Category: Recipes: Murcia

Empanada murciana

Hello everyone! I hope you’re having a lovely spring wherever you are. I wrote about this empanada a while back tucked into another post about Murcia’s annual spring fiestas. There’s no citywide party this year of course, but at least we can make festive foods to honor the season. Here’s an updated recipe for this picnic and party classic.

Empanada murciana

In her cookbook The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden writes, “Empanadas, large savory pies, are a symbol of Galicia, while empanadillas, small turnovers, are a specialty of the Balearic Islands and Valencia.” To which I ask, “Hey, what about Murcia?” Both empanadas and empanadillas are specialties here, too! Murcia often gets left out like this.

Yet the empanadas in Murcia are some of the best I’ve had anywhere, and they are among the foods I crave when I’ve been away for any length of time. The main ingredient that sets the empanada murciana apart from similar pastries in Spain is the sweet pimentón in the dough, lending it a more intriguing flavor, if you ask me, and a deep golden hue. The traditional filling has just three simple ingredients that are pantry staples in Spain: eggs, olive oil-packed tuna and tomate frito, a sweet and jammy tomato sauce.

These are the basic building blocks, yet every empanada murciana is slightly different, depending on the cook’s preferences. The dough can be made with or without a leavening agent, and the proportions and textures of each ingredient in the filling vary. Some like their tomato sauce chunky, while others like it smooth. In some cases, the sauce oozes out, and in others, there is just enough tomato to hold the other ingredients together. My favorite empanada murciana has flaky olive oil-rich pastry and a balanced blend of fillings.

This is a recipe for the most basic, traditional version of the empanada murciana. Feel free to adapt the filling to your tastes. Some people add roasted red peppers and even peas to the mix, for example. I like to keep it simple.

Here’s hoping that by next year we’ll be able to gather again to celebrate the events that make each place unique! In the meantime, I’ll be eating my fill of festive foods like the empanada murciana.

Empanada murciana

The tomate frito
In Spain you can buy good canned tomate frito, which makes assembly quick and easy. If you live in Spain, Murcia-made Sandoval is one of my favorite brands, and Mercadona’s tomate frito artesano is also quite good. I have not tried this recipe with jarred tomato sauces in the US, which tend to be quite different in flavor and texture, but it’s worth a try if you have a favorite.
Otherwise, it’s easy, if a bit time consuming, to make your own Spanish-style tomate frito. I’ve used canned whole tomatoes here because I like to control the size of the chunks, but you can also use diced or crushed tomatoes. If you have good fresh tomatoes, by all means use them. The amount of sugar you’ll need depends on the tomatoes you use—the final sauce should be sweet rather than acidic, so correct the acidity as needed. The tomato flavor is quite prominent in the filling, so make sure you love the taste of your sauce.
You can make the tomate frito up to several days in advance and store it in the refrigerator. It also freezes well, so go ahead and double the amount for your next empanada murciana.
The dough
Empanada dough is relatively easy to make, based on a simple ratio: equal parts olive oil and white wine, to which you add pimentón, salt and as much flour as you need for the dough to come together (“lo que admita,” as my friend Inma says, “as much as it takes”). You can mix the dough in a food processor or by hand.
The empanada murciana has two traditional shapes, rectangular and circular. Mine tend to be somewhere between a rectangle and an oval, which isn't noticeable once it’s cut it up.
Yield: You can cut the empanada into large pieces for a substantial snack for 6 to 8 people or cut it up into smaller squares (about 1½ in.) as an appetizer or part of a larger picnic spread. The recipe also doubles well, making one extra-large empanada (as pictured in the photos), if you’re serving a crowd.

