Tag: Tapas

Ensalada murciana – A tomato salad for all seasons


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.


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.

A Day on the Tapas Route

In my last post, I ran through the basics of the organized Tapas Route phenomenon in Spain (the where, what, when, why, how). Here, with a preface, is a sample day on the Tapas Trail in my neighborhood.


Preface: Right around the time I started writing this post, I read Friday Night Supper, an essay by the late novelist and food writer Laurie Colwin in her endearing collection, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988). Friday Night Supper, for those of you who haven’t read it, laments the decline of the hearty, leisurely meal with family and friends. This emphasized for me what is different about eating in Spain, where time during weekend meals with friends is but a hazy backdrop. Colwin’s essay begins:

“We live in a decade that worships speed: fast food, one-minute managers, sixty-minute gourmets, three-minute miles. We lace up our running shoes and dash off to get on the fast track.

These days we are surrounded by overabundance but admire the minimal: cuisine minceur, high-tech deign, thinness. We are far too busy to linger over a long, languid meal. Instead, we bolt a pint of yogurt and suit up for a five-mile run or a corporate takeover.”

As I read this passage, I could feel two phases of my life in parallel. I recognized the fast-paced world Colwin described, and in the past, would have fully felt a part of that collective “we.” Yet I realized I no longer fully belonged in this “we” after three years of living in Spain.

Here, I have learned, it’s best not to have afternoon or even evening plans when meeting with friends at 1 pm for an “aperitivo,”  an “appetizer,” which tends to prolong itself into lunch, coffee and drinks. And then, what do you know, it’s time for dinner again (I’m talking 10 pm). Dinner in this case is often improvised at a friend’s home, like thin slices of pork loin a la plancha, a salad and wine.

As I wrote in my last post, on days such as this, I have been learning to ignore “that little internal voice suggesting perhaps I’d had enough.” I do still have that little voice, a bit of Colwin’s “we.” But the Spanish we is different, and, the good thing is, it’s not exclusive. Anyone can join, the more the merrier.

Meals in Spain are not necessarily the languid affairs Colwin wrote about, especially when they involve tapas. Lively would be a better word. But boy can they be long, but who’s counting? No corporate takeovers or five-mile runs for me (i.e. us), at least not on meal days with friends.

A Day on the Tapas Route

At 2 pm, my friends and I enter our first bar on the Route and seize the only remaining elbow space at the chrome counter. We must yell our order to be heard over the din. Here, we begin our day with a literal bang, biting into queso explosivo (pictured at the top of the page), a thick wedge of mild, fresh goat cheese dipped in an “explosive” batter loaded with snap-pop candies and deep-fried. The mini combustions in my mouth surprise, yet the syrupy sweetness of the quince marmalade leaves the final impression. I would have appreciated more salty contrast in the batter, but nonetheless enjoy this playful version of fried cheese on a stick.

We order another tapa that catches our eye at the bar, tender pulpo al horno, oven-roasted octopus, which is entirely savory minus a tart squirt of lemon.

Fried ham and cheese rolls

At the next stop, we are lucky to snag an outdoor table. The tapas here are more standard and set the themes we’ll encounter throughout the day – fried finger food and canapés, various toppings on thin slices of baguette.

The crisp crepe wrapped around the fried ham and cheese rolls crackles as we bite in. What could be better than flavorful ham and melted cheese?

The pork tenderloin canapés with salty, tangy roquefort and sweet roasted green peppers quickly disappear. In fact, my two beers have outlasted the two-bite tapas and time pressure creeps in (I tend to be a sipper, not a guzzler), if only to catch up with my friends. Due to the itinerant nature of the organized Tapas Route, time is more of the essence than in other meal situations. There are so many bars to try, and so many stamps to get on the Tapas Route passport (see last post). Yet these are only immediate pressures, for the end of the day is nowhere in sight.

The next tapa, which we eat standing, is my favorite on the Route – a canapé spread with zarangollo, Murcia’s sweet zucchini and onion scramble, topped with local fennel-flavored sausage.

After another stop not worth mentioning (every Route has a dud or two – this one involved a long wait, an unapologetic staff and a forgettable tapa), we meet up with more friends at Carmica, a creative neighborhood restaurant, which isn’t on the official Route, but has joined in spirit with a 2 euro tapa and drink menu.

