Category: Vegetables

Early spring stew with fava beans, artichokes and serrano ham

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If I had to capture early spring in Murcia in just a few words, fava beans would have to be among them. In the markets, woven baskets overflow with tangles of bright green fava bean pods. Shelled, the beans make their way to the table in a variety of traditional dishes, from omelets to stews to sautés.

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Many locals like to snack directly on the raw beans, which are firm and slightly bitter. This time of year, it is not unusual for restaurants to drop a handful of pods on your table to peel and enjoy like peanuts.

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Growing up in Florida, fava beans were not on my culinary radar. But since I moved to Murcia nearly a decade ago, I have come to love this legume—among the most ancient Mediterranean crops—in all of its guises. Every year, I particularly look forward to making this early spring stew, inspired by a similar recipe in one of my favorite Spanish cookbooksThe New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen.

The stew is loaded not not only with fresh fava beans, but also artichokes, another of my favorite vegetables at their prime in early spring. Sherry and serrano ham give the dish a decidedly Spanish flair. As the name “stew” suggests, this is not a flash-cooked affair. Instead, the vegetables simmer until tender with garlic and onions in a rich, ham-infused broth. Raw garlic and parsley pounded to a paste and stirred in before serving add bright speckles of spring green and a lively garlic kick.

Happy spring!

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Early spring stew with fava beans, artichokes and serrano ham, adapted from The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen

When using fresh fava beans and artichokes, this is not a quick recipe—there is a lot of paring and shelling to be done. But your time will be rewarded. If you have young children in the house, shelling fava beans is a perfect task for little hands. In fact, my four-year-old son loved the work so much that he got mad at my husband for shelling too quickly and claimed the final handful for himself! I haven’t actually tried the stew with frozen artichoke hearts and fava beans, but I’m sure that’s delicious, too, if you cannot get the ingredients fresh. Von Bremzen suggests fresh or frozen peas or soybeans as a fava bean substitute.

Von Bremzen’s recipe also calls for green beans and potatoes, but I wanted to focus on my favorite ingredients, so used more artichokes and fava beans and left these other vegetables out. She has you do all of the prep work in advance, but I like to prepare the artichokes while the onions are slowly cooking with the ham to streamline the process a bit and to give the onions richer flavor.

Enjoy this early spring stew as a tapa, side dish (it’s excellent with fish) or light meal, with bread, of course!

  • 2 cups shelled fresh fava beans (about 2 pounds/1 kilogram unshelled)
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1  thick (1/4-inch) slice serrano ham or proscuitto, about 1.5 ounces (40 grams), diced
  • 6 medium artichokes
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced and divided
  • 1/3 cup dry sherry
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken broth, plus more as needed
  • 2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley

Cook the shelled fava beans in a pot of salted boiling water until they are just tender, about 4 minutes, depending on their size. Drain the beans and run them under cold water to stop the cooking process. Once the fava beans are cool enough to handle, gently press them between your fingers to pop the tender green centers out of the skins. Set the beans aside.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large pot. Stir in the onions and diced ham and reduce the heat to low. Let the onions slowly cook, stirring occasionally, while you prepare the artichokes. Reduce the heat to very low if the onions begin to brown.

Fill a medium bowl with water and squeeze in the juice from the lemon. Clean and quarter the artichokes (here are some excellent instructions), dropping the quarters into the bowl to prevent browning. Since the stems are also delicious when cooked, I like to peel them and leave a 1- to 1 1/2-inch tail.

When the artichokes are ready, the onions should be soft and beginning to turn golden (it took me nearly 30 minutes to prepare the artichokes – I’m slow). Stir in half of the garlic and the artichoke quarters. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the artichokes have begun to soften, about 10 minutes. Add another tablespoon of olive oil if the pot seems dry. Pour in the sherry and increase the heat to high. Cook the sherry for about 1 minute, allowing it to reduce slightly.  Add enough chicken broth to just cover the vegetables and bring the liquid to a simmer. Cook the stew over low heat, partially covered, until the artichokes are completely tender, about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on their size. Add more broth as needed to keep the artichokes barely covered. Once the artichokes are done, add the fava beans and cook until they are tender, about 5 more minutes.

Place the parsley and remaining garlic in a mortar and pound them into a paste using a pestle. A pinch of salt can help. Stir the paste into the stew and cook for another minute to allow the flavors to blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve warm.

 

Oven-roasted escalivada

IMG_4957Spring in Murcia has begun with a cold north wind, but I still feel summer breathing down my neck. Come April, suffocating heat could appear any day, robbing us of a proper spring. It happens every year. The pressure is on to crank up the oven and bake and roast as much as I can while I still appreciate the added warmth in my kitchen. This is a perfect time to make escalivada, one of my favorite foods in Spain.

