Tag: Spanish vegetarian recipes

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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Olla Gitana con Peras – Murcia’s Gypsy Stew with Pears

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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.