With the onset of chilly days, I find myself daydreaming about the soup pot, which had collected dust during Murcia’s long, hot summer. Now, simply imagining the steam rising off a simmering, one-dish meal warms and soothes me. My chilly fingertips typing away at the keyboard long to be wrapped around the promised bowl.
Soup is comfort food in many cultures – a condensed version of the smells, flavors and rituals of one’s childhood. Perhaps this is why a single bowl of fresh, piping hot soup in any language offers reassurance beyond words.
Here in Spain, stews are often called comidas de cuchara, meals which require no more than a soup spoon to eat. Most versions involve an aromatic broth packed with vegetables, beans and meats that easily yield to said spoon. There is comfort in this simplicity – one pot, one dish and one utensil. And the repeated act of lifting each bite to the lips and softly blowing, like I learned as a child, has a calming, meditative effect.
For me, Murcia’s olla gitana, or gypsy stew, is particularly inviting. As is the case with most stews around the world, it is a dish of ingenuity, a hearty and satisfying blend of ingredients at hand. This vegetarian stew showcases the diverse fruit and vegetable offerings of Murcia’s long-cultivated lands.
Yet the olla gitana is more than delicious nourishment – it is also evocative. The seasoning blend, for instance (extra virgin olive oil, sweet paprika, saffron and mint), recalls the region’s diverse roots, from Romans to Moors to the Roma people who lend the stew its name. And the warm-hued spices give the dish itself a sunny appearance, reflective of Murcia’s Southern Mediterranean climate.
This is a traveler’s stew, or, more precisely, a dish whose ingredients from far and wide, and the people who carried them, have found their home, right here in my soup pot.
Olla Gitana con Peras – Murcia’s Gypsy Stew with Pears
I first learned to make olla gitana in the kitchen of Valentina, a gifted home cook in Murcia (who also happens to be my boyfriend’s mother). The recipe that follows is based on Valentina’s version with some additions, such as pears, inspired by several recipes I found in local cookbooks, including a tome on regional gastronomy entitled, “Region de Murcia – El libro de la gastronomía.”
Most traditional recipes call for saffron, which imparts the dish with a golden hue and smoky essence. However, due to the cost of this luxury spice, many home cooks I have met here use a natural yellow food color instead, as brightness is considered an essential quality. An olla gitana without saffron is delicious in its own right, but a pinch of saffron certainly deepens the regional flavor of the stew.
1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
1 cup dried white beans (such as Great Northern, navy or cannellini beans), soaked overnight
2 quarts plus 3 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
½ pound Italian flat beans or green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 ½ -2-inch lengths
1 pound pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
3 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 medium or 4 small, slightly underripe pears, peeled, halved and cored
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 medium ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or grated (see note below)
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
A pinch of saffron threads
½ teaspoon dried mint
Salt and pepper to taste
Drain chickpeas and white beans and rinse well. Transfer to a large pot and add the water; bring to a boil. Allow to gently boil over medium heat for 10 minutes, then skim off and discard any foam that has collected on the surface. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until chickpeas and beans are partially tender, after about 45 minutes. Add the salt and green beans, pumpkin, potatoes and pears. Return to a simmer and cook uncovered until vegetables have softened, another 20 minutes or so.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent and just beginning to turn golden. Then add tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently, until reduced, about 7 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and stir in paprika (Valentina says that adding paprika over heat can make it turn bitter). The sauce will have a paste-like consistency. Add to the pot with the cooked beans and vegetables, stirring to distribute the color and flavor.
Crush saffron threads between your fingers and add to the pot; stir in mint. Simmer for another 10-15 minutes, until flavors are blended. Vegetables will be falling-apart tender.
If you find the broth is too thin, remove ½ cup of the cooked chickpeas and white beans from the pot and mash to a purée in a mortar and pestle (or using a food processor). Return purée to the stew.
Remove stew from heat, and allow it to rest for 10 minutes before serving, giving flavors time to settle. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.
I particularly enjoy this stew with a warming glass of hearty red wine, such as Monastrell from Jumilla, a wine-producing zone in Murcia.
Yield: 6-8 servings
NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many Spanish cooks. Cut the tomato in half (from top to bottom), 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.