Category: Murcia

Ensalada murciana – A tomato salad for all seasons

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In most places, tomato salad is a symbol of summer – of warm, sunny days and cool, refreshing meals. But in Murcia, tomato salad is a year-round treat. And I’m not talking about salad made with those flavorless, greenhouse-produced tomatoes that can be found in the markets even in the winter.

I’m talking about the ensalada murciana (Murcian salad), yet another genius combination of Mediterranean pantry staples that is made, not with fresh, but with canned tomatoes, which are roughly chopped and then tossed together with oil-packed tuna, onions, hard-boiled eggs, cured olives, and, of course, a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.

Why is this called the Murcian salad? As is the case with many local dishes, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact origin, but the salad was obviously ubiquitous enough to take on the name of the city itself. This makes sense, because tomatoes (both fresh and canned) are emblematic of the huerta, the fertile lands within and surrounding the city that have long been recognized for their agricultural potential. Indeed, traces of Roman irrigation systems have been discovered in the area, which were expanded and improved upon by the Arabs who founded and ruled the city for over 800 years. Tomatoes of course came later, brought back from the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. Tomatoes thrive in Murcia’s huerta, so it is logical that canning eventually became an important local industry, too.

I love the tomato-packed ensalada murciana because it is easy to make and can be thrown together in any season. Served chilled in the summer, it refreshes like gazpacho, and at room temperature in winter, it adds a splash of sun and sea (and Murcia) to the table.

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Ensalada murciana

This salad can be served as a tapa or side dish, or as a light dinner or lunch. It improves as it sits, so should be made at least an hour (and up to a day) before you plan on serving it.

Most home cooks and bars toss all of the ingredients together, which of course helps the flavors meld. Yet some high-end restaurants artfully arrange their top-quality tomatoes, tuna, olives and eggs on a plate and then sprinkle them with sea salt flakes and drizzle the olive oil over the top. This is a good option for luxury canned tomatoes and tuna, where you really want each ingredient to shine.

The steps here are just basic guidelines, because it really doesn’t matter what you add first (or how much you add) to the bowl. Feel free to improvise as they do here in Murcia, as all of the quantities can be adjusted according to your preferences or what you have on hand.

For 4-6 people:

  • 1/2 – 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 28-ounce can of good quality tomatoes, drained
  • 1 5-ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil, drained
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
  • 1/2 cup small black olives (such as Niçoise – see note)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, to taste (start with 2 tablespoons and add more as you like)
  • Salt, to taste

Soak the thinly sliced onion in a bowl of ice water for ten minutes to make it easier to digest. Drain and set aside.

Roughly chop the tomatoes (I do this right over the bowl) and place them in a large bowl along with their juice. Break up the tuna and add it to the bowl. Stir in the onions, chopped eggs and olives. Add salt to taste (I don’t tend to add much, since the tuna, tomatoes and olives already contain salt). Drizzle as much olive oil as you want over the salad and then toss everything together. Cover and chill for at least one hour before serving for the flavor to develop.

Remove the salad from the refrigerator at least 15 minutes before serving (depending on the season) so that it is not ice cold (which dulls the flavors). In fact, in the winter, I prefer to eat ensalada murciana at room temperature. Serve with plenty of bread for dipping.

Notes: The traditional olive used is a small, black (and brine-cured) Spanish variety called cuquillo. If you cannot find cuquillo olives, Niçoise olives are a good substitute.

Empanada murciana – Fiesta food

Like every Spanish city and town, Murcia has its own annual fiesta rooted in local traditions: the Bando de la Huerta. This day-long celebration pays homage to Murcia’s agrarian roots, its huerta, the cultivated lands within and surrounding the city once renowned as the huerta de Europa (the market garden of Europe).

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The Bando de la Huerta takes place every year on the Tuesday after Easter as part of the week-long Fiestas de Primavera, heralding spring’s arrival and offering a popular antidote to the (relatively) solemn activities of the Semana Santa, or Holy Week, before. On the day of the festival, the people of Murcia descend upon the city center by the thousands, most dressed in traditional clothing. The men are known as huertanos and the women huertanas.

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The centerpiece of the fiesta is a parade that brings Murcia’s past to life with period costumes and floats demonstrating time-honored huerta activities. On one float, ladies knead and shape dough, which they place in a working, dome-shaped adobe oven to produce Murcia’s signature round loaves. On another float, young girls dance a jota in a bin of grapes, celebrating the local wine-making tradition.

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The most anticipated floats come at the end: tractor-drawn, open-air replicas of the typical homes of the huerta, barracas, complete with thatched roofs and loops of sausage hanging from the rafters. All along the parade route, riders toss out products from the huerta, like lemons, the aforementioned sausages and even small bottles of wine.

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Sharing from the huerta is not only true of this annual parade, but remains a strong aspect of daily life in Murcia, where the idea of actually paying for local products like lemons is unthinkable to many locals. Despite the fact there isn’t nearly as much huerta as there used to be, the generous landscape that has fed families for centuries continues to give. This generosity is the heart of Murcia.

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Historical traditions aside, the Bando de la Huerta is first and foremost a party. An article on this year’s Bando in the local paper described the scene perfectly: “The people of Murcia celebrate the most ‘huertano’ day of the year eating and drinking in every corner of the city.”

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Instead of fighting the crowds in packed restaurants, many locals opt to bring their own provisions to the party. Since the streets are closed off to traffic, any place is good for a picnic.

We have set up shop with friends and family in the same spot for the last several years, so other friends know where to find us if they want to stop by for a beer and bite to eat. The sharing principal of the huerta extends to the partying, as well.

Typical foods at our potluck-style picnic include general Spanish favorites like marinated olives and tortilla de patatas as well as snacks with a huertano twist like Murcian longaniza (sausages cured with pimentón), potato chips drizzled with fresh lemon juice, and savory pastries like the empanada murciana, packed with tuna, eggs and tomato.

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I usually bake American-style cookies for the picnic, which are much appreciated, but this year I decided to make an empanada murciana for the first time to share a taste of Murcia and its fiesta with family and friends on this blog. This nourishing savory pie pairs perfectly with ice-cold beer, and, an important consideration, keeps the effect of the beer in check. Spanish fiestas take stamina.

If you, too, choose to make an empanada murciana, in the spirit of the city, be sure to invite your friends. Cheers! ¡Salud!

