Category: Murcia

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

A Day on the Tapas Route

In my last post, I ran through the basics of the organized Tapas Route phenomenon in Spain (the where, what, when, why, how). Here, with a preface, is a sample day on the Tapas Trail in my neighborhood.


Preface: Right around the time I started writing this post, I read Friday Night Supper, an essay by the late novelist and food writer Laurie Colwin in her endearing collection, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988). Friday Night Supper, for those of you who haven’t read it, laments the decline of the hearty, leisurely meal with family and friends. This emphasized for me what is different about eating in Spain, where time during weekend meals with friends is but a hazy backdrop. Colwin’s essay begins:

“We live in a decade that worships speed: fast food, one-minute managers, sixty-minute gourmets, three-minute miles. We lace up our running shoes and dash off to get on the fast track.

These days we are surrounded by overabundance but admire the minimal: cuisine minceur, high-tech deign, thinness. We are far too busy to linger over a long, languid meal. Instead, we bolt a pint of yogurt and suit up for a five-mile run or a corporate takeover.”

As I read this passage, I could feel two phases of my life in parallel. I recognized the fast-paced world Colwin described, and in the past, would have fully felt a part of that collective “we.” Yet I realized I no longer fully belonged in this “we” after three years of living in Spain.

Here, I have learned, it’s best not to have afternoon or even evening plans when meeting with friends at 1 pm for an “aperitivo,”  an “appetizer,” which tends to prolong itself into lunch, coffee and drinks. And then, what do you know, it’s time for dinner again (I’m talking 10 pm). Dinner in this case is often improvised at a friend’s home, like thin slices of pork loin a la plancha, a salad and wine.

As I wrote in my last post, on days such as this, I have been learning to ignore “that little internal voice suggesting perhaps I’d had enough.” I do still have that little voice, a bit of Colwin’s “we.” But the Spanish we is different, and, the good thing is, it’s not exclusive. Anyone can join, the more the merrier.

Meals in Spain are not necessarily the languid affairs Colwin wrote about, especially when they involve tapas. Lively would be a better word. But boy can they be long, but who’s counting? No corporate takeovers or five-mile runs for me (i.e. us), at least not on meal days with friends.

A Day on the Tapas Route

At 2 pm, my friends and I enter our first bar on the Route and seize the only remaining elbow space at the chrome counter. We must yell our order to be heard over the din. Here, we begin our day with a literal bang, biting into queso explosivo (pictured at the top of the page), a thick wedge of mild, fresh goat cheese dipped in an “explosive” batter loaded with snap-pop candies and deep-fried. The mini combustions in my mouth surprise, yet the syrupy sweetness of the quince marmalade leaves the final impression. I would have appreciated more salty contrast in the batter, but nonetheless enjoy this playful version of fried cheese on a stick.

We order another tapa that catches our eye at the bar, tender pulpo al horno, oven-roasted octopus, which is entirely savory minus a tart squirt of lemon.

Fried ham and cheese rolls

At the next stop, we are lucky to snag an outdoor table. The tapas here are more standard and set the themes we’ll encounter throughout the day – fried finger food and canapés, various toppings on thin slices of baguette.

The crisp crepe wrapped around the fried ham and cheese rolls crackles as we bite in. What could be better than flavorful ham and melted cheese?

The pork tenderloin canapés with salty, tangy roquefort and sweet roasted green peppers quickly disappear. In fact, my two beers have outlasted the two-bite tapas and time pressure creeps in (I tend to be a sipper, not a guzzler), if only to catch up with my friends. Due to the itinerant nature of the organized Tapas Route, time is more of the essence than in other meal situations. There are so many bars to try, and so many stamps to get on the Tapas Route passport (see last post). Yet these are only immediate pressures, for the end of the day is nowhere in sight.

The next tapa, which we eat standing, is my favorite on the Route – a canapé spread with zarangollo, Murcia’s sweet zucchini and onion scramble, topped with local fennel-flavored sausage.

After another stop not worth mentioning (every Route has a dud or two – this one involved a long wait, an unapologetic staff and a forgettable tapa), we meet up with more friends at Carmica, a creative neighborhood restaurant, which isn’t on the official Route, but has joined in spirit with a 2 euro tapa and drink menu.

Carmica is serving canapés with international flavors, topped with bite-size slices of tender beef filets in a creamy sauce with hints of Worcestershire and curry.

My first glass of wine is served in a plastic cup, much to the horror of a nice gentleman (a friend of a friend’s cousin – everyone’s a friend here) who later buys me another wine, this time in a glass. There always seems to be someone making sure your hands are not empty on the Tapas Trail. And I’d just told myself I’d had the last.

It’s nearly 8 pm, six hours after we began. So much for ultimatums. The corporate takeover, so to speak, will have to wait.

Anatomy of a Tapas Route


A Few Words on Tapas

¡Vámanos de tapas! – “Let’s go for tapas!”

These are some of my favorite words to hear or say in Spain, where going for tapas is not only an opportunity to try an intriguing array of small bites, but is often an exhilarating social experience, as well. There is an element of adventure in a tapas excursion – you never know where you might end up or who might join in along the way.

In fact, I have found that tapas are more fun in groups of at least three to four. With a larger number, as opposed to a pair, a group (i.e. feast) mentality takes over, fueling the collective appetite. At other times, I may be more restrained, but standing in a tapas bar, fork in hand, the group sweeps me up, handing me one more tapa and another glass of wine. Forget about that little internal voice suggesting perhaps I’d had enough.

As any of you who have been to Spain know, you can make your own tapas route just about anywhere in the country by roving from bar to bar with your dining companions and sharing several small plates at each stop. Here in Murcia, where the sun shines over 300 days a year, streets and plazas are perpetually vibrant, and tapas are a way of life. This means I happily hear and say ¡Vámanos de tapas! on a regular basis.

La Ruta de la Tapa

La Ruta de la Tapa

It thus comes as no surprise that I love the Ruta de la Tapa, with a capital R and capital T. I am not talking about any DIY tapas route, but rather an organized Tapas Route. Over the last several years, such routes have been popping up in cities and villages throughout Spain. Often put together by restaurant associations or festival committees, Tapas Routes last for a limited period, usually about a week, typically in conjunction with a town’s annual fiestas. Local bars and restaurants on the route offer a special tapa and a drink (beer, wine or soda) for around two euros.

One of the most stand-out tapas I’ve tried on a Tapas Route in Murcia was at Rincón de Pepe, a classic restaurant downtown. For my two euros, I got a draft beer and a brownie-size portion of roast suckling pig served on a mini bed of sautéed chard, pine nuts and ibérico ham, nestled in an airy potato emulsion that dissolved in my mouth like sea foam. Digging into the crisp outer layer of the pig with my fork was like breaking into a crème brûlée. Beneath this fragrant, toasted layer, the meat was succulent and tender.

Not all tapas I’ve tried have been so sophisticated, but, overall, from what I’ve seen, the Tapas Route is an opportunity for chefs to get creative. The “Wow!” factor is important, because, in Murcia at least, you get to vote for your favorite tapa. In fact, the tapa I mention here won Best in Show in 2009.

In Murcia, the Tapas Route has been a boon for businesses. For route-goers, it’s a bargain, and a lot of fun. The atmosphere in participating bars is guaranteed to be lively, and the tapas are particularly adventurous. A “passport” turns the Tapas Route into an exciting quest.

Passport - Ruta de la Tapa III

This is my passport from the third official Tapas Route in my neighborhood, a village within the city of Murcia. Naturally, I have been to all three.

Passport - De Tapas por Murcia Passport - De Tapas por Murcia 2

Passport - De Tapas por Murcia 3

Here’s my passport from downtown Murcia’s “De Tapas por Murcia,” 2010. This year, the downtown event was moved to early September to take place during Murcia’s Feria. Sadly, I missed it, which was only because I was across the Atlantic.

The passport system provides extra incentive to eat as many different tapas as you can (and drink the accompanying libations). In each bar you stop for a tapa and drink combo, you get a stamp. With enough stamps, you can enter a drawing for a prize, which is typically food- or drink-related. For example, in the 2010 Tapas Route in Murcia, the first prize winner received his or her weight in Estrella Levante, the local lager (extra reason to eat more tapas, to inflate the numbers). This year in La Alberca, the prize was a weekend getaway for two, meals included.

I have never won a prize during a Tapas Route, but have seen the numbers on my scale creep up, as well as those of my blood alcohol level. The Tapas Route is particularly perilous in this respect, because you have one drink per tapa, instead of a couple of tapas per drink. The pace is relatively quick, because there are so many tapas to try. I always plan to walk or catch a taxi home, and am always glad I did, simply not to worry, and let the route take me where it will.


  • Be on the lookout for my next post, “A Day on the Tapas Route,” an account of last week’s tapas crawl in my village.

How to Find a Tapas Route

If you are visiting a town in Spain, particularly during its fiestas, look for tapas route posters in restaurants and bars. They go by different names, typically something like Ruta de la Tapa, Senda de la Tapa, or De Tapas por (the name of the town). In Murcia, each participating establishment has passports on hand.

I have found a couple of Websites with tapas-related news and events throughout Spain:

Morcilla de Verano – Murcia’s Eggplant Caviar

Think Spanish food, and the word vegetarian likely does not come to mind. Yet in Murcia, fabled as the “market garden” of Europe, meatless dishes starring local vegetables abound.

Take morcilla de verano, for example, or summer morcilla, a local tapa of eggplant, onion and garlic slow-cooked in olive oil until sweet and tender, seasoned with oregano and studded with toasted pine nuts.

Morcilla de verano even qualifies as vegan, yet you won’t find it labeled as such on a menu. Traditionally, vegetable-based dishes here were not so much a matter of dietary choice as they were of necessity, forming the cornerstone of local cuisine. The variety of rich, flavorful vegetable dishes in Murcia today reflects generations of ingenuity with the ingredients at hand.

In fact, many grandparents in Murcia refer to this meatless eggplant dish as morcilla de guerra, wartime morcilla. As the name suggests, this was considered a substitute for the other morcilla — a  pork blood sausage — during lean times. Or during the summer – in the past, morcilla was made in the fall, just after the slaughter. (Murcia’s meat morcilla, like the eggplant version, is flavored with onions, oregano and pine nuts.)

Today, morcilla is available year-round, yet morcilla de verano remains a popular dish, one of many traditional vegetable-based tapas served up in bars throughout Murcia, whose cuisine has been shaped by the market garden harvest.

Morcilla de Verano – Murcia’s Eggplant Caviar

This olive oil-rich recipe is nothing short of unctuous, perfect for slathering on a thick slice of country bread. Serve as an appetizer or as a light meal accompanied with a salad and a plate of sliced manchego cheese.

3 medium eggplants, peeled and diced into ½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 medium onions, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and fresh-ground pepper

Soak diced eggplant in a bowl of salted water for ½ hour to temper any bitterness. Drain and pat dry.

Meanwhile, lightly toast pine nuts in a dry sauté pan over medium-high heat.

Heat oil in a deep sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to turn golden. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Toss in eggplant, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and reduce heat to low. Cook partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is thoroughly tender, about 45 minutes. Drain any excess oil, then stir in oregano and toasted pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

YIELD: 4-6 servings

Michirones – Fava Bean Stew with Bacon, Serrano Ham, Chorizo and Garlic

When I first heard the word michirones, Manolo and I were strolling through Murcia’s historic center trying to decide where to stop for tapas. He casually suggested we try michirones at El Pepico del Tío Gínes, and I, having been in Murcia for less than one month, literally had no idea what he was talking about. Nothing sounded familiar, which is not surprising in retrospect, for you can’t get much more local than this.

Michirones, I would find out, are fava beans stewed with cured ham, bacon, chorizo, garlic, a good dose of sweet pimentón and bay leaves. This classic Murcian tapa is rustic and hearty, packed with sustenance and a deep cured ham flavor. The pimentón and chorizo turn the broth a vibrant red color that is both warming to look at and to eat.

Michirones are typically served in an earthenware dish strategically placed within reaching distance of everyone at the table. As is the case with many tapas, eating michirones is a communal experience. You help yourself to the beans and meat in the central dish with your fork, and try to get them to your mouth without leaving too much of a trail. (This distance seemed precariously long to me at first.)

This is not to say that the delicious broth goes unconsumed. For soaking up the pimentón spiked liquid, fresh bread is the favored tool, dipped with gusto directly into the common dish.

