity, this is used only for flavor, not cooking. If you want to cook with olive oil, don’t use any olive oil over .4 percent acidity or you’re simply wasting good oil.

You’ll also want an assortment of paprikas—and, don’t mistake these for the stale stuff you find in the supermarket. These are highly charged, flavorful paprikas. They come in picante, dulce (mild), bittersweet and smoked. Use them singly or mix some together to layer flavors.

My favorite part of the shop is dedicated to the sausages and, of course, what Pata Negra is now known for locally, its Jamón Ibérico, or Spanish ham. The best place to learn more about this ham is on the Costa Brava website, but briefly, these hams, newly available to the U.S. market, come from black-hoofed Iberico pigs who feed freely on acorns and wild plants. The Jamón Ibérico has a gorgeous rich red color and is served paper thin. The nutty flavor is reminiscent of those acorns and yet very delicate. Because this is such a rare and expensive treat, even in Spain, Jamón Ibérico is reserved for special occasions and generally eaten simply on its own or perhaps as a wrapper for shrimp that had been sautéed in olive oil, garlic and paprika. Below store manager Fernando Hernandez shows it off on a jamonera and you can see the difference between the Jamón Ibérico and Serrano ham, which the shop also sells.

Serrano ham, often compared to Italian prosciutto, is a dry-cured Spanish ham, actually sweeter and sliced thicker than its Italian cousin. The majority of these hams are made from Landrace white pigs and are far more affordable than the Jamón Ibérico.

Pata Negra also carries blood sausage and a variety of chorizo, including the Basque region’s chorizo de Bilbao, one of Spain’s most popular cooking chorizos and made with garlic, pimenton and pepper. At Costa Brava, I enjoyed pieces of grilled chorizo de Bilbao, both unadulterated and nestled in a piece of steaming freshly baked roll. Buy a package and butterfly each one for grilling, then snuggle it in a hot roll and enjoy with a good cold beer.

You can also find bacalao, boneless salt cod, that in its dried state doesn’t look like much. But, soak it in fresh water for a couple of days to leach out the salt and you have the makings of some wonderful dishes, including cod balls, peppers stuffed with salt cod and cod croquettes, which I enjoyed at Costa Brava.

Finally, Pata Negra has an impressive wine selection in the back room, with Riojas and Tempranillos and many others. And the prices seemed reasonable.

Have some thoughts about Pata Negra or other ethnic markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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  1. Paella is one of my very favorite dishes, and this certainly looks like the place to shop for the ingredients, along with many other meals. Thanks!

  2. A place I hope to visit soon. (I've been to the restaurant, but not the shop.)

  3. thank you for the info!!