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Empanada murciana

In her cookbook The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden writes, “Empanadas, large savory pies, are a symbol of Galicia, while empanadillas, small turnovers, are a specialty of the Balearic Islands and Valencia.” To which I ask, “Hey, what about Murcia?” Both empanadas and empanadillas are specialties here, too! Murcia often gets left out like this.

Yet the empanadas and empanadillas in Murcia are some of the best I have had anywhere, and they are among the foods I crave when I have been away for any length of time. The main ingredient that sets the empanada murciana apart from similar pastries in Spain is the sweet pimentón in the dough, lending it a more intriguing flavor and a deep golden hue. The traditional filling has just three simple ingredients that are pantry staples in Spain: eggs, olive oil-packed tuna and tomate frito, a sweet and jammy tomato sauce.

These are the basic building blocks, yet every empanada murciana is slightly different, depending on the cook’s preferences. The dough can be made with or without a leavening agent, and the proportions and textures of each ingredient in the filling vary. Some like their tomato sauce chunky, while others like it smooth. In some cases, the sauce oozes out, and in others, there is just enough tomato to hold the other ingredients together. My favorite empanada murciana has flaky shortcrust pastry and a balanced blend of fillings.

This is a recipe for the most basic, traditional version of the empanada murciana. Feel free to adapt the filling to your tastes. Some people add roasted red peppers and even peas to the mix, for example. I like to keep it simple.

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Make ahead: The tomate frito (recipe follows) and two hard-boiled eggs can be prepared up to several days in advance. The dough needs to rest for one hour before it can be rolled out.

Special equipment: parchment paper and an 11- by 15-inch cake pan

For the tomate frito:

In Spain we can buy good canned tomate frito, which makes assembly quick and easy.  My favorite brand is the Murcia-made Sandoval. I have not tried this recipe with jarred tomato sauces in the US. I have used canned whole tomatoes here because I like to control the size of the chunks, but you can also use diced or crushed tomatoes, as well. If you have good fresh tomatoes, by all means use them. You can make the tomate frito up to several days in advance and store it in the refrigerator. It also freezes well.

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 28-ounce cans of whole peeled tomatoes, drained and with any bits of skin and the core ends removed (about 4 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled and diced)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, plus more to taste

Combine the olive oil, tomatoes and one tablespoon of sugar (plus 1 teaspoon of salt if using fresh tomatoes) in a deep saucepan (I use a Dutch oven – this sauce likes to spatter). Stir while you heat the sauce over medium heat until it bubbles.

Leave the pan uncovered and reduce the heat to low to maintain a gentle simmer for 45-50 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the sauce does not stick and burn. If you have used canned whole tomatoes, break them up with the spoon as you go. The final sauce should be reduced, jammy and sweet. Add more sugar and salt to taste.

Allow to cool and use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to several days or in the freezer for up to several months. Makes about 1 1/2 cups. I use this amount for my empanada.

For the dough:

Empanada dough is relatively easy to make, based on a simple ratio: equal parts olive oil and white wine, a bit of salt and pimentón, and as much flour as you need for the dough to come together (“lo que admita,” as my friend Inma says, “as much as it takes”). The empanada murciana has two traditional shapes: rectangular and circular. My first attempt turned out somewhere between a rectangle and an oval, which wasn’t noticeable once we cut it up. Nevertheless, the aesthetics need some work. You can also make empanadillas, small pies, with the same dough and filling, which will be tackled in another post.

  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sweet pimentón (Spanish paprika)
  • About 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg for brushing on the dough before baking

Whisk together the olive oil, wine, salt and pimentón together in a large bowl until the seasonings have dissolved. Add the 2 1/2 cups of flour and mix well with a wooden spoon or your hands, being careful not to overmix. The dough should hold together easily and be smooth to the touch. If it seems too sticky, add more flour as needed a tablespoon at a time. Allow the dough to rest at room temperature for at least one hour in a bowl covered with a clean dish towel or plastic wrap.

For the filling:

  • 1 5-ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil, drained
  • 1-2 hard-boiled eggs, diced to your liking
  • tomate frito to taste (I used 1 1/2 cups)

There are different approaches to making the filling. You can either mix all the ingredients together in a bowl first or place each ingredient separately onto the dough. I take the first route for a more homogeneous texture, which is more to my two-year-old son’s liking. Big chunks of anything tend to get spit out. I break up the tuna, mix it with the tomate frito and then stir in small bits of egg.

Assembly and baking:

Line an 11- by 15-inch cake pan with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350ºF. Divide the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other, then roll out the larger piece of on a clean surface until it is 1/4 inch thick. The base should be nearly as large as your pan. You shouldn’t need to use flour as this is an oily dough that doesn’t tend to stick. Carefully transfer the dough by rolling it up onto your rolling pin and then unrolling it into the parchment-lined pan. Alternately, you can roll out the dough directly on the parchment paper on the counter and then transfer both carefully to the pan. Cover the base with the filling, leaving about a one-inch border.

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Roll out the second portion of dough to the same thickness, so that it is big enough to cover the filling. Transfer the dough using your rolling pin as above and carefully unroll it over the base. Fold the bottom edges of the dough over the top and crimp together. Pierce the top of the dough in various places with a fork to allow steam to escape.

Brush the surface of the dough with beaten egg, then bake for about 30 minutes until golden.

Cut into squares before serving hot or at room temperature with an ice-cold lager.

Yield: Serves a crowd.

 

Easter Impressions

Thinking back, what does Easter evoke for you? For me it is baked ham and hot cross buns. It is also egg coloring kits, with their flimsy wires for dipping and the dyes that smelled of vinegar. It is a new dress and a brunch buffet with my Nana in the bright atrium of an Orlando hotel. It is roasted lamb carved under the warm red light of heat lamps and served with clover green jelly.

And I couldn’t leave out the Easter Bunny, who would hide my colored eggs around the house and leave me baskets filled with treats. There were pastel pink and yellow marshmallow Peeps, Reese’s peanut butter-filled eggs and a big milk chocolate bunny, which I usually ate ears first. After collecting the obvious prizes, I would weed through the tangled plastic strips of Easter grass in the basket to make sure not one jelly bean had been left behind.

Here in Spain, my childhood Easter feels lifetimes away. There are no egg hunts or Easter grass or chocolates with peanut butter centers. The Easter Bunny is a curiosity at best.

So what will my son Mateo’s Easter memories be? At two and a half, he is at an age where lasting memories are beginning to take shape. Here are some of the sights, sounds and flavors forming his early Easter impressions in Murcia.

Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions in Murcia

Semana Santa in Murcia is a festive and colorful time of year that is magical for children. The Semana Santa processions are the heart of the magic. I know this in part through my friends who remember the awe they felt and want their own children to experience the same. I have also seen the amazement in Mateo’s eyes as the processions pass by, with their trademark drum beats that he has been practicing on his toy drum ever since Good Friday (parrúm, parrúm, parrúm púm púm).

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Nazarenos in the Good Friday procession

Instead of the Easter Bunny, the main protagonists of the season here are the nazarenos (Nazarenes). While historically speaking, Nazarene was a term used to refer to Jesus and early Christians, in a modern context in Spain, nazarenos are Semana Santa procession participants.

They are also the subject of seasonal arts and crafts for kids, such as the “nazarenos” Mateo brought home from nursery school:

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Mateo alternately calls the nazarenosReyes,” the kings who bring children gifts on January 6, and “marcianos” (aliens). To him, the nazarenos are larger than life.

Local pride

Semana Santa processions take place throughout Spain, all to commemorate the final days of Jesus’ life and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. The nazarenos are also known as penitentes (penitents), marching to atone for their sins.

Yet, despite the evident religious themes of sorrow and guilt, most of the processions (in Murcia at least) are lively social events that pack streets with multiple generations out to see and be seen, to soak in the nostalgia and to pass it on to the children.

The processions in Murcia have several features that distinguish them from other processions in Spain, including the rhythm of drum beats and the fact that all of the pasos (floats) are still carried by man power alone (in other parts of Spain, at least some muscle power has been replaced by wheels and a chassis).

Another highlight of the Murcia processions is the large number of floats made by Francisco Salzillo, a native of the city and one of the most famous sculptors of religious themes in the 18th century. The expressions on the faces of his sculptures are searing. It is impossible not to be impressed.

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The pictures here are from the procession on the morning of Good Friday, one of the most popular processions for families. This procession is often referred to simply as “los Salzillos,” for it contains some of the artist’s most famous works, such as The Fall above and the Last Supper below, which weighs a whopping 1,301 kg (over 2,800 pounds)! Those who carry the floats (currently all men) are known as estantes, which in other contexts, fittingly, means “shelf.”

The Last Supper is carried by 28 estantes (who must shoulder roughly 100 pounds a piece) along a route that lasts about five hours. They of course rest from time to time, propping the float on special staffs, and each float has extra estantes who rotate in and out of carrying duty. Nevertheless, the route is exhausting. Talk about penance! The same men carry the same floats year after year, in many cases like their fathers and grandfathers before them.

From our front row seats we could see the fine details of Salzillo’s sculptures as well as the excruciating looks on the faces of the float bearers, adding to the emotion of the event.

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From a child’s point of view, however, the most appealing distinguishing feature of the Easter processions in Murcia is candy. Murcia is the only place in Spain where the nazarenos hand out copious (some say excessive) amounts of candy to onlookers, particularly to children.

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These are not fat nazarenos – instead the bulges you see are filled with candy and other gifts and treats.

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Mateo receiving candy from a young nazareno

Several theories exist as to the origins of the centuries-old tradition of candy in the processions in Murcia. One is that these offerings started as a gesture of repentance. Many nazarenos march with their faces covered, so the idea is that they could anonymously offer goods to anyone they had harmed. Today, however, they are most likely to give the treats hidden in their tunics to family, friends and children.

The other theory is particular to the estantes, the float bearers, who need fuel to complete their grueling task. Although food was generally prohibited in the processions, the Church allowed these men to eat, so they stuffed their tunics with provisions for themselves and their friends, including foods like fresh fava beans, hard-cooked eggs and monas de pascua, traditional Easter pastries I wrote about several years back. All of these foods are still popular with nazarenos today.

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A mona with a quail egg on top

This was Mateo’s third year attending a Semana Santa procession but his first year actually eating the treats. Needless to say, he loved it. In his mind, nazareno equals drums and candy.

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Hands full

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A nazareno-shaped lollipop

Which of my Easter traditions will I share with Mateo? The Easter Bunny has yet to make it to our house, and I’m not sure if he will as long as we are living in Spain. It’s not as though Mateo needs more candy.

And little by little, my own traditions are evolving. Now that I have lived in Murcia for over seven years, it just isn’t Easter to me without at least one Semana Santa procession, as long as it includes a good dose of sugar, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Quince Summer

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Summer tends to linger well into the fall in Murcia, and this year has been no different.  The Segura River valley where the city is located heats up like a sauna in July and August and does not easily yield to cooler temperatures come September. Weeks after the fall equinox, highs in Murcia remained stubbornly in the 90s. Once again, it has been a veranico del membrillo – a quince summer.

This expression, a version bearing the Murcianized diminutive ico (in other parts of Spain, the saying is  veranillo del membrillo), is the equivalent of an Indian Summer, when unseasonably high temperatures assert themselves in early autumn, just when ripened quinces are beginning to appear in the markets.

Up until several years ago, I admittedly would not have known a quince had I seen one. This curious fruit was certainly not a Florida childhood staple, although it would not have been out of place on my grandmother’s New England table. In my mind, the quince evokes Colonial America and sensible Yankee desserts, preserves and ciders. Its roots, however, extend much further back. In fact, many botanists believe Adam and Eve’s Forbidden Fruit may have actually been a quince.

Even if it was one day a sinful temptation, the quince nonetheless fell out of favor, at least in the US. Its irregular shape and hard and astringent flesh that must be cooked to be eaten made it an outcast in a grab-and-go world.

Yet these are the precise qualities that have contributed to a quince renaissance in recent years. The humble quince has become a lovable poster child for champions of slow food and opponents of perfectly round fruits without character.

In Spain, quince has remained relatively common over the years. Here, it is typically cooked down with sugar to make concentrated blocks of dulce de membrillo, quince paste. Slices of the sweet jelly are the perfect foil to salty and tangy sheep’s milk cheeses like Manchego.

Quince became an important crop in Murcia in the Middle Ages under Arab rule, and centuries later contributed to the growth of the still significant canning industry in the city. Even though quince production has declined here over the last several decades (largely coinciding with the fateful construction boom), the fruit has not lost its power to conjure up hot fall days in the expression, el veranico del membrillo.

Little by little, the seasons are indeed shifting. Murcia’s imposing summer has finally begun to give way, allowing crisper air to seep into the night, which the sun labors to chase away with dwindling strength. Yet if experience proves me right, the heat will return at least one more, prolonging the quince summer.