Simple, versatile escalivada—a roasted Mediterranean vegetable dish of Catalan origin—is cherished throughout the country. It can be a salad, a side dish or a condiment, and it pairs perfectly with other Spanish favorites like jamón and tortilla de patatas. The exact composition can vary, but most versions of escalivada (sometimes spelled escalibada) contain roasted red peppers, eggplants and onions; tomatoes and garlic are other popular additions.

In Catalan, the name escalivada means cooked over a flame or embers, the traditional means of making the dish. In fact, purists argue that the only way to cook escalivada is over fire, and that the dish is missing something essential without the smoky flavor the flames impart, although many home cooks make a respectable escalivada in the oven. As an apartment dweller myself, I say that a delicious oven-roasted escalivada is far superior to no escalivada at all.

One of the best things about escalivada is that it is a cinch to prepare. To make an indoor version, you simply place your vegetables in a hot oven on a baking sheet and forget about them for an hour or so, removing them when the heat has done its work to make them ultra-tender and sweet on the inside. The hardest part (let’s not get too lazy here) is peeling the vegetables once they are cool enough to handle, removing any seeds and tearing the tender insides into thin strips. Minimal dressing is all you need to enhance the natural flavors—a sprinkling of fine sea salt and a generous drizzle of the most flavorful extra virgin olive oil you have.

The result is a jammy escalivada that you can eat throughout the week in a number of different guises, if you make a large enough batch. Alone, escalivada is excellent with fish or meat (or jamón) or simply for dunking bread. You can also eat it as a main-dish salad, topped with fillets of high quality olive-oil packed tuna and some black olives. Or use it on flatbread or pizza, or chopped up and mixed with eggs to make a veggie-packed Spanish omelet or scramble. You get the idea. One of my favorite ways to eat escalivada is on toasted country bread with anchovies, whose saltiness beautifully complements the sweet vegetables.

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If only I’d made more….Well, there’s always next week, as long as the north wind continues to blow.

Oven-roasted escalivada

I have come across two different approaches to roasting the vegetables for escalivada in the oven—the minimalist approach, i.e., roasting the vegetables uncovered on a baking sheet (parchment-lined or not) and the slightly-more-involved approach, i.e., brushing the vegetables lightly with olive oil and wrapping them individually in aluminum foil before placing them on the baking sheet. I have tried both and have to say I like a blend of both methods. I preferred the red peppers and eggplants roasted uncovered and the onion brushed and wrapped, because the onion gets tender more quickly this way. I have written the recipe accordingly, but I recommend trying the different methods yourself to see which you prefer.

The quantities are also subjective. I particularly love the sweetness of the red peppers in this dish, so used three big ones, but, of course, feel free to adjust the amounts according to your taste, what looks good at the market and how much space you have on your baking sheet (my oven in Spain is smaller than most ovens in the US). When adding garlic, keep in mind that the flavor will intensify over time if you have any escalivada left over.

As for the sizes of the vegetables, I like to use smallish eggplants, which I find have a sweeter flavor, and small to medium onions, which don’t take forever to roast.

  • 3-4 red peppers
  • 2-3 small to medium eggplants
  • 2 small to medium onions
  • 6 tablespoons flavorful extra virgin olive oil (or more to taste)
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, sliced in half lengthwise
  • Salt

Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Rinse and dry the vegetables. Place the red peppers on the baking sheet whole. Pierce the eggplants with a fork and place them on the baking sheet. Lightly brush the onions with olive oil, wrap them in aluminum foil and place them on the baking sheet.

Bake the vegetables until they are collapsed, completely tender (check the eggplant and onion by piercing with a fork) and charred in places. In my oven, this took about 45 minutes for the eggplants and peppers and about 1 ¼ hours for the onions. When you remove the peppers from the oven, place them in a covered bowl or in a sealed plastic bag for 15 minutes to allow them to steam, making it easier to peel them later. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them, remove the seeds and cut or tear the flesh into thin strips, working over a bowl to catch the juices. Peel the eggplants and cut or tear them into strips similar in size to the pepper strips. Finally, peel the onions and slice them into strips.

Arrange the vegetables in a single layer on a serving plate, either by type or alternating rows. Tuck the garlic slices between the layers, drizzle everything generously with olive oil and season with salt to taste. Allow your escalivada to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature so the flavors can develop. If you store your escalivada for any longer, be sure the vegetables are covered with olive oil, cover the dish and place it in the fridge. Allow the escalivada to come to room temperature before serving.

