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.

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