Summer’s last stand calls for quince paste. Cooking down quinces into concentrated and sweet dulce de membrillo is a means to preserve the taste of warmer days for the inevitable winter to come.

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Dulce de Membrillo – Quince Paste

The basic steps of this recipe are relatively straightforward – peel and core the quinces either before or after cooking; boil until tender; puree the peeled and cored fruit; mix with sugar and cook over low heat until concentrated; then pour into a mold and cool. But, as I learned through trial and error, timing can significantly influence the results.

Most recipes I came across in local Murcian cookbooks had a lot of gaps, presumably to be filled in with experience. For example, El Libro de la Gastronomía de Murcia suggests cooking the pureed fruit and sugar for 15 minutes, which was enough to make a tasty quince sauce (akin to apple sauce) but not enough to make a concentrated paste. I kept cooking and stirring for 30 minutes more and achieved satisfactory, and sliceable, results.

I have since researched different cooking methods and have come across wildly varying simmer times, from 8 minutes to several hours. I am still experimenting to find the version I like best. In any case, far worse things could happen than to end up with a delicious quince sauce.

I encourage you to visit Janet Mendel’s recent blog post on quinces for her complete and easy-to-follow recipe for dulce de membrillo. Mendel uses several techniques I am eager to try, such as adding some of the quince poaching liquid to the fruit puree and lining the mold with plastic wrap for easy removal. Mendel’s post also includes a lovely story about quince paste in Spain and a savory quince recipe with lamb inspired by several Mediterranean dishes.

To determine the amount of sugar you need, measure or weigh the cooked and pureed fruit and add the same quantity of sugar. I used three quinces, which was enough to fill a 5.5 x 4.5 x 1.5 inch aluminum container.

Quince

Sugar

Cut the quinces in half and place them in a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer until the flesh is tender and easily pierced with a fork, after about 30-45 minutes. Completely drain and, once the quinces are cool enough to touch, peel and core them.

Puree the fruit, then weigh or measure it and mix it with an equal amount of sugar in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium low heat until the puree is reduced nearly by half, stirring frequently so it does not stick to the bottom of the pan. Pour into a rectangular mold and cool. Properly concentrated quince paste will keep in the refrigerator for up to several months. Serve thinly sliced with an assertive cheese such sheep’s milk Manchego.

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Crisis Cooking

Why frugal cooking now feels imperative in Spain.

Migas

At a market showcasing culinary traditions in Murcia, a man tends to a pan of migas, a filling dish made with flour, salt, olive oil and garlic, judiciously flavored with bits of fresh sausage and chorizo (more or less, depending on the budget). Such frugal meals born of necessity survive in part because of nostalgia, and also because they make economic sense.

Back home in the States, one hears very little good news coming out of Spain, soccer victories notwithstanding. On my most recent trip to Florida, I was often asked if I had noticed the effects of the economic crisis in Spain. Sort of, I would reply, but the quality of life remained. I thought of the countless times I had been with friends in Murcia walking through downtown past bustling restaurants and bars, so packed that patrons spilled out onto plazas, filling the streets with spirited conversation. “Crisis?” someone would inevitably ask rhetorically. “¿Qué crisis?”, “What crisis?”

But upon my return to Spain in August, I have to say that I can really feel the impact now. Until recently, I personally hadn’t noticed so many specific manifestations. Yet I am beginning to sense more shadows creeping into the good life, cast by growing dark clouds of uncertainty and insecurity.

Now, people in my immediate circle are losing jobs, the stores where they work are closing, they have been forced to go to court to demand late payments from their employers who are months behind. Last week, a friend’s home in a modest neighborhood was broken into. The thieves took everything in gold they could find, worth precious little compared to the sentimental value of the objects.

Just about everyone, it seems (minus those soccer stars, perhaps), has similar stories to tell about someone they know. I hear it in the news, in conversations in markets and on the bus. Spain is a talkative place, and I sometimes wonder whether all these words and stories told again and again might actually be contributing to the dark cloud. And here I am, telling the story.

The truth is that the feelings matter and carry real weight once they are heard and spoken. And as of yet, there is no clear silver lining. I have heard and even said time and time again, “We’ll see what happens…,” as if we are all waiting.

This is not to say you won’t find the bars packed on a Friday or Saturday night. But the uncertain climate permits fewer nights on the town.

These circumstances make me particularly appreciate the frugal ingenuity of traditional Spanish home cooking. The fact that Spain is no stranger to hard times* is reflected in the seemingly endless variety of nourishing and inexpensive dishes made from stretching out the ingredients at hand.

Cooking frugally feels like one way to defy the current crisis. There will be no cloud at my table, but rather a reminder that Spain can indeed pull through.

See some of my past examples of frugal traditional cuisine in Murcia:

Guiso de Trigo – Wheat Berry Stew

Olla Gitana – Gypsy Stew

Michirones – Fava Bean Stew (as with the migas in the photo at the top of the post, the amount of meat added to the beans can be adapted to one’s budget.)

Morcilla de Verano – Eggplant Caviar

And stay tuned for my next post about a thrifty yet rich local dessert.

*For an excellent, in-depth analysis of contemporary Spanish history, I highly recommend Ghosts of Spain by British journalist Giles Tremlett.

I would love to hear your reflections and observations.

One a Penny, Two a Penny… Monas de Pascua!

[Murcia’s] unique Holy Week…is made up of little gestures and familiar movements, of the comings and goings of the nazarenos (penitents) dressed in red or purple (the nazareno colorao or the nazareno morado), who step out from under the floats they carry, momentarily passing the weight to their friends, to place a beautiful mona de pascua in the trembling hands of a child.

These words penned by Murcian author Juan García Abellan in his ode to the city and its food, Murcia, entre bocado y trago (1965), resonate for anyone who has been to a Holy Week procession in Murcia. Here, the pace and drumbeat of the daily marches leading up to Easter are as solemn as in other parts of Spain, yet a festive ambiance reigns at several of the city’s most celebrated processions. This is particularly true for children, who, like the child in the quote, gaze up in awe and expectation at the hooded nazarenos. Local children know – and have known for generations – that the striking robed figures, many with their faces covered, are not to be feared, for they come bearing gifts – candies, eggs, and for the lucky few, monas de pascua.