Ingredients

Tomate frito

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 (28-oz.) cans whole peeled tomatoes, drained and with any bits of skin and the core ends removed (about 4 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled and diced)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar plus more to taste
  • ½ teaspoon salt plus more to taste

Dough

  • cup (150 ml) mild flavored extra-virgin olive oil
  • cup (150 ml) dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons sweet pimentón
  • cups (400 g) all-purpose or pastry flour
  • 1 egg lightly beaten

Filling

  • 1 (5-ounce) can tuna packed in olive oil, drained, or use 2 (2.75-oz./80-g) cans
  • Tomate frito see recipe below to taste (I usually use about 1 cup)
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs diced

Instructions

Prepare the tomate frito

  • Combine the olive oil, tomatoes, sugar and salt in a Dutch oven. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sauce begins to bubble.
  • Reduce the heat to low and gently simmer, uncovered, for 45–50 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning. If you have used canned whole tomatoes, break them up with the spoon as you go. Continue cooking until the sauce is reduced, jammy and sweet. Add more sugar and salt to taste.
  • Allow to cool and use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to several days or in the freezer for up to several months. Makes about 1½ cups (I use this amount for my empanada).

Prepare the dough

  • Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC).
  • In the bowl of a food processor or a large mixing bowl, pulse or stir the olive oil, wine, salt and pimentón together until the seasonings have dissolved.
  • Add the flour and pulse or stir just until well blended. The dough will be a bit shaggy and sticky, but will not cling to your fingers like pizza dough due to the high olive oil content.

Prepare the filling

  • Place the tuna in a medium bowl and break it up with a fork. Add the tomate frito and stir until well combined, then stir in the eggs. Alternatively, you can place each ingredient directly onto the dough, starting with the tomate frito.

Assemble and bake

  • Divide the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Between two sheets of parchment, roll the larger piece of dough paper into a rough 12 × 16-inch (30 × 40-cm) rectangle, about ¼-inch (5 mm) thick. Transfer to a baking sheet and carefully peel off the top sheet of parchment paper (reserve to roll out the second piece of dough). Cover the base with the filling, leaving about a ¾-inch (2-cm) border.
  • Place the second piece of dough on the reserved sheet of parchment paper and top with another sheet. Roll into a rough rectangle slightly smaller than the first (big enough to cover the filling), about ¼-inch (5 mm) thick. Remove the top layer of parchment paper and carefully invert over the empanada base—this is most easily done between two people, both holding one corner of the parchment paper in each hand. That way you can hold the sheet with the dough facing down over the base (the dough sticks to the paper) and center it well before setting it down. Peel off the parchment paper.
  • Fold the bottom edges of the dough over the top and seal by pressing your finger around the seam, making a dimpled border. Pierce the top of the dough all over with a fork to allow steam to escape, making sure the tines go all the way through.
  • Brush the surface of the dough with beaten egg, then bake for 30–40 minutes, until golden.
  • Let cool for about 10 minutes on the baking sheet, then carefully transfer to a cooling rack with the parchment paper underneath (once again, this is easiest with two people).
  • Let cool to room temperature, then cut into squares.
  • Serve with ice-cold lager, or with vermouth over ice with a slice of lemon and a few anchovy-stuffed olives (as pictured below).

Tortilla de Patatas

Tortilla de patatas (a.k.a. Spanish omelet or Spanish tortilla)

Spanish cuisine varies widely from region to region, but the tortilla de patatas unites them all.

Made with a few staple ingredients—oil, potatoes, eggs and sometimes onions—tortillas are deceptively simple. Although the ingredients are basic, making a tortilla can be daunting. Especially if (like me) you don’t have a lifetime of tortilla memories in your brain, packed with visual and tactile cues, as many Spaniards do.

While it doesn’t take a pastry chef’s precision, several factors can make or break the tortilla. One is the potatoes. As they poach, will they disintegrate? Or will they hold together just enough, without remaining hard at the core? Much depends on the quality, texture and age of the potato you use. This is perhaps the biggest wild card, as you don’t always know how your potatoes will behave until they’re in the oil.

The fat, too, is also important, of course—a mild flavored olive oil is generally best—but this factor is easy to control before you begin.