The bar where I had my first michirones, El Pepico del Tío Gines, was founded in 1935 and is a tradition in itself, with an ambiance you’d expect in an old Spanish bodega –chrome bar, hams hanging from the ceiling, the requisite wooden barrel. I loved my first taste of michirones, unlike anything I had ever eaten, although I struggled to remember how to say what I had eaten. The word just wouldn’t stick.

I can’t remember exactly when the word michirones began flowing off my tongue naturally. I think it was a gradual process, aided by weekly dinners with friends at the cantina of a neighborhood association dedicated to preserving local traditions. We’d invariably order the flavorful michirones, some of the best I’ve had (the restaurant has since closed, sniff, sniff).

After watching Valentina, Manolo’s mom, prepare a batch, I decided it was time to try for myself.

So how about some michirones for dinner?


This recipe is based on Valentina’s version in addition to recipes I consulted in the following books on local cuisine: Las 50 Mejores Recetas de la Cocina Muricana and Memorias de la Cocina Murciana.

The dish is traditionally prepared with unshelled dried fava beans. Peeled and split beans fall apart more easily in the cooking process, which isn’t appropriate for this dish. Keep in mind that the cooking time can vary depending on the size and age of the beans. If the skins are too tough for your liking, simply remove them as you are eating by squeezing on the shell with your fingers to release the soft interior into your mouth. In fact, you often see heaps of fava bean skins on plates when michirones have been served.

I suggest not adding any extra salt until the end, if it is needed. I have found that the cured meats provide enough.

A strong red wine from Jumilla, a wine-producing zone in Murcia, pairs well with the dish.

1 pound dried fava beans, soaked at least overnight*

3 quarts water

⅓ pound dried Spanish chorizo, cut into ¼-inch rounds

¼ pound unsmoked bacon (thick slices are best), cut into 1-inch lengths

1 serrano ham bone, if available

¼ pound thick-sliced serrano ham or proscuitto, cut into 1-inch lengths

1 head of garlic, rinsed

6 bay leaves

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

1-3 whole dried cayenne peppers (optional, if you like a little kick)

Salt and pepper to taste

Put all ingredients (except salt and pepper) together in a 5-quart soup pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil, uncovered, for 10 minutes and skim off any foam. Lower heat and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender but not falling apart, about 2-2 ½ hours. Add more water if necessary. (The cooking time can vary depending on the size and age of the beans.) The broth should be intensely red from the pimentón and chorizo, but relatively thin and clear in consistency. Once the beans are cooked, season with salt and pepper to taste.

*NOTE: Some recipes say to soak the beans for 48 hours, changing the water once or twice. I haven’t tried this yet, but am curious to see how much the longer soak decreases the cooking time.

Holiday Cookie Series: Fuensanta’s Almond Cordiales

If you visit a home in Murcia this time of year, you will inevitably be presented with a tray of traditional Christmas sweets to choose from. In addition to the creamy turrón and crumbly polvorones found throughout Spain, the Murcian Christmas tray also includes local treats, such as the almond-packed cordial.

These aromatic cookies are a balancing act between several Mediterranean flavors and textures. The crunchiness of the almonds is offset by moist candied squash, and the first impression of these principal ingredients fades into lingering hints of cinnamon and lemon.

After two years here in Murcia, cordiales have become an essential part of Christmas for me. They have been offered as a welcoming gesture and shared with great pleasure around many a holiday table. It seems no coincidence that cordial, in both English and Spanish, also means from the heart.

In each place I call home, I pick up recipes as comforting souvenirs. I imagine that no matter where I spend my Christmases in the future, these Murcian cookies will be part of my seasonal baking routine, joining the ranks of spiced pumpkin bread and ginger cookies.

This year, I decided it was time to learn how to make my own cordiales, and immediately thought of Fuensanta, my friend Inma’s mother, whose cordiales were not only the first I ever tasted, but also the most flavorful.

We met in Inma’s kitchen on a Saturday in early December, and Fuensanta quickly got to work mixing the ingredients by hand. Instead of measuring, she discussed the quantities with her husband, Paco, who had also come to help. After each step, Paco confirmed the dough looked as it should.

Both fretted that the cookies would run in the oven, thus losing their characteristic dome shape. (While a few did spread a bit, I would argue it doesn’t really matter, for the taste is the same.)