This penitent (a nazareno morado) is not as fat as he looks – most of that bulge hanging over his belt is in fact space for treats like candy and goody bags, often containing mini monas, to be handed out along the procession route.

The mona de pascua is an Easter pastry found in several regions of Spain, most notably in Cataluña, Valencia and Murcia. (In these areas, the mona is as typical as hot cross buns, hence the title of this post.) In its most traditional version, the kind typically found in Murcia, the mona de pascua is a sweet bread roll (not dissimilar from hot cross buns, in fact) topped with a hard-boiled egg, itself topped with a cross shaped from dough.

Traditionally, the mona de pascua was eaten on Easter Sunday or the following Monday, marking the end of Lent. In the past, eggs, considered akin to meat, were among the forbidden foods of this period of abstinence. Eggs – representative of fertility, birth and resurrection – are also, of course, a powerful symbol for this time of year. It’s no wonder that eggs (especially hard-boiled – a means to preserve the inevitable yields in the henhouse) play such an important role in many Easter customs around the world.

Certain communities in and around Murcia still refer to the Monday after Easter “el día de la mona,” Mona Day, and many families ritually take to the countryside on this day for a picnic starring monas de pascua. Yet the mona has become a common treat to be enjoyed throughout the entire week leading up to Easter. Monas – either full-size with a chicken egg or mini with a quail egg – are a favorite snack for the lengthy Holy Week processions, welcome fuel for spectators and marchers alike.

As is the case with many long-standing food traditions, the mona de pascua in and of itself has become an essential symbol of the season, and not just for religious reasons. It also represents the generosity of spring, reflected in Murcia’s giving Holy Week processions.

Monas de Pascua

This is my fourth Easter in Murcia, and I have begun to feel twinges of nostalgia for this seasonal pastry, meaning Semana Santa is just not complete without a mona de pascua. This is the first year I decided to make them myself, wanting to share with friends and family near and far the spirit of the season in Murcia.

Monas really do remind me of hot cross buns in flavor and texture, and the dough is actually quite similar, although monas in Murcia are typically made with a mild-flavored olive oil instead of butter and contain a hint of orange blossom water, like a southern breeze.

The resulting pastry is characteristically dry, perfect for dunking. The recipe writers on the Region of Murcia’s website offer the following solution: “As the dough is a little dry, some kind of liquid accompaniment is appropriate. This could be mistela (a sweet wine like muscat) for adults and milk for children. Adding a bit of chocolate makes the monas irresistible.”

I found many slightly different variations on this recipe, which invites tinkering in the search for a favorite texture and flavor. So far, I have tried two different versions, one with a blend of bread and all-purpose flours and one with bread flour only. Both were good, but I preferred the denser texture of the all-bread-flour mona.

Whether you make larger, oblong-shaped monas with hard-boiled chicken eggs, mini monas with quail eggs, or skip the egg altogether, the procedure is basically the same, although the baking time will of course vary slightly.

For the dough:

80 ml. (1/3 cup) warm milk

25 g (≈ 0.9 oz.) compressed (fresh) yeast

500 g (≈ 3 1/2 cups *SEE NOTE) bread flour

¼ teaspoon salt

140 g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar

3 Eggs, plus one more, beaten, for glazing

80 ml. (1/3 cup) mild-flavored olive oil

Zest of one lemon

½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the topping:

Quail eggs, hard-boiled, as many as you want (Optional)

Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Stir yeast into warm milk. Let stand for 5-10 minutes.

Sift together the flour and salt together in one bowl. In another bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar. Stir in the yeasted milk. Then add the olive oil, orange blossom water if using and the lemon zest, stirring just until well blended. Gradually stir in the flour until a dough is formed. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour by the tablespoonful as needed (the dough should be moist and slightly tacky, but not sticky). Transfer dough to a large oiled bowl and turn it to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ – 2 hours (it may take longer, depending on factors like ambient temperature).

Divide the dough into 12-14 equal pieces on a floured surface. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Arrange 1 ½ inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap for a second rise of about 45 minutes.

Towards the end of the second rise, preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

Brush monas with egg glaze. If you are using hard-boiled eggs, make indents in the center of the monas with your fingers, creating a nest for the eggs. Sprinkle monas generously with sugar. Bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

*NOTE: I measured out the cups, but have not tested this recipe with the standard American measurements, so have put an approximate amount here. If using cups, I suggest starting with this amount of flour and adding more by the tablespoon as needed to get the consistency indicated in the recipe.

  One a penny, two a penny… 

HAPPY EASTER!

One a Penny, Two a Penny… Monas de Pascua!

[Murcia’s] unique Holy Week…is made up of little gestures and familiar movements, of the comings and goings of the nazarenos (penitents) dressed in red or purple (the nazareno colorao or the nazareno morado), who step out from under the floats they carry, momentarily passing the weight to their friends, to place a beautiful mona de pascua in the trembling hands of a child.

These words penned by Murcian author Juan García Abellan in his ode to the city and its food, Murcia, entre bocado y trago (1965), resonate for anyone who has been to a Holy Week procession in Murcia. Here, the pace and drumbeat of the daily marches leading up to Easter are as solemn as in other parts of Spain, yet a festive ambiance reigns at several of the city’s most celebrated processions. This is particularly true for children, who, like the child in the quote, gaze up in awe and expectation at the hooded nazarenos. Local children know – and have known for generations – that the striking robed figures, many with their faces covered, are not to be feared, for they come bearing gifts – candies, eggs, and for the lucky few, monas de pascua.

This penitent (a nazareno morado) is not as fat as he looks – most of that bulge hanging over his belt is in fact space for treats like candy and goody bags, often containing mini monas, to be handed out along the procession route.

The mona de pascua is an Easter pastry found in several regions of Spain, most notably in Cataluña, Valencia and Murcia. (In these areas, the mona is as typical as hot cross buns, hence the title of this post.) In its most traditional version, the kind typically found in Murcia, the mona de pascua is a sweet bread roll (not dissimilar from hot cross buns, in fact) topped with a hard-boiled egg, itself topped with a cross shaped from dough.

Traditionally, the mona de pascua was eaten on Easter Sunday or the following Monday, marking the end of Lent. In the past, eggs, considered akin to meat, were among the forbidden foods of this period of abstinence. Eggs – representative of fertility, birth and resurrection – are also, of course, a powerful symbol for this time of year. It’s no wonder that eggs (especially hard-boiled – a means to preserve the inevitable yields in the henhouse) play such an important role in many Easter customs around the world.