The most unnerving step for relative tortilla novices like me is the flip. As the Spanish expression dar la vuelta a la tortilla suggests (it literally means to flip a tortilla, and figuratively to turn a tide), the flip involves a decisive reversal. And, like turning a tide, it also requires premeditation: you must have a truly nonstick pan and a plate or lid of the right size, or the flip will fail.

The ideal tortilla de patatas

In Spain, what constitutes the ideal tortilla de patatas is the subject of eternal debate.

With or without onions is the main point of contention. Spaniards can generally be divided into three tortilla camps: vehemently pro- or anti-onion (the concebollistas and sincebollistas, respectively) and those, like my husband, who can go either way.

Other existential differences include how the potatoes are sliced (thin, thick, or diced) or fried (to a crisp or slowly poached); the proportion of potato to egg; how set the eggs in the center are; and on and on. Usually, the tortilla one’s grandmother or mother makes is the gold standard.

Just as you can find a bad croissant in France, you can also find bad tortillas in Spain. A dry or cake-like texture, burned eggs, potatoes that are more al dente than tender—these are all defects of a bad tortilla.

Plenty of epic tortilla fails like the one pictured above made the rounds of social media in Spain under confinement last spring, when those who normally leave the tortilla making to their moms took to the stoves to prepare their beloved comfort food.

Ultimately, the ideal tortilla de patatas is a matter of taste. I’m with José Capel, the food critic for El País, on this one: me gustan todas, con y sin , a condición de que sean buenas (I like them all, with or without [onions], as long as they’re good).

Can I add chorizo?

While modernist chefs have deconstructed the tortilla de patatas, and Ferran Adrià has famously made a tortilla with potato chips, if you venture beyond the three to four classic ingredients, you’re making a different dish.

In other words, you’re free to add what you want, but don’t call it a tortilla de patatas (unless you want your ten minutes of fame in Spanish newspapers and Twitter feeds).

Adding chorizo is one of the main crimes we Anglosajones commit when making a Spanish omelet.

As this Spanish writer says, “Chorizo is a fantastic invention, but tossing chorizo into a beer does not make it a Spanish beer.” The same goes for omelets.

Martha Stewart has committed all of the Spanish tortilla sins in her versions—with chorizo, bell pepper, or this baked version that “maintains its Spanish accent with a pinch of saffron.”

I’m sure those egg dishes are delicious, but they’re not tortillas de patatas.

So yes, tortillas are simple. But there are certain unwritten rules to follow. And there’s a bit of magic that occurs in the skillet as the humble ingredients come together into an excellent tortilla. That magic comes with observation and, above all, practice.

Let’s get to it!

Tortilla de Patatas

As I mention above, there are infinite ways to prepare a tortilla de patatas. To find your favorite, experiment with different varieties of potatoes, fats (olive oil, sunflower oil or even lard), thicknesses, potato-to-egg ratios, and levels of doneness in the center. It may take a few tries to find "the one."
This recipe is based on my gold standard, my mother-in-law's tortilla—I someday hope to be able to whip one up as she does, without thinking twice. Her tortilla is on the thin side, and the center is just set. It’s tender and moist, but does not ooze out the center when you break into it, as some prefer. Sometimes she adds onions, sometimes she doesn’t, and I like it both ways. It’s perfect for cutting up into small squares and spearing with toothpicks for picnics and fiestas.
You can make a bigger or smaller tortilla—a good rule of thumb, according to my mother-in-law, is 4 to 5 eggs per 2¼ pounds (1 kg) of potatoes (although this, too, is a matter of taste). The amount of oil you need depends on the size of your skillet.
For the flip, a light, perfectly nonstick skillet is more than half the battle. You also need a plate (or a pan lid with a smooth lip) that has a larger diameter than the skillet and that is stable when you invert it over the skillet—you don’t want the plate sliding around as you flip. You can also use a plate that fits just inside the skillet, with no room to spare. (To take the thrill out, you could buy a double pan, sold as a tortilla pan in Spain and as a frittata pan in the US.)

Ingredients

  • pounds (1 kg) waxy potatoes such as Yukon Gold
  • Mild olive oil or sunflower oil for poaching the potatoes
  • ½–1 medium onion very thinly sliced (optional)
  • 4–5 large eggs at room temperature
  • Salt

Instructions

  • Peel the potatoes, then cut them in half lengthwise and place flat on the cutting board. Cut into thin half-moon slices crosswise (about ¼-inch thick). Alternatively, you can hold the potato over a bowl and cut off thin, slightly irregular slices with a paring knife, as my mother-in-law does.
  • Rinse the potatoes in several changes of cold water until the water is clear when you swish them around. Drain and pat dry.
  • Pour about 1½ inches of oil into a medium skillet and heat it over high heat until shimmering. If you drop a piece of potato into it, it should sizzle upon contact. Add the potatoes, a few pinches of salt, and a little more oil if needed to cover. Stir to coat the potatoes, then lower the heat to medium. Cook until the potatoes are completely tender, all the way to the core (15-20 minutes)—you’re looking to poach them rather than fry them, although a little browning around the edges once the potatoes are fully cooked won’t hurt (depending on who you ask). Rotate them delicately from time to time as they cook, and don't worry if they begin to break apart a bit (you just don't want an oily puree). If you're adding onions, add when the potatoes are partially cooked, about halfway through the cooking time.
  • Using a slotted spatula or spoon, transfer the potatoes to a colander set over a bowl to let them drain. Taste for salt and sprinkle with a bit more if you wish. When the oil has cooled, strain it through a fine-mesh sieve and save it in a jar to make your next tortilla. Wipe the skillet clean.
  • Place the eggs in a bowl and add one pinch of salt per egg. Whisk until well blended. Add the potatoes and gently stir until coated.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon of the potato-poaching oil in the skillet over medium-low heat and pour in the potato and egg mixture. Using a flexible spatula, tuck the egg in around the edges of the skillet to make a rounded side and to ensure the tortilla isn’t sticking. As the tortilla cooks, shake the pan a bit to prevent sticking. Cook until the egg is set and lightly golden on the bottom but still a bit runny on top (about 5 minutes).
  • Okay, here it comes. Invert your plate of choice over the skillet and place your hand firmly over the top. Grab the skillet handle in the other hand, lift it off the burner, and flip it over quickly and decisively. If all has gone well, your tortilla is now on the plate. Return the skillet to the burner and slide the tortilla back in with the uncooked side down. Tuck in the edges again and continue to cook for 4 to 5 more minutes, until the tortilla is just set in the center, or done to your liking.
  • Either flip or slide the tortilla out onto a clean, dry plate.
  • Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges or mini squares.

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.

Ensalada murciana – A tomato salad for all seasons

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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.

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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.

Tostada con tomate – Spanish breakfast

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Tostada con tomate – toasted bread with fresh tomato, olive oil and salt – was one of my son Mateo’s first foods. With his teeth barely poking through his gums, he would nibble away at bits of tomato toast while perched on his tita’s (aunt’s) lap in our neighborhood café, golden olive oil trickling down his chin.

Look around any café in Murcia in the morning and you will find that tostada con tomate is what most people are having with their coffee. Here, toasted baguette is served with a ramekin of grated fresh tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil and salt on the side, so you can add as much of each as you like. With so much greenhouse production in Spain, we actually get tomatoes (and hence tostada con tomate) year-round, but nothing beats toast made with summer garden tomatoes.

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This popular breakfast and mid-morning snack (also known as pan con tomate) can be found throughout Mediterranean Spain in a variety of guises. The “best way” depends on whom you ask and where they first tasted the four basic ingredients together.