Inma and I joined in when it came time to shape the dough into little balls, which we carefully set on wafer paper (the kind used in communion) for baking.

The golden result was pronounced Christmas cookie tray-worthy. The highest praise of all came from Manolo’s grandfather, who described our cordiales as “como los antiguos” – like they used to make.

Fuensanta’s Almond Cordiales

This recipe is made for sharing. Fuensanta bakes a big batch of her cordiales at the beginning of the holidays and stores them in airtight containers, where they keep for up to several weeks. This means she always has some on hand for holiday visitors. In fact, locals say these cookies get even better with age.

Making the dough is a relatively quick and easy process in Spain, where candied squash (called cabello de angel,angel hair) is available in cans. I haven’t been able to locate this product in the US (let me know if you find it somewhere), so have included a link to an Emeril Lagasse recipe for spaghetti squash jam. This extra step will obviously make the cookies more labor-intensive, but can be done days in advance.

Wafer paper, or oblea, another common ingredient in Spain, is available by the sheet at most local bakeries in Murcia this time of year. In the US, you can find wafer paper on many specialty baking sites on the Internet, such as here, where it comes in packs of 100, and here, where it can be bought in individual sheets. To make one batch, ten sheets would be a safe bet. But the wafers can be omitted without any loss in flavor – simply use parchment paper instead.

With the quantities involved, the entire baking process took us about three hours, since we only baked one sheet at a time. (The ovens here tend to be smaller than in the US.) If you bake two sheets at once (which may take longer than the time given), be sure to rotate them at least once to ensure even browning.

2 1/4 pounds finely chopped almonds

zest of 2 lemons

2 1/4 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

6 eggs

1 1/2 cups candied spaghetti squash

Wafer paper (8 x 11 inch sheets) (optional)

Make candied spaghetti squash, if you are not using canned. Store in a clean jar in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line baking sheets with wafer or parchment paper.

Mix almonds, lemon zest, sugar and cinnamon in a large bowl. Fuensanta uses her hands, but a wooden spoon would work, too. Add eggs and mix to blend. At this point, the dough should be goopy, but not runny. Work in candied spaghetti squash with your fingers, breaking up any clumps, until more or less evenly distributed. Be careful not to overmix—you don’t want to release too much water from the squash.

Shape dough into ping-pong-size balls using your hands and set them on prepared baking sheets, spaced about 1-inch apart.

Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool before serving. If you have used wafer paper, break into individual cookies, making the edges as neat or as rough as you like. The wafer is at its crispest on this first day, and many children (and adults) here like to nibble at the leftover crumbs.

YIELD: 40-50 cookies

My Neighborhood: A Saturday Market Feast

A Saturday aperitivo at the Plaza, our neighborhood market, is a well-loved ritual for many locals. While Spanish-English dictionaries will lead you to believe that the aperitivo is a pre-lunch affair, experience in Spain has taught me otherwise. Here in Murcia, at least, it is not unusual for an aperitivo to begin at around 1:30 p.m. and end nearly twelve hours later, with one last drink in a friend’s home. Meanwhile, nearly the entire day has been spent imbibing – a few bites here, a few sips there – and talking. This is typically what happens when we begin at the Plaza.

La Plaza - Saturday at Pasqual's

But beyond the timeframe, an aperitivo at the Plaza is not a typical bar experience. For here, you buy your own fish and meat at your purveyors of choice in the market and then take them to Cafetería Pascual, where the owner cooks them up for you. The preparation is simple – either a la plancha, on a griddle sizzling with olive oil, or al vapor, steamed in a big pot seasoned with bay leaves. Both methods bring out the flavors of the literally market-fresh products. You don’t have to specify. You just leave your bags in the queue on the counter, and Pascual takes care of the rest.

Our first stop – Pescadería Manolo:

Plaza - Pescaderia Manolo

Our fishmongers:

Plaza - Fishmongers Manolo and Puri

The fish:

Plaza - Fishmongers Manolo and Puri (2)


Our next stop – Cafetería Pascual:

Pascual napkinDSC01550

This is not a meal for the timid – there are no signs explaining what to do, and you must be pro-active to get your food in line. Nor is it a meal for the impatient – it can take up to an hour, or more, to get your first cooked item. It’s best not to think about the time, and instead focus on more important matters, like beer and warm-up nibbles, such as locally cured sausages or a plate of ensaladilla rusa, a creamy potato and tuna salad.