Certain communities in and around Murcia still refer to the Monday after Easter “el día de la mona,” Mona Day, and many families ritually take to the countryside on this day for a picnic starring monas de pascua. Yet the mona has become a common treat to be enjoyed throughout the entire week leading up to Easter. Monas – either full-size with a chicken egg or mini with a quail egg – are a favorite snack for the lengthy Holy Week processions, welcome fuel for spectators and marchers alike.

As is the case with many long-standing food traditions, the mona de pascua in and of itself has become an essential symbol of the season, and not just for religious reasons. It also represents the generosity of spring, reflected in Murcia’s giving Holy Week processions.

Monas de Pascua

This is my fourth Easter in Murcia, and I have begun to feel twinges of nostalgia for this seasonal pastry, meaning Semana Santa is just not complete without a mona de pascua. This is the first year I decided to make them myself, wanting to share with friends and family near and far the spirit of the season in Murcia.

Monas really do remind me of hot cross buns in flavor and texture, and the dough is actually quite similar, although monas in Murcia are typically made with a mild-flavored olive oil instead of butter and contain a hint of orange blossom water, like a southern breeze.

The resulting pastry is characteristically dry, perfect for dunking. The recipe writers on the Region of Murcia’s website offer the following solution: “As the dough is a little dry, some kind of liquid accompaniment is appropriate. This could be mistela (a sweet wine like muscat) for adults and milk for children. Adding a bit of chocolate makes the monas irresistible.”

I found many slightly different variations on this recipe, which invites tinkering in the search for a favorite texture and flavor. So far, I have tried two different versions, one with a blend of bread and all-purpose flours and one with bread flour only. Both were good, but I preferred the denser texture of the all-bread-flour mona.

Whether you make larger, oblong-shaped monas with hard-boiled chicken eggs, mini monas with quail eggs, or skip the egg altogether, the procedure is basically the same, although the baking time will of course vary slightly.

For the dough:

80 ml. (1/3 cup) warm milk

25 g (≈ 0.9 oz.) compressed (fresh) yeast

500 g (≈ 3 1/2 cups *SEE NOTE) bread flour

¼ teaspoon salt

140 g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar

3 Eggs, plus one more, beaten, for glazing

80 ml. (1/3 cup) mild-flavored olive oil

Zest of one lemon

½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the topping:

Quail eggs, hard-boiled, as many as you want (Optional)

Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Stir yeast into warm milk. Let stand for 5-10 minutes.

Sift together the flour and salt together in one bowl. In another bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar. Stir in the yeasted milk. Then add the olive oil, orange blossom water if using and the lemon zest, stirring just until well blended. Gradually stir in the flour until a dough is formed. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour by the tablespoonful as needed (the dough should be moist and slightly tacky, but not sticky). Transfer dough to a large oiled bowl and turn it to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ – 2 hours (it may take longer, depending on factors like ambient temperature).

Divide the dough into 12-14 equal pieces on a floured surface. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Arrange 1 ½ inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap for a second rise of about 45 minutes.

Towards the end of the second rise, preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

Brush monas with egg glaze. If you are using hard-boiled eggs, make indents in the center of the monas with your fingers, creating a nest for the eggs. Sprinkle monas generously with sugar. Bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

*NOTE: I measured out the cups, but have not tested this recipe with the standard American measurements, so have put an approximate amount here. If using cups, I suggest starting with this amount of flour and adding more by the tablespoon as needed to get the consistency indicated in the recipe.

  One a penny, two a penny… 

HAPPY EASTER!

The Venta – Roadside Comfort Food in Spain

Venta Magdalena

In the three plus years I have lived in Spain, I have come to love a good venta. Ventas are rural establishments scattered along lonely stretches of highway throughout Spain, where travelers between destinations can find hearty plates of local food and sometimes lodging.  Such restaurants are roughly the Spanish equivalent of independent American roadside diners, where even if you are far from home, you can find comfort. The Venta Magdalena, a mom-and-pop establishment in rural Murcia, is a perfect example.

Like most ventas I have come across, the Venta Magdalena has easy access off the regional highway and ample parking for weekend warriors. Good ventas, you see, are often destinations in and of themselves for in-the-know locals from nearby cities and towns.

Venta Magdalena

At the Venta Magdalena, you really do have to be in the know to guarantee yourself a serving of the restaurant’s specialty, its arroz (rice). If you don’t call in ahead to place your order, you might be out of luck (although the delicious grilled lamb chops help ease the blow). Such need for forethought may be frustrating for those who prefer spontaneity. Yet, in my experience, knowing a good arroz awaits greatly enhances the morning and fuels any distance that must be traveled.

The restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside (and there’s not much else around, either, minus a building with a flashing neon heart just on the other side of the highway, a beacon in the night for travelers with another kind of hunger). Yet on the inside, the Venta Magdalena feels like a country home, with wood paneling, dark wooden beams and walls decorated with rural landscapes, still lifes, ceramic plates and antique ladles. The day’s news flickers on a TV propped up in the corner, typical decor in a venta. You enter the restaurant through the bar, where, if you have to wait, a draft beer and a plate of locally cured meats help pass the time.

The arroz here is cooked over a wood-burning fire and served in well-blackened pans fresh off the flames. (Similar dishes are often called paella in Valencia to the north and in more touristy zones throughout Spain, but here in Murcia, a rice dish is almost always referred to as an arroz, a title which is modified with additional ingredients.) The most typical versions at the inland Venta Magdalena are arroz con conejo, rice with rabbit (pictured below), or arroz con conejo y caracoles, rice with rabbit and snails.

Arroz con conejo

I took my first spoonful right out of the steaming pan, burning my tongue. Our waitress set down a plate with lemon, the only condiment befitting an arroz, which I squeezed over the dish, adding lively acidity to the smoky, tomato-based broth. The grains were just right — not too firm and not too soggy, either — the equivalent of pasta al dente. The rabbit was lean yet tender, and both Manolo and I picked up the little pieces with our hands to get all the meat off the bones with our teeth. A quick look around the dining room confirmed that we weren’t the only ones licking our fingers. Towards the end, we sparred with our spoons over the crispy, toasted rice stuck to the bottom of the pan.

It was after 3 pm on a Friday afternoon, and the dining room was just about full, with men far outnumbering women (in contrast, on weekends, the Venta Magdalena tends to fill up with families). At one table, a group of casually dressed businessmen raised glasses of local red wine to greet a colleague from out of town. At another, a quartet of silver-haired men, all with a few extra pounds around their waists, had opted for beers instead. Like me, these men eschewed their plates, digging their spoons right into the common pan of arroz that just about took up their whole table.