Many Catalans are sure to tell you their version is the best, and the original. In Catalonia, toasted bread with tomato is known as pa amb tomàquet, which, more than a dish, is a symbol of Catalan identity. Indeed, a Catalan writer was the first to mention the preparation in writing in the 1880s, which many consider as proof of its Catalan origins.* Pa amb tomàquet is traditionally made by cutting very ripe tomatoes in half and rubbing them flesh side down onto toasted country bread (sometimes with garlic), which is then drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. For many Catalans, this is the only way to eat bread with tomato.

Both the Catalan and Murcian versions (and Valencian and Andalusian takes, too) are beloved local traditions, so does it really matter which came first?  I, personally, love them all, especially in the summer when tomatoes are at their best.

For my son, however, born in Murcia, this will likely always be the best way to eat pan con tomate:

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Murcian-style tostada con tomate

As with any dish that has so few ingredients, quality makes a big difference in the results. It’s best to use a good baguette that won’t turn instantly soggy, the summer’s ripest tomatoes, fruity extra virgin olive oil and fine sea salt. This recipe is even a good way to use up tomatoes that may be just a little too ripe for salads. The olive oil should not be so strong that it overpowers the tomato flavor.

Have the grated tomato, olive oil and salt ready on the table so they can be added soon as the toast is done.

If you’d like to add protein, top with a thin slice of cured Spanish ham (or prosciutto – I feel my husband cringing – if you cannot find a Spanish brand).

The quantities below are for two servings, but they can easily be multiplied or divided.

  • 1 very ripe large tomato
  • 1 six-inch piece of baguette, sliced lengthwise
  • Fruity yet mild extra virgin olive oil, in a recipient that makes it easy to drizzle
  • Fine sea salt
  • A few thin slices of cured Spanish ham (or prosciutto, optional)

Cut the tomato in half and grate each half over a shallow bowl using the large holes of a box grater (press the cut side of the tomato into the grater and rub with a flattened palm until you are down to the skin).

Toast the bread enough that it has some good crunch to it. Use a fork to prick the surface of the toasted bread to help the other ingredients seep in.

Top the toast with an even layer of grated tomato (thick or thin according to taste – I personally like a lot of tomato). Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt. You can always adjust and add more as you eat. Top with ham if you like.

Enjoy!

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* An interesting twist: in researching the origins of this simple dish, I came across a legend that holds that it was actually workers from Murcia who introduced pan con tomate in Catalonia when they headed north to help build the Barcelona metro in the 1920s. The legend persists, even though it has been debunked by the famous Spanish food historian and gastronome Néstor Luján based on the 1880s description by a Catalan writer mentioned above. Luján believes that pa amb tomàquet originated in the Catalan countryside as a means to add moisture and flavor to dried out bread. The rest, as they say, is history ;).

Fiesta!

Like every Spanish city and town, Murcia has its own annual fiesta rooted in local traditions: the Bando de la Huerta. This day-long celebration pays homage to Murcia’s agrarian roots, its huerta, the cultivated lands within and surrounding the city once renowned as the huerta de Europa (the market garden of Europe).

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The Bando de la Huerta takes place every year on the Tuesday after Easter as part of the week-long Fiestas de Primavera, heralding spring’s arrival and offering an antidote to the (relatively) solemn activities of the Semana Santa, or Holy Week, before. On the day of the festival, the people of Murcia descend upon the city center by the thousands, many dressed in traditional clothing. The men are known as huertanos and the women, huertanas.

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A parade brings Murcia’s past to life with period costumes and floats showing time-honored huerta activities. On one float, señoras knead and shape dough to produce Murcia’s signature round loaves. On another float, young girls dance a jota in a bin of grapes, celebrating the local wine-making tradition.

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The most anticipated floats come at the end: tractor-drawn replicas of typical huerta homes, barracas, complete with thatched roofs and loops of sausage hanging from the rafters. Along the parade route, riders toss out products from the huerta, like lemons, local sausages and even small bottles of wine.

