I discovered a long time ago that cooking for certain people can be maddeningly frustrating. No matter how good something is, an attitude often persists that “if it’s not how my grandmother made it, it’s not right, and you shouldn’t do it that way.” I respect where that comes from and the appreciation for doing things the old way, but I also find it extremely limiting as a chef.
What I love most about Spanish food culture is that, as deep a tradition go, for some things, everyone does them differently. No matter how much you love grandma’s version of a dish, you expect that when you eat it somewhere else, or cooked by someone else, it will have a different twist - and you can still enjoy it. Most importantly in Spain: if it’s good, it’s good. Period.
Nothing exemplifies this concept to me more than patatas bravas. It’s a dish with which most Americans with even a passing interest in Spanish cuisine will have at least some vague familiarity. It’s extremely popular bar food in many parts of Spain. But there is no standard way to do it.
Almost all the bars in Barcelona or Madrid have patatas bravas on the menu. But if you walk down the street from one bar to the next, ordering that same dish at each bar, you will be served something completely different in each one. I have eaten patatas bravas in at least 50 different places in various parts of Spain, and I can’t remember ever been served the same thing in two different venues. The sauces change, the way the potatoes are cut and fried changes, the presentation changes.
Patatas bravas always start with fried potatoes. From there, though, it goes every which way. The most popular way to cut them is in dice, which is my preference, but cut them however you like them. Some people peel them, some don't (I generally don't). Two sauces typically adorn or accompany the fried potatoes, an aioli and the “salsa brava,” though some people do just one sauce. Aioli (recipe here) is basically just a type of garlic mayonnaise. It’s popular all over Spain in all types of contexts, not just for patatas bravas.
Salsa brava is a spicy tomato sauce. Again everyone does salsa brava a little differently, but they are typically a little bit sweet, a little bit sour, and often, blended to a fairly smooth consistency. Remember that as North Americans, our version of picante is a lot more spicy than what Spaniards are used to. Therefore, I tend to make the salsa brava spicier at home than I do when cooking in Spain. Adjust the heat to your own tastes.
Chiles: ñora (top left), ancho (top right), de árbol (center), guindillas (not pictured) are skinny smaller and red, similar to cayenne.
In Spain, the heat comes typically from a chile called the guindilla, which is not even as hot as the serrano chiles you may be used to if you spend time with Mexican food. Ñoras are a mild chile often used to flavor the sauce. I rarely see guindillas or ñoras in any form in North America, so I use a combination of 2 or 3 Mexican chiles which are easily sourced at almost any market where I live in California. The Mexican chiles are obviously not traditional or standard anywhere in Spain, but the flavor of the sauce gets close enough to please any Spaniard you may know.
2 lbs Russet Potatoes, scrubbed clean under cold running water
For Salsa Brava
1 small white or yellow onion, peeled and cut in small dice
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed or minced
One 28oz can of peeled, crushed tomatoes, in their juice
1 to 4 chiles de árbol (dried) depending on how spicy you want it, seeds removed
(substitute cayenne or red thai chiles for the chiles de árbol)
3 or 4 ancho chiles (dried), seeds removed
3 Tbsp granulated sugar (or to taste)
1½ Tbsp sherry vinegar (or substitute red wine vinegar)
1Tbsp olive oil
Oil for frying
Aioli (recipe here)
Prep Potatoes: Cut the potatoes in 1” cubes, and cover them in cold water in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add a good pinch of salt, then bring to a boil on high heat. When the water starts to boil, lower the temperature to gently simmer. Cook until the potatoes are cooked through, but not falling apart. Check with a cake tester or a small knife. Drain immediately, and leave the potatoes to steam out until they cool off. You can do this step a day ahead and store the cooled potatoes covered in the fridge. Make the Salsa
Heat a heavy-bottomed sauce pan on a medium-low flame. When hot, add the olive oil, followed by the onions and garlic. Sauté, stirring regularly until the onions are cooked through and just beginning to brown.
Add the chiles, the canned tomatoes, and a good pinch of salt. Cook, stirring regularly until the liquid from the tomatoes has mostly reduced away. Stir in the sugar and the vinegar and remove from the heat.
Blend the sauce until smooth using a blender or immersion blender. Taste and adjust salt, sugar, and/or vinegar as needed. Salsa brava can be made several days in advance. It will keep well, stored properly in the fridge for at least a week.
Finish the patatas bravas: Fry the potatoes in 350F oil until golden brown and crispy. While still very hot from the fryer, toss with salt and a little bit of the pimentón picante. Arrange on a plate and top with the brava sauce and aioli. Serve hot with your favorite cold beer.
The easiest way to dispense the salsa brava and aioli is using squirt bottles.