In fact, everyone in the restaurant was having arroz, and I imagined that all of us had come with visions of this savory golden dish in our heads, leading the way. And here our visions had been realized, which is all this hungry traveler could ask for.

Venta Magdalena
Carretera Mula. Pj. Morata 67
Los Baños – Mula
Telephone.: +34 968 660 568

Do you have a favorite venta?

A Welcoming Trail of Stews

This is a tale of a village and a spoon, which to me perfectly reflects the spirit of the season.

Cehegín

The village in question, Cehegín, appears in the photo above. I had often admired this perched vista from the highway that connects the city of Murcia with the rugged northwest corner of the region. But until recently, I had never stopped to explore.

And here’s where the spoon comes in. Much to my delight, the day I picked to visit Cehegín, there also happened to be a culinary event, the Puente del Puchero, or Bridge of Stews.

The idea was similar to that of the itinerant Tapas Routes I wrote about several weeks ago. But this time, instead of small plates, participating bars and restaurants were serving mini portions of traditional soups and stews, all dishes meant to be eaten with a spoon, hence the tagline (which I adore), ¡¡Viva la Cuchara!!, Long live the Spoon!

This praise for a simple, comforting and nourishing way to eat seems a perfect slogan for for the times. I chanted these words in my mind (and sometimes out loud) throughout the day, imagining all the bottomless pots of stew gurgling on stove tops throughout the village. This made the quiet streets feel more welcoming and took the chill out of the wind.

Brochure

A bit of history

I love this part of the region of Murcia, both for the striking landscape and for the evocative human history. Cave drawings thought to be over 4,000 years old have been found in the area, as well as traces of Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and, of course, Catholic conquerors. All of these peoples had their reasons for staking a claim on this land, like its geographical advantages (protected caves and extensive lookout possibilities) as well as its strategic importance in terms of religion and politics (often one in the same).

As far as I can gather, none of these people had it easy. Throughout this long history, not only were there marauders and rivals to contend with, but also indiscriminant diseases like the Plague. Nonetheless, the will to survive has left a rich legacy in Cehegín, whose old center was declared Historic-Artistic Site by the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 1982.

Today, tourism is key to the survival of local monuments and traditions, not only in Cehegín, but also in much of rural Spain, which, for me, was extra reason (as if I needed it) to grab a spoon and dig in.

Without further ado, here is our day on the Trail of Stews in Cehegín:

Alubias con perdiz

Our first stop was the no-frills Bar Fernando, which was quiet minus a few regulars who’d stopped by for an aperitivo. We were the only out-of-towners there, but this didn’t seem to make a difference to anyone, and we took a place at the bar without any obvious turned heads. In fact, it took several minutes for the owner to take our order, as he was busy chatting politics with the man next to us who had dropped by alone for a beer and a snack of several fat anchovies drizzled with olive oil. We eventually got to order our puchero, and were served alubias con perdíz, a vibrant stew of white beans, partridge and a good dose of pimentón. The little ceramic bowls made for the occasion were perfect for warming cold fingers.

Olla de cerdo

Our second stop, La Bodeguica (“the little bodega” –ica/-ico is a common diminutive in Murcia, often used instead of the –ita/-ito predominant in the rest of Spain), was more modern in decor than Bar Fernando and also had a younger crowd. An array of creative canapés – mini slices of baguette topped with different meats, cheeses and spreads – displayed on the bar caught our attention, but we decided to stick with the spoon route and were served Murcia’s traditional olla de cerdo, a pork-laden stew which literally (and understandably) translates as “pig pot.” In spite of the small dish, the portion (as you can see), packed with meat, garbanzos and bits of celery, was far from skimpy. I followed Manolo’s lead and stirred the morcilla in with the rest, which gave each spoonful a warm hint of cinnamon and clove.

Cocido con pelotas

We decided we had room for one more stew, so made or way to the Bar-Terraza Cine Alfaro, a little place on the Plaza of the same name in the historic center. We grabbed two stools at the bar, which gave us a direct view into the kitchen and of the walls plastered with photos of the Real Madrid soccer team over the years. Here, they were serving cocido con pelotas, a meatball stew. As evident in the photo, they did not skimp on the goods here either, and loaded our bowls with tender meatballs, chicken, garbanzos, carrot, turnip, potato, and yes, a bit of broth, too. By now, the chill I had felt before my first spoonful of the day was a distant memory.

Tired façade

In between bowls of stew, we visited historic Cehegín, where restoration is a work in progress. Several crumbling corners serve as a reminder that this part of Spain was largely isolated and poor in the grand scheme of history.

Yet thankfully, there are many signs of a growing determination to preserve the town’s architectural heritage, like the lovingly restored 17th century Council Chambers and 18th century Fajardo Palace, which house the Archaeological Museum of Cehegín, pictured below. Here you can see remnants and objects left behind by the different peoples who have called this land home.

Archaeological Museum of CehegínArchaeological Museum of Cehegín 2

These buildings and the display below from the 19th century are evidence of more prosperous times in Cehegín, when certain tables were set with china and silver according to the dictates of royal etiquette. Apparently, all these knives, forks and spoons were for one diner.

Aristocratic dining

The craftsmanship was admirable, yet I found myself asking, who needs all those utensils when all you really need is one big spoon?

Alubias con perdiz 2

Happy Holidays to everyone! Eat lots of soup, and savor tradition, wherever you are!

The Basics:

  • When: This was the second annual Puente del Puchero, and hopefully there will be many more to come. The event takes place around the 8th of December, a national holiday, which, when it falls on a weekday, typically turns into a long weekend, as folks “make a bridge (puente)” to Saturday and Sunday.
  • Where: This event is a joint effort between several villages in Northwest Murcia, so you could easily spend a whole weekend trying different stews. This year, the following villages participated: Cehegín, Moratalla, Mula and Pliego.
  • How: Pick up an event map/guide at a local tourist office or at any of the participating bars, which tells you who’s serving what. This year, the price was 2.50 € for a serving of stew and a drink, which is quite a bargain considering the amount of hearty ingredients that get packed into those little bowls.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

El guiso de trigo es humilde y sencillo, una muestra más de lo mucho que puede lograse disponiendo de poco. (Murcia’s wheat berry stew is humble and simple, yet another example of how much can be achieved with little at hand.)  From Gastronomía Regional Murcia, a newspaper supplement published in the mid-1980s.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia

Like many expats and emigrants, I often rely on foods from my past to nourish connections with people and places far away. This is why, for example, I always have  homemade granola in the cupboard and enough butter and brown sugar to whip up a batch of cookies when a longing for home swoops in. Yet over time, I have also come to crave local foods in Murcia, which I see as a sign of rootedness and contentment in my relatively new home. As the days turn colder and my third winter here begins, I find I am hungry for traditional Murcian stews like the guiso de trigo.