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Sharing from the huerta is not only true of this annual parade, but remains a strong aspect of daily life in Murcia, where the idea of actually paying for local products like lemons remains preposterous to many. Although there isn’t as much huerta as there used to be, the generous landscape that has fed families for centuries continues to give. This generosity is the heart of Murcia.

April 2010 huerta y bando 100

Historical traditions aside, the Bando de la Huerta is first and foremost a party. An article on this year’s Bando in the local paper described the scene perfectly: “The people of Murcia celebrate the most ‘huertano’ day of the year eating and drinking in every corner of the city.”

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Instead of fighting the crowds in packed restaurants, many locals opt to bring their own provisions to the party, for sharing, of course.

Typical foods include Spanish favorites like marinated olives and tortilla de patatas, as well as snacks with a huertano twist like Murcian longaniza (sausages cured with pimentón), potato chips drizzled with fresh lemon juice, and savory pastries like the empanada murciana, packed with tuna, eggs and tomato.

IMG_2006 Even Mateo is in on the fun, enjoying the rare chance to drink Fanta.

I usually bake American-style cookies for the picnic, which are much appreciated, but this year I decided to make an empanada murciana for the first time to share a taste of Murcia and its fiesta with family and friends on this blog. This nourishing savory pie pairs perfectly with ice-cold beer, and, an important consideration, keeps the effect of the beer in check.

Please see an updated recipe in this more recent post.

If you, too, choose to make an empanada murciana, in the spirit of the city, be sure to invite your friends. Cheers! ¡Salud!

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Pan de Calatrava – Calatrava Bread Pudding

Pan de Calatrava

This simple dessert, a hybrid of bread pudding and flan, combines the wisdom and thrift of centuries of cooks. As I stir together sugar, milk and eggs and pour them over day-old bread, I think about all the hands that have done the same in the past. In these movements, as clever as they are common, practical ingredients are transformed into a dish that not only nourishes but also gives pleasure. A slice of pan de calatrava is optimism, a reminder that even with little, good can be made.

—–

I discovered the joys of pan de calatrava in a restaurant shortly after I had arrived in Murcia, where it is considered a local tradition. After a few bites of the silky, cinnamon-infused custard, I would never forget what the words pan de calatrava meant, at least on modern menus.

From then on, I have ordered the dessert every time I get the chance. I only recently decided it was time to learn to make it myself. But before I get to that point, a historical diversion….Throughout my brief personal history with pan de calatrava, I have also been intrigued. Why was this bread from Calatrava typical in Murcia, I wondered? And where was this Calatrava in the first place?

Starting with these questions, I did some preliminary research. My first conclusion is that one resource leads to another, and that the exact origins of the dish will likely remain a mystery. Nonetheless, some aspects of the pan de calatrava story have come into focus, forming a loosely spun narrative in my mind. I am not sure how or even if the dots connect, but here is what I have found so far.

The fact that pan de calatrava can also be found today in parts of Castilla La Mancha, just to the north of Murcia, was the first trail I followed (virtually-speaking). This led me to the historic Calatrava itself, once a strategic settlement along the often-shifting border between Christian and Muslim lands in medieval Spain. Here, in the 12th century, the Order of Calatrava was founded, a military limb of the Cistercian Order that remained active well into the 15th century. The name Calatrava itself, however, has been traced even further back, to the Arabic Qal’lat Rabah, meaning “fortress of Rabah.” This referred to the 8th century nobleman who once held sway here.

Even though I find it hard to imagine warring knights savoring pan de calatrava, it takes no effort to picture a similar dessert on medieval monastery and convent tables, where priests, monks and nuns were not known to abstain from good food. To give an example, based on evidence from 15th century monastery account books from Toledo, Clifford Wright observes in A Mediterranean Feast, “When and if the poor ate meat at the monastery, it was always boiled and tough meat, while the friars enjoyed veal and partridges and chickens stuffed with eggs, saffron, cinnamon, and sugar.”