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A Recipe Worth Frying For: Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña – Eggplant Fries with Dark Cane Syrup

This post is dedicated to my friend Nacho, who inspired me to try this recipe, and who probably thought I had forgotten his request, as well as the jar of cane syrup his sister brought me from Córdoba (jar pictured below). Nacho – you will see why it has taken me so long. Thank you for the syrup, and the inspiration!

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña

These addictive eggplant fries with Moorish roots are most commonly served in Andalucía. They appear in different guises (round and/or battered), but the basic premise is the same, and each enchanting bite is crisp, tender, salty and sweet all at once. The dark cane syrup, akin to molasses, has a slightly bitter edge, which keeps the sweet interesting.

Manolo and I quickly devoured this plateful as an accompaniment to roasted fish for a non-traditional Thanksgiving feast, and boy was I thankful I had dared to try the recipe. This was a test, you see, for my newfound frying mettle.

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The truth is, I used to be afraid of frying. My family never did much if any, and as a result, the process seemed mysterious and challenging. How much oil should I use? And how would I know when it had reached the proper temperature? Recipes with instructions to use a thermometer only upped the anxiety. This made frying sound so technical, and, as a result, even more intimidating.

Yet in Spain, frying is a basic technique for most home cooks I know, which has helped make the process seem far less mysterious. By now, I have watched Manolo’s mother Valen fry potatoes countless times, gleaning a bit of the frying intuition she has acquired through years of experience. She has never used a thermometer, and instead, relies on the look and smell of the oil. It’s ready, she says, when the surface begins to stir and the oil is fragrant and just starting to smoke.

Sensing I didn’t fully trust my eyes and nose, Valen also taught me a local trick to test the oil’s temperature, using a curl of lemon zest. When the zest sizzles and begins to brown, she told me, the oil is hot enough for frying. I find this thermometer-free approach gives me confidence.

It will be a while before my inner sensor is as reliable as Valen’s, but it has definitely matured. And as they say, the proof is in the pudding, or, in this case, in the eggplant fries.

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña – Eggplant Fries with Dark Cane Syrup

I consulted a number of recipes in both English and Spanish to write this version, and am particularly indebted to Claudia Roden for her Eggplant Fritters with Honey in the  The Food of Spain, as well as to Anya von Bremzen for her Eggplant “Fries” in  The New Spanish Table.

Several recipes I read suggested soaking the eggplant for one hour before frying to minimize absorption of oil. I tried soaking in beer, as recommended here, and in milk, as Roden recommends. I preferred the milk. The beer-soaked fries seemed slightly more bitter (but still a delicious vegan option), although I did use different eggplants, so my results are far from scientific. First dredging the eggplant in flour also reduces oil absorption.

And the frying itself? Well, knowing what to look for and trusting your senses, there’s really nothing to be afraid of.

In the tapas spirit, you can serve these fries with just about anything. I think they go particularly well with roasted meats, like chicken and lamb, or fish. Add a green salad, and you’ve got what I’d call the perfect meal.

The quantities here are for two people, but the recipe can easily be doubled.

1 medium eggplant (about ¾ of a pound)

1-2 cups milk for soaking

All-purpose flour for dredging

Salt

Olive oil for frying  **SEE NOTE

Dark cane syrup (or a flavorful honey)

Cut the eggplant, peeled or unpeeled, into slices (about 2 1/2” long and 1/3” thick).

Soak the sliced eggplant in a bowl of milk (or beer) for 1 hour. Weight slices down with a plate so they are fully submerged.

Meanwhile, place a generous amount of flour (about ½ – ¾ cup) on a dinner plate and mix with a pinch or two of salt. When you’re ready to fry, drain the eggplant slices and dredge them in the flour, shaking off any excess (I did this with my hands, letting the flour fall between my fingers back onto the plate). Set the floured slices aside on a separate plate.

Line another plate with paper towel for post-frying.

Heat oil, poured to a depth of about 1 inch, in a deep skillet over high heat. (I used a 9-inch skillet and fried in three batches.) When the surface of the oil begins to quiver and starts to smoke, test a floured eggplant slice. If the oil sizzles right away, that means you’re ready to fry. Add a batch of eggplant slices, being careful not to overcrowd the pan, and fry, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 3-5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-high if the eggplant is browning too quickly.

Frying eggplant

Remove with a slotted spoon and place on the paper towel-lined plate to eliminate excess grease. Sprinkle with fine sea salt to taste.

Draining eggplant

Place on a serving plate and drizzle with fine ribbons of cane syrup or honey.

**NOTE: While you can use your choice of oil for frying (like canola or sunflower), the authentic recipe of course calls for olive oil. (See Janet Mendel’s comment on this post).

¡BUEN PROVECHO!

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña