Category: Spanish Food

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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Aletría – History in a pan

Stopping to look, I find traces of Murcia’s history everywhere—in crumbling bits of medieval wall around the city; in ruins beneath the cathedral; in my husband’s black hair and olive skin; in my son’s deep-as-midnight eyes; and, especially, in local foods like aletría.

Aletría—saffron-seasoned pasta cooked in the same pan with short ribs, artichokes, tomatoes, red peppers and potatoes—reveals layers of the past just as an archaeological excavation would.

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The name aletría comes from an Arabic word for dried pasta, iṭriyah, and the dish is very similar to ittrilla, which appears in an anonymous thirteenth century cookbook from Al-Andalus. In the medieval version, noodles simmer in a broth made with fat-rich cuts of meat and seasonings like salt, pepper and coriander; before serving, the dish gets sprinkled with cinnamon and ginger.

Today, the foundation is the same—you cook the noodles in a flavorful meat broth—but the dish has dropped most of the Moorish seasonings and taken on ingredients that reflect new rulers, like pork, and New World discoveries, like tomatoes.

I found myself thinking about the layers of aletría on a recent visit to my favorite museum in Murcia, the Museo de Santa Clara, which provides another way to look at the city’s strata.

The museum is part of a working convent, where a handful of elderly nuns continue to live in their cloistered community. Like many religious buildings in Murcia, the convent was constructed on top of Moorish remains, in this case a luxurious palace to different Arab rulers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

On the ground floor, devoted to Murcia’s Islamic past, I gazed upon remnants of the palace and reconstructions of intricate archways and a Moorish garden with a reflecting pool. Upstairs, I soaked in the history of the convent and its patron, Saint Clare of Assisi.

As I looked at the layers, I could see all of the forces that had shaped the city, and dishes like aletría, more clearly.

Here were the foundations of my son’s gaze and the basic building blocks of this stew that has nourished Murcia for generations.

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Aletría

To make aletría, you follow the same basic techniques used in making paella – the pasta cooks in the pan with the vegetables and meat, soaking up flavor of the broth – but this dish is more forgiving, because it is easier to overcook rice than pasta.

A similar dish minus the bell peppers, artichokes and potatoes, called fideos a la cazuela, is made in other parts of Spain.

The final amount of water you need depends on many factors, such as the speed of the boil, the surface area of your pan and the exact amount of pasta you use. Add more hot water as needed to keep the ingredients just barely submerged. The final dish should be nearly dry rather than soupy. The cooking times are approximate, too. It may take more time, for instance, for the meat to become tender and the potatoes to cook.

  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided (plus more as needed)
  • 1 red pepper, cut into thick strips
  • 2-3 artichokes, cleaned and quartered
  • 1 medium or 2 small potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes (not so little that they’ll disintegrate into the stew), then rinsed in water until the water runs clear
  • ½ kilo (1 lb) short ribs, cut into 1 ½-inch lengths
  • 2 tomatoes, cut crosswise and grated down to the skin using the large holes of a box grater
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • Powdered yellow food coloring (optional – see notes)
  • 1 lb (500 g) thick fideos (see notes)

The first step is to sear all of the ingredients separately to concentrate the flavors. Heat 2 tbsp oil over medium-low heat in a heavy casserole or deep skillet. Add the red pepper strips and a pinch of salt. Cook the peppers, turning them frequently, until they have softened and are lightly brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. If the peppers brown too quickly before softening, lower the heat. Remove the peppers from the skillet and set aside.

Raise the heat to medium, add another tablespoon of olive oil, the artichoke quarters and a pinch of salt. Sauté the artichokes until they are lightly browned on all sides and begin to soften, about five minutes. Remove the artichokes with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil if necessary, the cubed potatoes and a pinch of salt and sauté until lightly golden on all sides. Remove and set aside.

Generously season the ribs with salt and pepper. Once again, if there is not much olive oil left in the pan, add another tablespoon and increase the heat to medium-high. Sauté the ribs until they are nicely browned on all sides, turning frequently. The idea is not to cook the ribs, but to sear them and seal in the juice and flavor.

Once the ribs are browned, reduce the heat to medium, stir in the minced garlic and cook for a minute or two until the garlic is fragrant. Add the grated tomato and cook, stirring frequently, until the tomato has lost much of its water, about five minutes. Cover the meat with water (about 2 cups/500 ml) and stir in the pinch of saffron and powdered yellow food coloring, if using. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat until the water simmers steadily. Cook uncovered until the ribs are nearly tender, about 20 minutes, then add the artichokes and potatoes. Add more water to cover if needed and more salt to taste. Continue simmering until the potato is half-way cooked (about 10 to 15 minutes).

Add another 2 cups/500 ml of water to the pan and bring to a boil. Stir in the pasta and red pepper and reduce the heat to a steady simmer. Taste the broth for salt, adding more as needed. Cook the pasta uncovered until it is al dente (about 11 minutes – follow the instructions on the package). Add more hot water as needed as you cook to keep the ingredients submerged. The final stew should not be soupy, but it should have a bit of broth. Remove the pan from the heat and let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving.

Notes: In Spain, use No. 2 fideos, or break long, thin pasta such as spaghetti into one-inch (2.5-cm) lengths. My mother-in-law adds a handful of pasta per person plus an extra handful “for the pot”.

Since saffron is a luxury ingredient, many home cooks in Spain rely on a sprinkling of powdered yellow food coloring to give dishes like paella and aletría a desirable sunny color that would take far too much of the exquisite spice to obtain.

Ensalada murciana – A tomato salad for all seasons

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In many 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 do not mean salad made with the nondescript, greenhouse-produced tomatoes that can be found in Spanish markets even in 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 tossed together with oil-packed tuna, onions, hard-boiled eggs, cured olives, and, of course, a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.

Why Murcian salad? As is the case with many local dishes, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact origin, but the salad has been ubiquitous for long 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 Murcia that have long been recognized for their agricultural potential—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 centuries. Tomatoes of course came later, brought back from the Americas 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.

Tostada con tomate – Spanish breakfast

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Tostada con tomate – toasted bread with fresh tomato, olive oil and salt – was one of my son Mateo’s first foods. With his teeth barely poking through his gums, he would nibble away at bits of tomato toast while perched on his tita’s (aunt’s) lap in our neighborhood café, golden olive oil trickling down his chin.

Look around any café in Murcia in the morning and you will find that tostada con tomate is what most people are having with their coffee. Here, toasted baguette is served with a ramekin of grated fresh tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil and salt on the side, so you can add as much of each as you like. With so much greenhouse production in Spain, we actually get tomatoes (and hence tostada con tomate) year-round, but nothing beats toast made with summer garden tomatoes.

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This popular breakfast and mid-morning snack (also known as pan con tomate) can be found throughout Mediterranean Spain in a variety of guises. The “best way” depends on whom you ask and where they first tasted the four basic ingredients together.

Many Catalans are sure to tell you their version is the best, and the original. In Catalonia, toasted bread with tomato is known as pa amb tomàquet, which, more than a dish, is a symbol of Catalan identity. Indeed, a Catalan writer was the first to mention the preparation in writing in the 1880s, which many consider as proof of its Catalan origins.* Pa amb tomàquet is traditionally made by cutting very ripe tomatoes in half and rubbing them flesh side down onto toasted country bread (sometimes with garlic), which is then drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. For many Catalans, this is the only way to eat bread with tomato.

Both the Catalan and Murcian versions (and Valencian and Andalusian takes, too) are beloved local traditions, so does it really matter which came first?  I, personally, love them all, especially in the summer when tomatoes are at their best.

For my son, however, born in Murcia, this will likely always be the best way to eat pan con tomate:

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Murcian-style tostada con tomate

As with any dish that has so few ingredients, quality makes a big difference in the results. It’s best to use a good baguette that won’t turn instantly soggy, the summer’s ripest tomatoes, fruity extra virgin olive oil and fine sea salt. This recipe is even a good way to use up tomatoes that may be just a little too ripe for salads. The olive oil should not be so strong that it overpowers the tomato flavor.

Have the grated tomato, olive oil and salt ready on the table so they can be added soon as the toast is done.

If you’d like to add protein, top with a thin slice of cured Spanish ham (or prosciutto – I feel my husband cringing – if you cannot find a Spanish brand).

The quantities below are for two servings, but they can easily be multiplied or divided.

  • 1 very ripe large tomato
  • 1 six-inch piece of baguette, sliced lengthwise
  • Fruity yet mild extra virgin olive oil, in a recipient that makes it easy to drizzle
  • Fine sea salt
  • A few thin slices of cured Spanish ham (or prosciutto, optional)

Cut the tomato in half and grate each half over a shallow bowl using the large holes of a box grater (press the cut side of the tomato into the grater and rub with a flattened palm until you are down to the skin).

Toast the bread enough that it has some good crunch to it. Use a fork to prick the surface of the toasted bread to help the other ingredients seep in.

Top the toast with an even layer of grated tomato (thick or thin according to taste – I personally like a lot of tomato). Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. You can always adjust and add more as you eat. Top with ham if you like.

Enjoy!

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* An interesting twist: in researching the origins of this simple dish, I came across a legend that holds that it was actually workers from Murcia who introduced pan con tomate in Catalonia when they headed north to help build the Barcelona metro in the 1920s. The legend persists, even though it has been debunked by the famous Spanish food historian and gastronome Néstor Luján based on the 1880s description by a Catalan writer mentioned above. Luján believes that pa amb tomàquet originated in the Catalan countryside as a means to add moisture and flavor to dried out bread. The rest, as they say, is history ;).

Spanish Food Idioms in Don Quixote – En todas partes cuecen habas

For fans of 17th century literature April 2016 is a seminal month, for it marks 400 years since the death of two literary giants: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. Although it is commonly thought that both men died on the same day (April 23, 1616), Spain and England used different calendars at the time (Gregorian and Julian, respectively), so the two men’s deaths were actually 11 days apart. Still, the coincidence is striking.

In honor of this anniversary, today’s post looks at a Spanish food idiom that was famously used by Cervantes in his classic work, Don Quixote. This 17th century novel, considered by many in the know to be one of the greatest works of fiction of all times, follows the tragicomic quest of a nobleman steeped in knightly romances to revive chivalry in what he sees as a depraved world.

January-March 2010 091 (2)Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Literal and Figurative Meaning

En todas partes cuecen habas literally translates as “they cook beans everywhere.”*

Yet figuratively, this expression means that everyone, everywhere has problems, no matter what their circumstances. In other words, “it’s the same the world over.”

Why beans? And why habas (fava beans) in particular? In the past, and certainly in Cervantes’ lifetime, fava beans and other such legumes were a major component of poor people’s diets in Spain because they were inexpensive and easy to find. The act of cooking beans like favas thus had negative connotations, representing hardship and the daily grind.

*As translated by Edith Grossman in her contemporary English version of Don Quixote (Second Part, Chapter XIII, page 536).

In context

Today’s expression and similar variations are commonly used in the Spanish-speaking world, often by journalists and politicians in the context of corruption. Just look on Google. En todas partes cuecen habas = there is corruption everywhere.

I liked the contexts given in this article in the Spanish daily El País: “This saying comes in handy when you go abroad and see something that could happen in Spain. For example, when you see a story of corruption on TV, when someone tries to cut ahead of you in line while you’re waiting to enter a cathedral, and, of course, when someone cooks a stew with beans.”

Yet it was Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s faithful “squire,” who uttered perhaps the most famous version in a comical conversation with another squire about the ins and outs of their jobs and masters:  “en todas casas cuecen habas; y en la mía, a calderadas,” which literally translates as, “they cook beans everywhere, but in my house they do it by the potful.”

In the second part of  the expression, “in my house they do it by the potful,” Panza is of course claiming that his house has more problems than the rest.

Shakespeare, a master of universal truths, would certainly have found good use for today’s expression.

To conclude

Besides having died on nearly the same day and (purportedly) penned some of the most influential works of literature in history, Cervantes and Shakespeare share other commonalities. For example, due to gaps in their biographies, both men are infinite sources of debate and speculation. There are even theories that hold that Francis Bacon was the real author of both men’s works.

Theories aside, the genius of Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s plays is undeniable.

Such works are like an “open sesame” into the culture and language in which they were written. Just check out this list of 45 Everyday Phrases Coined by Shakespeare in the English language, and consider the Bard’s ongoing influence on popular culture.

Can we survive without knowing such cultural references? Of course. But in my perspective, life is much richer when we can recognize these connections to the past.

Shakespeare and Cervantes may be long gone, but we can rest assured that wherever we look there will always be a pot of beans on the fire.

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.

IMG_2006 Even Mateo is in on the fun, enjoying the rare chance to drink Fanta.

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.

 

Spanish Food Idioms – Contigo, pan y cebolla

6 Ceremony in the Totana Town Hall - Rice

Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Today’s expression: contigo, pan y cebolla

Literal and Figurative Meaning:

“Contigo, pan y cebolla” literally means, “With you, bread and onions.” Figuratively, this is an expression of love and commitment despite hardship, a promise of fidelity come what may. The connotations are largely economic, i.e., with the most basic (and inexpensive) needs in life we can stick it out. In a larger sense, the bread and onions also represent the sweet and bitter experiences in life.

These four simple words in Spanish convey the same idea as the classic marriage vows in English, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.” To use another English expression, “contigo pan y cebolla” is a promise to stick together “through thick and thin.”

The blog title – why “Bread and Onions”?

I have named this blog “Bread and Onions” for several reasons. The title of course in part pays tribute to the reason I live in Spain: my marriage to a Spaniard.

Beyond the marriage context, I also see this expression as a metaphor for the ups and downs of our daily lives. No matter where we call home, life will always have its sweet bread and its bitter onions, its experiences to savor and to overcome together with family and friends.

Here I share anecdotes and recipes, mostly from Spain, but also from the other places I have lived and traveled. These stories are my bread and my onions.

In (a personal) context:

Tying the knot in Spain

I got married in Spain in April, 2013 in a sweet little ceremony in a small town in the Region of Murcia. Neither my husband nor I wanted a big wedding, so we hardly planned at all. The idea was to sign the papers on “the big day” and then gather our friends for a party a couple of weeks later. I wasn’t expecting anything else.

I was just happy we finally had a date. When I think back to our wedding, one of the things I most remember is the seemingly interminable waiting. We handed in our marriage application in September, 2012, and I thought we would be married by Christmas, but in the end it took seven long months with almost no news before were finally approved.

Why did it take so long? There are certain questions we will never have the answer to. As we waited, I often imagined our file collecting dust somewhere deep in the bowels of the Civil Registry. I fantasized about flying to Las Vegas, and I had frequent conversations in my head with the judge in charge of our case, a conservative and curmudgeonly man on the verge of retirement with a reputation for making decisions based on his personal beliefs. “Who are you to tell me if I can or can’t get married?” I would ask defiantly. No answer.

The fact I am a foreigner added an extra layer of paperwork to the process, which would have been quicker for two Spaniards or had we married through the Church, despite the fact that Spain is a secular state. At our “first appearance” before the judge in February, my husband and I had to prove we were not marrying for convenience by filling out questionnaires about each other’s families, work, hobbies and favorite foods. I imagined the judge poring over our answers with a red pen in hand, looking for any discrepancies that would send me back to America.

Our answers must have been convincing enough, however, because we finally got the go ahead in April. By this time, my residency permit had expired and Mateo was on his way, so we needed to set a date quickly. Had we wanted to get married in the city of Murcia (where civil marriages are only performed on Fridays), we would have had to wait until October, over one year after we’d handed in our application.

Luckily we had enchufe (connections), one of the best ways to speed up the Spanish bureaucratic machine. My husband’s boss, a member of the town council in a nearby village, helped push our papers through and got us a date on the following Monday in his village’s town hall, where he himself would preside.

The event that emerged spontaneously thanks to the contributions of friends and family was touching and nearly perfect. (It would have been even better had my family and friends from the States been there, too. This was the biggest downside of not planning ahead….)

My friend Paqui called the day before the wedding to insist that I get dressed at her house, that she had the bouquet thought out and that I was not under any circumstances to go to the wedding in the same car with my husband-to-be. She also brought flower petals and rice to throw once we were man and wife. I hadn’t even thought of such details, which sounded a little silly to me at first, but in the end I appreciated the added bit of ceremony and tradition, making me feel more like a bride on the big day. We weren’t just signing any old papers after all, we were getting married! After so many months of feeling like my wedding was trapped in the papers in someone else’s hands, I needed to make the day more personal, less of a bureaucratic routine.

My husband’s boss, a natural orator, delivered a speech peppered with philosophy, humor, Kahlil Gibran poetry and cariño (affection). This was far better than a randomly assigned judge in the city going through the motions.

Then came the vows, and the time to say, “I do,” which I first said in English, and then had to repeat in Spanish (Si, acepto) in order for the words to be legally binding. This technicality I didn’t mind.

Si, acepto!

Bring on the bread and onions!

 

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Macedonia de frutas – Soupy fruit salad, a toddler favorite in Spain

A quick note on the name change: This blog will no longer be called “go with curiosity,” but “Bread & Onions” instead, a more food-centric title. This new name comes from the Spanish food idiom, “contigo pan y cebolla,” “with you, bread and onions.” Briefly, this idiom conveys the same idea as the classic marriage vows “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.” More to come in my next blog post!

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An introduction to Feeding Mateo: This is the first post in an ongoing series that will chronicle my experiences feeding a baby and toddler in Spain. I in no way pretend to speak for all Spanish babies. For one, I live in a provincial city, Murcia, which is quite different from living in a cosmopolitan capital like Barcelona or Madrid. Furthermore, Mateo’s diet includes a heavy dose of my own food memories and nostalgia.

This is therefore my personal toddler feeding adventure in progress, rooted in a few essential ingredients: my Spanish husband’s traditions and family recipes; food ideas exchanged with other moms and dads I know on both sides of the pond; and my own “foodprints,”i.e., the flavors and food experiences I have collected in all the places I have lived and traveled.

I also hope to hear ideas from readers who have either been there and done that or who also have a hungry toddler on their hands.

Let’s dig in!

Fruit First – Preparing food as a mother begins

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Since I had Mateo, cooking is no longer the optional hobby it used to be. Before, I would often spend a full day (when I felt like it) preparing an elaborate new recipe that would provide me with leftovers for the rest of the week. Now, however, I must cook a wider variety on a more regular basis.

I do not say this begrudgingly, as I obviously love to cook, but my relationship to cooking has certainly changed. Now I cannot wait for the muse to light the burners. Furthermore, I feel pressure to offer Mateo new flavors and textures to expand his palate beyond the typical toddler favorites (pasta, hot dogs, rice, anything sweet).

At 28 months, Mateo loves to eat, although he is not one of those toddlers who will eat just about anything. In fact, he is going through a so-called picky phase. To give an example, he loves paella, although he has begun to suspiciously eye each spoonful for any stray bits of meat. If he finds one, despite my efforts to cut it into rice-sized pieces, he spits it out, saying disparagingly, “carne” (the Spanish word for meat). The only meat he will eat that is not chopped up into tiny pieces is jamón serrano, Spanish cured ham. Perhaps he’s destined to be a vegetarian, with an exception for Spanish jamón. In the meantime, however, I keep trying.

One thing he never turns up his nose at is fruit. I often wonder if this is because the first “real” food he tried at five months old was a spoonful of fresh-squeezed orange juice, per his pediatrician’s recommendation.

For the next several months of his life he got fruit every day for his merienda, his afternoon snack, in the form of papilla de frutas – a thick smoothie of blended fresh fruits like bananas, apples and pears, all with a squeeze of orange juice.

The transition to pieces of fruit was seamless. Mateo happily devoured soft bits of ripe bananas and juicy melons and pears. He spent much of his first apricot season with a bright orange ring around his mouth (my husband is an apricot breeder and we get the most delicious apricots I’ve ever eaten, a topic which deserves its own post).

One of Mateo’s favorite ways to eat fruit these days is in a macedonia de frutas, a fruit salad. As he eats, we talk about the different fruits, colors and textures (“crunchy,” he often says to me when taking a bite of apple). When all the fruit is gone, he slurps up the juice from the bowl.

At least I know with fruit I can never go wrong, perhaps thanks to that first sweet, juicy spoonful.

Macedonia de frutas – Fruit salad

The name of this diverse medley of fruits in Spanish (macedonia) is an allusion to the ancient kingdom of the same name under Alexander the Great’s (356-323 B.C.) rule. This vast empire stretched from the Mediterranean to India, encompassing many different cultures, races and creeds.

While Alexander’s empire may not have been a harmonious blend, in the macedonia de frutas, all fruits are welcome. So my “recipe” here is just one example of the infinite possible combinations, depending on what your family’s favorites are and what’s in season. Bananas, pineapples, kiwis, berries, melons, you get the idea. Quality canned fruits make a nice addition as well.

The version below is inspired by my friend Paz, whom I met in birthing classes at our local health clinic when we were both pregnant. Just about every time we get our kids together for an afternoon snack, Paz makes a delicious macedonia de frutas. The other week, her salad included high quality canned peaches from Murcia and a bit of the syrup (Paz is from the Murcian town of Cieza in the main peach producing area in Spain). I (and Mateo, too, of course) liked the added sweetness of the canned fruit, making for a special treat.

Serves 2, although the recipe can easily be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, etc.

1 apple

1 pear

2-3 quality canned peach halves and 1 teaspoon of the syrup, or more to taste

4 strawberries (Strawberries are in season in Spain, although these are definitely not the sweet little berries I remember from my youth.)

1-2 oranges

Wash and then cut up all the fruits, except for the oranges, into uniform bite-sized pieces. I tend to peel the apples and pears, but this is not a necessary step. Sometimes I add in bits of orange sections with the membranes removed, too.

Squeeze enough orange juice into the salad until it nearly covers the fruits, removing any seeds of course. Mix in a teaspoon or more of the syrup from the canned peaches if you would like some added sweetness.

Allow the salad to sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes so that the flavors can begin to meld. If you would like to serve the salad cold, cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

For guests, it is best to serve this salad on the same day, although I often happily polish of the leftovers on the second day, depending on the fruits (the apples, pears and peaches hold up better than the strawberries and bananas, for example).

Spanish Food Idioms – Nacer con un pan debajo del brazo

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Hello world! I have decided to start back after so much time away with a Spanish food idiom that encapsulates the last few years of my life in which many big, good things have happened, making me feel truly lucky.

Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Today’s expression: nacer con un pan debajo del brazo

I have often heard it said in Spain that “un bebé nace con un pan debajo del brazo” – “a baby is born with a loaf of bread under his arm.” In this day and age, the figurative bread in this expression represents the feelings of good fortune and happiness typically associated with the birth of a new child.

Yet the bread here also has financial connotations, as we can find in certain expressions in English. Another Spanish bread idiom, “Ganarse el pan,” “to earn one’s bread,” means to make a living, as a “breadwinner” does in the English-speaking world. Indeed, today’s idiom is thought to have originated in times when a new child  meant a new source of income or household labor in the family.

In context:

In case you hadn’t guessed yet, I have selected today’s expression because it has special meaning my personal life. Yes, the biggest, luckiest thing that has happened to me since I last wrote has been the birth of my son, Mateo. He was born on Halloween in 2013. Seeing and holding him for the first time, I more fully understood the meaning of the “pan debajo del brazo,” “the bread under the arm,” of a newborn baby.

 

IMG_2244This is one of the first pictures we took of Mateo in the hospital, over two years ago now!

 

Soon after Mateo was born, several friends said to me, often with a wink and a nudge, “A ver si viene con un pan debajo del brazo,” “Let’s see if he has come with bread under his arm.”

These friends were wishing our family well in all realms, yet I got the sense that they were especially wishing us financial luck. Perhaps this would be the year for us to win the Christmas lottery, for example, or, more realistically, for my husband to get a better contract.

For the past several years, you see, we had been living under a cloud of contract-to-contract uncertainty. But the year Mateo was born my husband got a prestigious five-year research position (in Spain, mind you, where good contracts are hard to come by these days). This is just one of the many ways in which we have been lucky since Mateo came into our lives. Read More