A “martini,” which here means vermouth and is a typical aperitif, can be dangerous at this stage, particularly given the volume of the pour.


It can be difficult to pace yourself, especially when you arrive hungry. I have found it is easy to forget how much fish and meat is coming my way. So after I’ve had my fill of steamed mussels, griddled razor clams and prawns, I remember there are more plates to come – the griddled sausage, pork filets and boiled local morcillas, blood sausage stuffed with caramelized onions and pine nuts. Oh yeah, and the quail eggs, which will come perched atop thin slices of baguette.

La plaza - Mussels! (2)

This whole process takes at least three hours, during which time the empty beer bottles have steadily accumulated and the conversation has steadily gotten louder. A Saturday at the Plaza is a boisterous feast, which is clear in the aftermath…


Once the frenzy has died down, we plot out our next step – going home is usually out of the question. This is an aperitivo, after all.

My Neighborhood Series: Stately Homes

No one lives in the house next door. Day after day, year after year, the gate remains locked and the windows shuttered. The house is a silent neighbor, minus the occasional catfight in the abandoned yard. No summer parties in the garden, no other signs of life, which is such a shame.

The House Next Door - Rear View

This house must have been a lively place at some point. In the early 1900s, La Alberca, my village, would fill with summer residents, city dwellers of means who came here to escape the heat of downtown Murcia, just a few miles away. Many of these folks had likely earned their money in the thriving local silk industry.

La Alberca, surrounded by farmland and in the foothills of the low-lying mountains, was cooler than the city . There were popular baths here and a small alberca, or reservoir, where holidaymakers enjoyed refreshing and reputedly restorative waters. Knowing the Spaniards, homes like the one next door would have seen their fair share of parties, particularly in this time of relative prosperity.

The House Next Door - Seen from My Kitchen

I love the house next door. Es preciosa, says Manolo, and I agree. It makes me daydream. I imagine opening the front door, which creaks of old age and lack of use, and entering the world as it was at least a lifetime ago. In my mind, the table is still set for a family luncheon, all doilies and silver and china. I tiptoe through the scene, not wanting to disturb the peace of decades of rest. The floors are stunning, a mosaic of colorfully elaborate Victorian encaustic tiles, typical in homes here in the first part of the last century. Dusty family photos sit atop antique commodes, elegant señores and señoras wearing the formal expressions demanded of the occasion. And a radiant portrait of Murcia’s patron virgin, La Fuensanta, hangs on the wall.

In another fantasy, I somehow earn enough money to buy the house next door, and the owners, whoever they may be, agree to sell. I repair the roof, which has begun to crumble in places, and add a fresh coat of paint. Manolo, whose thumb is much greener than mine, brings the garden back to life, pruning the majestic palms, perhaps planting some more lemon trees (there are already a few), and restoring the trellised walkway leading to the front door. The evening of our housewarming, I string lights among the grape vines to welcome visitors, bringing the house back to life.

The House Next Door - Originaly Entry Gate

The House Next Door




It pains me to think of the continued effects of time on the house next door. Other beautiful old houses in my neighborhood seem to be in a similar situation, all but abandoned. In some cases, the homes have been passed on to future generations and now belong to so many people that they belong to no one, really. And perhaps nobody in the family has the means, or the time and will, to maintain these historic properties. Each house has its own story, and, yes,  its own potential to inspire.

Another Crumbling Villa

Abandoned house on the hill

ADDENDUM: And, thankfully, many old houses in the neighborhood have been lovingly maintained and restored. Here are a few:

A lovely villa

Former baths, whose interior has been converted into condos

A charming home

The House Next Door - Originaly Entry Gate

The House Next Door

It pains me to think of the continued effects of time on the house next door. Other beautiful old houses in my neighborhood appear to be in a similar situation, all but abandoned. In some cases, the homes have been passed on to future generations and now belong to so many people that they belong to no one, really. And perhaps nobody in the family has the means, or the time and will, to maintain these historic properties. Each house has its own story, and its own potential.