Mariscos a la plancha translates to grilled seafood. When our Catalan friends Miki and Mariangels S’Agaro announced that they were going to prepare fresh mariscos a la plancha for us in their home on the Costa Brava, I went into my yummy dance.
Our day started with a trip to the market in Sant Feliu de Guíxols, a medieval town along the coastline of the Costa Brava about an hour or so north of Barcelona. The prices at this small market were higher than we’re used to in Valencia, but the quality and freshness of the seafood was amazing. Many of the sea creatures were still alive and kicking around on the ice. We knew we were out of our league, so we stood back and watched the expert shopper do her thing picking out the best of each item.
In the autonomous community of Catalonia in northeast Spain, the Catalan people traditionally speak Catalan, which is a second official language of the region. Many of the names for fish and seafood are different in Catalan than Spanish. For example, Cigalas (Spanish) are called Escamarlans. The translation in English is crayfish, but these are unlike any crayfish I’ve ever seen in the U.S. They are much larger with a harder shell, like a small lobster. Escamarlans come from the northeast Atlantic ocean and the North Sea.
The bright red Gambas de Palamós (shrimp) were still fiesty and snapped their legs when the attendant grabbed a handful to throw on the scale. You can’t get more fresh than that. These special shrimp are from Palamós, a town on the coast of Spain about 18 km north of where we were in Sant Feliu de Guixols.
We learned to bypass the sepias limpias (cleaned cuttlefish) because they may not be very fresh. Overlook the messy appearance and go for the sepias frescas, which still have the dark membrane on its body, and ask the fishmonger to clean it for you. Trust me, they taste much better than they look. Sepia is thicker and meatier than calamari. Mariangels likes the more tender small to medium sized sepia.
A whole fish would be the finale to our seafood feast. The freshest, best looking fish was the llobarro salvatge (wild sea bass, lubina in Spanish). A two to three pound fish was all that we needed with the rest of the seafood.
On the way back from the market, we had one more very important task – dessert! Many beautiful treats awaited us in the windows of the pastelerias in Sant Feliu de Guixols. We took home a pastry that is typical of the area called a Guixolene.
I am so thankful that the main meal of the day in Spain is served midday, because I don’t think I could have waited any longer. When 2:00 pm finally arrived, we were right there by the kitchen ready to go. The white wine was chilled: Albariño from Rias Biaxas, Verdejo from Rueda, and Godello from Monterrei in Galicia. These are three Spanish grape varietals that make medium body white wines with nice acidity that are great with seafood. However, we started with a bubbly glass of cava produced in the Catalan region.
The seafood was all cooked just before eating on a flat cast iron grill called a plancha. The plancha was sprinkled with coarse salt and heated over the gas burners of the stove top. The escamarlans went on the grill first for just a few minutes on each side. Five minutes later, they arrived on the table and we dug in.
The first step was to pull the head from the body and suck out the juices. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I certainly didn’t anticipate the intensity of flavor from such a simple preparation of olive oil and salt. The hot shells burned our fingers but it was worth it to get the juices while they were still steaming. The tail meat was a similar taste and texture to lobster. We crunched the claws between our teeth to extract every bit of flavor.
When we finished, the Gambas de Palamós went onto the grill and minutes later they were on the table. You can imagine the difficulty I had keeping hands from grabbing at them while I tried to take some photos. The eating process was repeated: tear apart and suck the juices from the head. The salt and smoke from the grill mingled with the sweetness of the meat. Again, there was much more flavor than I was expecting. Was this because they were so fresh or was it the salty taste of the Mediterranean sea? I don’t know, but I’ve never tasted shrimp like this.
The sepia was the next dish to hit the table. The plate was drizzled with a mixture of olive oil, garlic and parsley. The lightly cooked sepia was crisp to the bite, and then velvety soft on the tongue.
While all of this feasting was going on, the llobarro was baking in the oven on a bed of potatoes and onions. The fish was lightly seasoned with salt and olive oil, which was all that the moist delicate white meat needed. Sea bass is very nice as a whole fish because the meat is thick without very many small bones, so it’s easy to eat.
The seafood was accompanied by a salad and escalivada, a traditional Catalan dish of grilled eggplant, red pepper and onion. The vegetables had been grilled earlier in the day on the same plancha and allowed to cool to room temperature.
It is truly amazing how there always seems to be room for dessert. That Guixolene may have looked big, but it didn’t stand a chance. The flaky layers of pastry filled with sweet crema catalana and topped with almonds was gone in minutes. We chose to have a dry nutty Oloroso Sherry with the dessert to complement the almonds and rich crema in the pastry.
What could possibly come next?
Time for a siesta!