Carmica is serving canapés with international flavors, topped with bite-size slices of tender beef filets in a creamy sauce with hints of Worcestershire and curry.

My first glass of wine is served in a plastic cup, much to the horror of a nice gentleman (a friend of a friend’s cousin – everyone’s a friend here) who later buys me another wine, this time in a glass. There always seems to be someone making sure your hands are not empty on the Tapas Trail. And I’d just told myself I’d had the last.

It’s nearly 8 pm, six hours after we began. So much for ultimatums. The corporate takeover, so to speak, will have to wait.

Anatomy of a Tapas Route


A Few Words on Tapas

¡Vámanos de tapas! – “Let’s go for tapas!”

These are some of my favorite words to hear or say in Spain, where going for tapas is not only an opportunity to try an intriguing array of small bites, but is often an exhilarating social experience, as well. There is an element of adventure in a tapas excursion – you never know where you might end up or who might join in along the way.

In fact, I have found that tapas are more fun in groups of at least three to four. With a larger number, as opposed to a pair, a group (i.e. feast) mentality takes over, fueling the collective appetite. At other times, I may be more restrained, but standing in a tapas bar, fork in hand, the group sweeps me up, handing me one more tapa and another glass of wine. Forget about that little internal voice suggesting perhaps I’d had enough.

As any of you who have been to Spain know, you can make your own tapas route just about anywhere in the country by roving from bar to bar with your dining companions and sharing several small plates at each stop. Here in Murcia, where the sun shines over 300 days a year, streets and plazas are perpetually vibrant, and tapas are a way of life. This means I happily hear and say ¡Vámanos de tapas! on a regular basis.

La Ruta de la Tapa

La Ruta de la Tapa

It thus comes as no surprise that I love the Ruta de la Tapa, with a capital R and capital T. I am not talking about any DIY tapas route, but rather an organized Tapas Route. Over the last several years, such routes have been popping up in cities and villages throughout Spain. Often put together by restaurant associations or festival committees, Tapas Routes last for a limited period, usually about a week, typically in conjunction with a town’s annual fiestas. Local bars and restaurants on the route offer a special tapa and a drink (beer, wine or soda) for around two euros.

One of the most stand-out tapas I’ve tried on a Tapas Route in Murcia was at Rincón de Pepe, a classic restaurant downtown. For my two euros, I got a draft beer and a brownie-size portion of roast suckling pig served on a mini bed of sautéed chard, pine nuts and ibérico ham, nestled in an airy potato emulsion that dissolved in my mouth like sea foam. Digging into the crisp outer layer of the pig with my fork was like breaking into a crème brûlée. Beneath this fragrant, toasted layer, the meat was succulent and tender.

Not all tapas I’ve tried have been so sophisticated, but, overall, from what I’ve seen, the Tapas Route is an opportunity for chefs to get creative. The “Wow!” factor is important, because, in Murcia at least, you get to vote for your favorite tapa. In fact, the tapa I mention here won Best in Show in 2009.

In Murcia, the Tapas Route has been a boon for businesses. For route-goers, it’s a bargain, and a lot of fun. The atmosphere in participating bars is guaranteed to be lively, and the tapas are particularly adventurous. A “passport” turns the Tapas Route into an exciting quest.

Passport - Ruta de la Tapa III

This is my passport from the third official Tapas Route in my neighborhood, a village within the city of Murcia. Naturally, I have been to all three.

Passport - De Tapas por Murcia Passport - De Tapas por Murcia 2

Passport - De Tapas por Murcia 3

Here’s my passport from downtown Murcia’s “De Tapas por Murcia,” 2010. This year, the downtown event was moved to early September to take place during Murcia’s Feria. Sadly, I missed it, which was only because I was across the Atlantic.

The passport system provides extra incentive to eat as many different tapas as you can (and drink the accompanying libations). In each bar you stop for a tapa and drink combo, you get a stamp. With enough stamps, you can enter a drawing for a prize, which is typically food- or drink-related. For example, in the 2010 Tapas Route in Murcia, the first prize winner received his or her weight in Estrella Levante, the local lager (extra reason to eat more tapas, to inflate the numbers). This year in La Alberca, the prize was a weekend getaway for two, meals included.

