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