My question was met with silence, so I repeated myself in broken Spanish.
“Do you know where the diamonds dwell?”
My question, which made perfect sense to me, caused the man's eyebrows to rise in perplexed bemusement. I’d seen that look often in my travels through Spain. It’s a facial expression familiar to anyone who has ever ventured outside her home country and made an attempt to speak with the locals using the local language. You know the look. The one that perfectly conveys that the person you’re speaking to thinks you have the IQ of a parrot.
My wife, who speaks Spanish much better than I, came to my aid. “Los Diamantes. It’s a tapas bar.”
After the man regained control of his giggles, he encouraged us to keep walking further down the street, Calle Navas, to number 28.
The sun shone hot as a pizza oven on that day a few summers ago. We were in Granada, a city in Andalucía famous as the home of the Alhambra, the fourteenth century Moorish palace. The city is not renowned, however, for its food. After two days tolerating mediocre chow, we decided to venture outside the romantic yet touristy Albaicín area in search of a decent lunch. On a tip from a friend, we headed to the nearby business district. The streets were nearly empty and all the shops were closed.
When we finally arrived at Los Diamantes, we were stunned. It seemed that every single worker on lunch break had descended upon this tiny bar the size of a shot glass. Customers spilled out of the bar onto the streets. In appearance, the bar is unremarkable, similar to any working class tapas bar anywhere in Spain. On warm summer days, the owners take advantage of the bar’s corner location by opening up both the front and side of the building to the street so that it effectively has just two walls. Along one wall is a long bar, which is standing room only. As far as I can recall, there were not even tables or chairs on that day. Along the shorter wall in the back is the diminutive kitchen.
My first attempt to penetrate the rugby scrum of a crowd proved useless. I generally don’t fare well in crowded bars. Much to my mother’s consternation, I take after my calm and quiet New England grandparents more than my mother, who was raised in New York City. I just don’t have it in me to elbow my way to the front of the line to place a drink order. Cocktails don’t provide adequate incentive for me.
Tapas bars, however, are another story. If there’s fried fish as a reward, I’ll happily toss elbows with a roomful of Arnold Schwarzeneggers (as a liberal San Franciscan, that’s an especially terrifying vision). Fortunately, I didn’t have to, because N noticed there was a gap in the crowd at the far end of the bar by the kitchen.
There was virtually nothing separating the bar from its kitchen. Just a wide open window. From the perspective of a local, the spot next to the heat of the kitchen was the least desirable place to stand. As a hungry traveler hoping to learn about Spanish cuisine, that was exactly where I wanted to be.
As is typical in Andalucía, the kitchen at Los Diamantes is dominated by the fryer. Andalusian cooks are masters in the art of frying. A friend who spent a year as an exchange student in Sevilla told me that he knew lunch or dinner was approaching whenever he heard the sound of oil beginning to bubble in his host family’s kitchen.
With the fryer about 12 inches from me, I could see that the frying cauldron was filled with olive oil. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, as the landscape on our train trip between Sevilla and Granada seemed to be populated by nothing but olive trees. However, cookbooks and food authorities had always warned me to avoid frying in olive oil, because its smoking point is relatively low, between 375 and 410 degrees Fahrenheit (190-205 degrees Celsius). The food that emerged from the fryer at Los Diamantes (and many other tapas bars throughout Andalucía and Madrid) reminded me, once again, not to trust those who anoint themselves as authorities.
The two fried dishes we had at Los Diamantes were amongst the best fried food I have ever eaten anywhere. Everything was perfectly greaseless and nicely crispy, despite the relatively pale blonde color of the final product. If N hadn’t stopped me, I could have eaten 10 platefuls of the berenjenas fritas, lightly battered paper-thin slices of eggplant. The coating reminded me of tempura batter. Each bite shattered like the top of a crème brûlée. We followed that with the surtido de pescados fritos, a plate of anchovies, hake, and tiny squid that had been dusted in flour before their quick dip in the olive oil jacuzzi. Bliss.
The other two dishes we ate, chopitos a la plancha (baby cuttlefish cooked on a griddle) and the house ensalada, also dwell high on my culinary pantheon. The salad, a version of which will be found on the menu of my future restaurant, Olallie, simply consisted of little gem lettuces cut into quarters and dressed with fantastic local extra virgin olive oil, white wine vinegar, fried slivers of garlic, and lots of salt. So much more refreshing than the ubiquitous mesclun salad!
In the end, at least from a gastronomic point of view, I guess I did discover where the diamonds dwell.
[Recipe after the jump]
Tips for Frying “Los Diamantes” Style in Olive Oil + Batter Recipe
Since that lunch at Los Diamantes, whenever I fry at home I use olive oil. I’ve experimented with both pure and extra virgin and, thankfully, found that the less expensive, more refined pure olive oil produces better results. The extra virgin is too viscous. I buy 3-litre cans of Ybarra olive oil, which is pressed from olives grown in Andalucía, but any pure olive oil works well. The cheaper the better, because I’ve found you can only fry in olive oil once. It breaks down and doesn’t keep as well as other frying oils. I fill my pot (cast iron is best) about one third full to a depth of 1.5 inches (4 cm), using about 4-5 cups. I’ve achieved best results frying at a slightly lower temperature than I would use with other oils, at about 360˚ Fahrenheit (180˚ Celsius), a tip which I learned from Janet Mendel’s My Kitchen in Spain, an excellent introduction to Spanish cuisine.
I get great results with the following batter recipe, which is basically a tempura batter. Although it’s probably different than the one the restaurant uses, I get results identical to the ones achieved on the eggplant slices at Los Diamantes. It’s important to use a flour with a higher starch content, because the starch is what caramelizes when it comes into contact with the oil. I recommend a proportion of 4 parts cake flour to 1 part cornstarch. If you use all-purpose flour, increase the proportion of cornstarch somewhat. The other keys are to mix the batter at the last minute, to keep it ice cold (suspend one bowl inside another filled with ice), and to mix the flour and water just lightly with a fork. The lumpy, relatively unmixed bits of batter will then be reincarnated into tasty crunchy fried bits of love -- some consider these the best part!
Because I’ve grown up eating tempura and frying Italian-style fritto misto in the restaurants where I’ve cooked, I tend to combine veggies with my fish in my fritura (which will also make an occasional appearance at Olallie). The most recent version I made, pictured at the opening of this post, consisted of smelt, kabocha squash, onion rings, thinly sliced Meyer lemons, and capers (capers not battered). The smelts which are now available in the Bay Area come from Maine (I bought mine at Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley), but a local variety is also sometimes available. The smelt, similar in size but milder than a sardine, is especially well-suited to frying, because its bones essentially melt when heated. You can eat the entire fish, bones and all. Smelts are very popular in France, where they're called éperlans, but I never saw them served in Spain. You can fry many kinds of fish and vegetables in this batter, so let your imagination run wild.
1 c cake flour
1/4 c cornstarch
1/2 t sea salt
1-1/3 c sparkling water
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. When oil has reached desired temperature (360 degrees if using pure olive oil), gradually add water to the dry ingredients, lightly stirring with back of a fork (fork turned backwards). Batter will be lumpy, but that is desired (see above). Batter should be the consistency of heavy cream. Fry a test piece. If batter seems too thin, add more flour. If too thick, add water.
Fry food in batches so as not to crowd the pan. Drain on paper towels (or a brown paper bag) and season with fine sea salt.