I have never won a prize during a Tapas Route, but have seen the numbers on my scale creep up, as well as those of my blood alcohol level. The Tapas Route is particularly perilous in this respect, because you have one drink per tapa, instead of a couple of tapas per drink. The pace is relatively quick, because there are so many tapas to try. I always plan to walk or catch a taxi home, and am always glad I did, simply not to worry, and let the route take me where it will.


  • Be on the lookout for my next post, “A Day on the Tapas Route,” an account of last week’s tapas crawl in my village.

How to Find a Tapas Route

If you are visiting a town in Spain, particularly during its fiestas, look for tapas route posters in restaurants and bars. They go by different names, typically something like Ruta de la Tapa, Senda de la Tapa, or De Tapas por (the name of the town). In Murcia, each participating establishment has passports on hand.

I have found a couple of Websites with tapas-related news and events throughout Spain:

Murcia’s Ensaladilla Rusa: Not your typical Russian Salad


Behold the marinera, Murcia’s favorite tapa, which always goes oh so well with that first cold lager. For those non-Murcianos out there reading this, the marinera is a mound of ensaladilla rusa, a creamy potato and tuna salad studded with bits of pickled cucumbers, carrots and olives, served on a looped breadstick and topped with an anchovy. You can also order a marinero, the same base but topped with a tangy vinegar-cured anchovy, a boqueron, instead. If anchovies aren’t your thing, than the anchovy-free bicicleta (yes, bicycle, go figure) is for you.

I’m a definite marinera fan. I love the salty anchovies, and the contrast they give to the sweet and tangy notes of the salad. I also love the challenge of eating a marinera, which takes some practice, and still often results in breadstick fractures that undermine the structural integrity. This is nothing that a few exciting rescue bites can’t solve, however, like swooping in for ice cream that’s about to fall off the cone.

The ensaladilla rusa, Russian Salad, can be found in bars and homes throughout Spain in various forms, the best of which is often, of course, the one made by mamá. Yet I have found that Murcianos are particularly proud of their Russian Salad, and turn up their noses at the cooked peas and carrots, often canned or frozen, typically found in other cities’ versions. I have never tried the ensaladilla elsewhere, but must admit that the other variations sound rather dreary to me, more Siberian, say, than Mediterranean.

Ensaladilla rusa is ubiquitous in Murcia throughout the year, a reliable presence at bars, family meals and gatherings like soccer parties and picnics. It is a comfort food for many, an old standby that never lets down, which, after three years here, it has become for me. After time away, one of the first things I crave is a marinera and a beer (they go hand in hand, after all). I feel almost like a local as I bite in, savoring the now familiar flavors anew.

Ensaladilla Rusa

Murcia’s Ensaladilla Rusa

Jazz up your next potluck with this flavorful twist on the potato salad.

As with many salads, the exact quantity you use of all the ingredients is a matter of personal preference (for example, I like lots of pickles and olives, and often add an extra can of tuna). Some people like to add diced hard-boiled eggs directly to the salad.

In terms of mayonnaise, use your favorite, homemade or store-bought, because you definitely notice the flavor. Hellman’s is the store-bought brand of choice in Murcia, although Manolo says the Hellman’s he’s tried in the US tastes different (not bad, he says, just different).

In Murcia (and in the rest of Spain, too, I think), you can buy the variantes (the pickled bits) pre-chopped in jars or in bulk at farmers’ markets next to the olives. In the US, I have been able to make my own variantes using minced carrots and cornichons (tangy French-style pickles, rather than dill) and their juice (see Cooking Note). *Take note: this step should be done two days ahead, so you can make the salad one day ahead.

Locally made looped breadsticks called rosquillas are used to make the marineras, although I’ve yet to come across any in the States. The circular Italian breadsticks (taralli), which I have seen in Italian markets, would work well, or even crackers. The challenge of the hole in the middle is fun, but the most important element of the breadstick, I would say, is the crunch.

For the salad

4 medium potatoes, peeled, quartered and rinsed in cold water until the water runs clear  – a waxy potato works best, like Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold

1 6-ounce can of solid tuna packed in olive oil, drained and flaked with a fork

1/2 cup variantes (a mix of minced pickled cucumbers and carrots – see Cooking Note)

1/4 cup anchovy stuffed olives, minced, plus more for decorating

3/4 cup mayonnaise, or more to taste, plus more for decorating

3 hard-boiled eggs, for decorating

For the marineras (or marineros or bicicletas)

Circular breadsticks (like taralli), or crackers

Anchovies packed in oil (or vinegar-cured boquerones) (Optional)

For the salad

Place potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and then add salt. Cook at a gentle boil until the potatoes are just cooked through, but not falling apart, about 10-15 minutes (just at the point when the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork). Drain and allow to cool.

Blend the tuna with the potatoes in a large bowl using a fork. The potatoes should break down to a chunky purée in the mixing process. Add the variantes and minced olives and stir until evenly distributed. Slowly add mayonnaise by the large spoonful, tasting once the salad holds together to decide if you wish to add more or not (the salad should not get to the point that it’s runny, however). Smooth out the surface for decorating.

Drop mayonnaise by the spoonful over the salad and spread with a rubber spatula until a thin layer covers the surface. Then grate two hard-boiled eggs evenly over the mayonnaise, resulting in a soft yellow cushion for the final decorative flourishes, several whole olives and one sliced hard-boiled egg. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours before serving. This salad is even more flavorful if prepared a day ahead.

For the marineras (or marineros or bicicletas)

Place a scoop of chilled ensaladilla rusa on a circular breadstick or cracker; lay an anchovy on top.

  •  Cooking Note: To make 1/2 cup of  variantes (pictured below – I know, the lighting is terrible), you’ll need to place roughly 4 tablespoons of minced carrots and 4 tablespoons of minced cornichons in a small bowl and add enough cornichon juice to cover. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use. Make your variantes at least a day before you make the salad so that the carrots are nice and pickled by the time you add them.


Michirones – Fava Bean Stew with Bacon, Serrano Ham, Chorizo and Garlic

When I first heard the word michirones, Manolo and I were strolling through Murcia’s historic center trying to decide where to stop for tapas. He casually suggested we try michirones at El Pepico del Tío Gínes, and I, having been in Murcia for less than one month, literally had no idea what he was talking about. Nothing sounded familiar, which is not surprising in retrospect, for you can’t get much more local than this.

Michirones, I would find out, are fava beans stewed with cured ham, bacon, chorizo, garlic, a good dose of sweet pimentón and bay leaves. This classic Murcian tapa is rustic and hearty, packed with sustenance and a deep cured ham flavor. The pimentón and chorizo turn the broth a vibrant red color that is both warming to look at and to eat.

Michirones are typically served in an earthenware dish strategically placed within reaching distance of everyone at the table. As is the case with many tapas, eating michirones is a communal experience. You help yourself to the beans and meat in the central dish with your fork, and try to get them to your mouth without leaving too much of a trail. (This distance seemed precariously long to me at first.)

This is not to say that the delicious broth goes unconsumed. For soaking up the pimentón spiked liquid, fresh bread is the favored tool, dipped with gusto directly into the common dish.

The bar where I had my first michirones, El Pepico del Tío Gines, was founded in 1935 and is a tradition in itself, with an ambiance you’d expect in an old Spanish bodega –chrome bar, hams hanging from the ceiling, the requisite wooden barrel. I loved my first taste of michirones, unlike anything I had ever eaten, although I struggled to remember how to say what I had eaten. The word just wouldn’t stick.

I can’t remember exactly when the word michirones began flowing off my tongue naturally. I think it was a gradual process, aided by weekly dinners with friends at the cantina of a neighborhood association dedicated to preserving local traditions. We’d invariably order the flavorful michirones, some of the best I’ve had (the restaurant has since closed, sniff, sniff).

After watching Valentina, Manolo’s mom, prepare a batch, I decided it was time to try for myself.

So how about some michirones for dinner?


This recipe is based on Valentina’s version in addition to recipes I consulted in the following books on local cuisine: Las 50 Mejores Recetas de la Cocina Muricana and Memorias de la Cocina Murciana.

The dish is traditionally prepared with unshelled dried fava beans. Peeled and split beans fall apart more easily in the cooking process, which isn’t appropriate for this dish. Keep in mind that the cooking time can vary depending on the size and age of the beans. If the skins are too tough for your liking, simply remove them as you are eating by squeezing on the shell with your fingers to release the soft interior into your mouth. In fact, you often see heaps of fava bean skins on plates when michirones have been served.

I suggest not adding any extra salt until the end, if it is needed. I have found that the cured meats provide enough.

A strong red wine from Jumilla, a wine-producing zone in Murcia, pairs well with the dish.