This hearty (and meatless) stew with wheat berries, vegetables and beans is one of Murcia’s staple dishes, whose ingredients reflect the city’s agricultural heritage. For centuries, Murcia has been a center of fruit and vegetable production in Spain, which has resulted in a vegetable-rich cuisine out of necessity.

For me, the guiso de trigo is a perfect example of local culinary thrift, of coaxing maximum nutrition and flavor out of available raw materials. One trick is the sofrito, a building block in many dishes in Murcia as well as in the rest of Spain. By sautéing the onions and tomatoes in olive oil in a separate pan with salt and sweet pimentón – instead of just throwing everything uncooked into the pot with the beans and wheat – you significantly multiply the flavor potential.

A sprinkling of mint, dried or fresh, contributes a cooling contrast to the warming pimentón, which stimulates the senses. Saffron threads, if you have them, are like red lipstick, adding a touch of color and intrigue.

The squash aïoli is a stroke of genius. With four thrifty ingredients – squash (of course), garlic, salt and a ribbon of olive oil – you get a luxurious condiment. Swirling in a spoonful not only adds zing to the stew, but also lends a touch of sophistication, proving that frugal does not have to mean austere.

Even though far more ingredients are available today in Murcia than in the leaner times when the guiso de trigo became a local tradition, the stew remains popular. It can be found on weekday lunch menus in long-established bars and restaurants throughout the city, and commonly appears on grandmothers’ tables. In both settings, it is typically served in wide soup plates with country bread on the side for dipping and soaking up the last traces of broth.

On a cool day like today, when the sun probably won’t quite make its way through the clouds, it is easy to imagine adults and children throughout Murcia hovering over steaming bowls of guiso de trigo. This satisfying stew is not only nourishing and economical, but also familiar and comforting.

I, too, will be having bowl of guiso de trigo today, enjoying the warmth and flavors which root me in Murcia.

Guiso de Trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

Adapted from two principal sources: A recipe in the cookbook Memorias de la cocina murciana, written by Carmen Peréz, and a recipe from the Hotel Rosa Victoria in Murcia as seen on the national TV program España Directo in 2009 (you can watch the video here) .

I’ve doubled the quantity of pumpkin in order to make the aïoli and because I love pumpkin. (In other words, the exact vegetable quantities are a matter of taste.)

As the guiso de trigo is a classic peasant dish, real saffron, an expensive ingredient, is not always included, and that is why I say it is optional. Many locals use a natural yellow food coloring, commonly used in paella, because the result is warming and visually appealing. Yet I find that the pimentón and golden olive oil lend sufficient color if you do not use the saffron. The saffron threads of course add complexity to the dish, and I have included them, toasted and mashed with garlic, according to the recipe in Memorias de la cocina murciana.

The key factor in drawing full flavor from the ingredients is time, and all the little steps do make a difference.

For the stew:

1 ¼ cups (250 g) wheat berries, soaked for 24 hours

3/4 cup (150 g) garbanzos, soaked overnight

3/4 cup (150 g) white beans, soaked overnight

10 cups water

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, diced

2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced or grated (*See note)

Salt to taste

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

A pinch of saffron threads (optional)

1 clove garlic (optional)

1/3 pound (150 g) Italian flat beans, cut into 1-inch pieces measure for cups

1/2 pound pumpkin or other orange-fleshed winter squash like butternut, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

1 medium potato (a waxy or “in-between” variety would work best – see Cook’s Illustrated Potato Primer)

Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus more for serving

For the squash aïoli (ajo calabaza): (Make about 10 minutes before the stew is ready.)

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

A pinch of fine sea salt

Several chunks of cooked pumpkin from the stew

A swirl of olive oil

For the stew:

Place the soaked and drained wheat berries, garbanzos and white beans together in a large soup pot (I used a 6-quart pot) and add water. Bring to the boil and skim off any foam, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 1 hour. The beans and wheat berries should be partially tender at this point.

While the beans and wheat berries are simmering, prepare the sofrito and the saffron, if using. For the sofrito, heat the 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and just beginning to turn golden. Add tomatoes, bring to the boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened, about 25-30 minutes. Add salt to taste toward the end, since the flavor becomes more concentrated as the sauce cooks down. Add pimentón and sauté for another minute. Remove the sofrito from the heat and set aside.

To toast the saffron threads, warm a small, dry skillet over low heat. Add threads and stir frequently so they do not burn. Once the color has deepened and the threads are aromatic, remove from heat. Then pound the toasted threads in a mortar with a clove of garlic. (See here for more information about toasting saffron.)

Add the sofrito and saffron to the pot with the partially cooked wheat berries and beans (after the first hour of cooking), then add the green beans, pumpkin and potato to the broth, which is now a vibrant red color. Season with salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste. (If you are using dried mint, add now as well.) Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until the wheat berries, beans and vegetables are fully tender and the broth has slightly thickened, about 45 minutes. If you are using fresh mint, add it now, and adjust seasonings as necessary. Allow to sit off the heat for 5-10 minutes before serving.

For the squash aioli (ajo calabaza):

Ajo calabaza

About ten minutes before the stew has finished, mash a clove of garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt to make a smooth paste. Remove half of the cooked pumpkin or squash from the pot and pound to a purée with the garlic in the mortar. Stir in a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.

Serve the stew in soup plates garnished with a sprinkling of fresh mint. Add squash aïoli until your bowl has as much garlic flavor as you like.

  • Yield: Six to eight servings.

* NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many cooks I know in Murcia. Cut the tomato in half, and gently grate over a bowl, flesh side down, using the large holes of the grater. The tougher skin will not pass through the holes, and you will be left with a tomato purée perfect for sautéing in this recipe.

Soaked Wheat Berries  Soaked Beans  Local Pumpkin Pumpkin Chunks Flat Green Beans Organic Sweet Pimentón from Murcia