1 pound dried fava beans, soaked at least overnight*

3 quarts water

⅓ pound dried Spanish chorizo, cut into ¼-inch rounds

¼ pound unsmoked bacon (thick slices are best), cut into 1-inch lengths

1 serrano ham bone, if available

¼ pound thick-sliced serrano ham or proscuitto, cut into 1-inch lengths

1 head of garlic, rinsed

6 bay leaves

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

1-3 whole dried cayenne peppers (optional, if you like a little kick)

Salt and pepper to taste

Put all ingredients (except salt and pepper) together in a 5-quart soup pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil, uncovered, for 10 minutes and skim off any foam. Lower heat and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender but not falling apart, about 2-2 ½ hours. Add more water if necessary. (The cooking time can vary depending on the size and age of the beans.) The broth should be intensely red from the pimentón and chorizo, but relatively thin and clear in consistency. Once the beans are cooked, season with salt and pepper to taste.

*NOTE: Some recipes say to soak the beans for 48 hours, changing the water once or twice. I haven’t tried this yet, but am curious to see how much the longer soak decreases the cooking time.

Pipirrana de Jaén – A Tomato and Green Pepper Salad from Jaén, Spain

This one goes out to all of those luscious summer tomatoes ripening on vines around the world.

pipirrana and aguilas 008

On a recent trip to a natural park in Jaén, a province in Northern Andalusia (read more here), I ordered pipirrana (not only delicious to eat, but also fun to say) every chance I got. Each version I had of this refreshing salad was a slightly different blend of the following base ingredients: ripe tomatoes, green peppers and hard-boiled egg in a garlicky olive oil vinaigrette. The result was akin to gazpacho, in salad form. I loved the blend of textures – the juiciness of the tomatoes, the crunchiness of the peppers — and the deep flavor of the dressing, perfect for dipping bread (my favorite way to clean the plate). Some versions were more soup-like than others, and the egg whites sometimes came grated and not diced, a nice decorative flourish (and a way to have a bit of egg in nearly every bite). One of my favorite versions, seasoned with cumin, was redolent of Andalusia’s Moorish past.

In all cases, this quenching salad, typically served cold, provided delectable relief from midday heat.

Pipirrana de Jaén– Tomato and Green Pepper Salad from Jaén

As is the case with many traditional Spanish recipes, there are likely as many variations of pipirrana as there are cooks, some more complicated than others. An entirely different pipirrana, with roasted peppers and salt cod, can be found in the region of Murcia. The following recipe is based on what I remember from the salads I had in Andalusia; several pipirrana recipes on Spanish websites; and Janet Mendel’s version in her book, Traditional Spanish Cooking. I have chosen a simple version, which makes for a quick and easy addition to any summer meal.

The olive oil from Jaén (where about 70% of Spanish olives are produced) tends to be fruity and assertive, so be sure to use a flavorful extra virgin olive oil in this recipe.

Pipirrana can be served as a side dish or fortified with canned tuna or sliced cured ham to make a light meal.

3 medium tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 medium green pepper, cut into 1/8-inch dice

1 hard-boiled egg, the white and yolk separated

1 garlic clove


1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (red or white wine vinegar will work, too)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Combine the tomatoes and green peppers in a medium bowl. Dice the white from the hard-boiled egg (1/8 inch pieces) and add to the vegetables.

For the dressing: Pound the garlic with 1/4 teaspoon salt in a mortar and pestle, forming a paste (or put the garlic through a press). Add the yolk from the hard-boiled egg and mash to blend. Combine the garlic, yolk and vinegar in a small bowl, then whisk in the olive oil, adding it in a steady stream. The dressing will be thick and smooth. Taste for salt, and add more vinegar for balance if needed.

Pour the dressing over the tomatoes, green peppers and egg whites, and toss well.

If you like, garnish with additional ingredients: tuna, ham, olives… (see variations below).

Chill for one hour before serving.

Yield: 4 servings


  • Top off the salad with 1 (5-ounce) can tuna, packed in water or olive oil, drained.
  • Or, garnish the salad with several slices of  serrano ham (to taste), cut into thin strips. (You can use any cured ham here.)
  • Toss in 1/2 cup flavorful olives (green or black), such as Arbequina, Picholine or Niçoise, either pitted and chopped or whole.
  • For a more seasoned vinaigrette, add 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin, blending it into the garlic-salt paste before adding the yolk.