In that list, we have several ingredients often found in medieval Spanish monastery cooking, three of which – eggs, cinnamon and sugar – very easily could have been transformed by some religious order – and perhaps even the Cistercians of Calatrava, too – into a dessert resembling the pan de calatrava. This would have been a variation on other flan-like puddings in history. Flans, both savory and sweet, have been documented in the Mediterranean as early as Roman times and were also found in Moorish traditions. All of these influences have undoubtedly contributed to the pan de calatrava.

Another mystery is how this dessert “from Calatrava” ended up in Murcia, although the process could have easily involved the convents and monasteries, which have spread many recipes throughout Spain. Murcia, like Calatrava, was long hotly contested territory on the frontier between Catholic and Muslim lands. Not coincidentally, a sanctuary in the northwest corner of Murcia became an important Christian pilgrimage site, where members of different religious orders have often shared tables over the years.

Images of all these people and places from the past now flicker through my mind as I stir milk and eggs together for pan de calatrava. Knowing more about the evocative title certainly flavors the dish. Nonetheless, I am particularly thankful for all the anonymous hands that have continued to repeat this practical and giving bit of history, blending traditions along the way.

Pan de Calatrava – Calatrava Bread

Recipes for pan de calatrava range from the simple – coat the bottom of the loaf pan with a store-bought caramel syrup for flan, mix the rest of the ingredients together and pour them on top and bake – to the slightly more complex – make your own caramel, infuse the milk and assemble the ingredients in layers.

I am going with the slightly more complex version here, because I think it is a few notches better, although the other is good in a pinch. The main inconvenience is that you have to use (i.e. wash) several different pots and pans in the process. (One thing many of those cooks in the past had more of, in addition to time, was hands in the kitchen.) Once it comes out of the oven, pan de calatrava must be chilled for at least several hours and up to a day before serving, which provides plenty of cleanup time.

Serves 6-8

For the caramel: Adapted from Claudia Roden’s flan recipe in The Food of Spain

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

For the rest:

4 1/4 cups milk (1 liter)

1 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick (If you don’t have one on hand, add a dash of cinnamon to the milk instead.)

1 strip lemon peel (about the size of your thumb)

Day-old bread (something like a baguette), crust removed and cut into 1-inch cubes (enough to form a compact layer in the pan you are using – I used about 3 packed cups)

6 eggs

Baking dishes and pans needed:

1 9-by-5-inch glass or metal loaf pan (This is the most traditional shape in Murcia, but if you do not have a loaf pan, any shape will work as long as it can hold 2 quarts. And the wider the base, the more bread you’ll need.)

1 9-by-13-inch baking dish for the water bath for baking

1 small heavy saucepan for the caramel

1 medium heavy saucepan for heating the milk

To prepare the caramel:

Have the loaf pan handy so you can pour in the caramel as soon as it is ready.

Heat the water and 1/2 cup sugar together in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves and the liquid turns amber in color, like maple syrup. Allowing the amber to deepen too much can result in a bitter caramel. Very quickly pour the hot caramel (before it hardens) into the loaf pan and immediately tilt to coat the bottom of the pan and partway up the sides, too.

To prepare the rest:

Preheat oven to 350 ºF.

Combine the milk, remaining sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon peel in a saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has melted and the milk rolls to a boil. Remove from heat, fish out the cinnamon stick and lemon peel and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 4 cups of water, which you will need for baking.

Place cubed bread in the pan on top of the caramel, making a compact layer. (I have seen recipes that skip this step, instructing instead to stir the bread in with the milk and eggs, which in a way makes sense, as the bread will rise to the top when you pour in the custard. I like packing in the bread first, however, as this helps me know how much bread to use.)

Lightly beat the eggs in a large bowl, then gradually beat in the cooled milk. Pour over bread in the pan. (Like I said before, the bread will rise to the top here, forming what will be the base when you later invert the pan.)

Set the loaf pan into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pour in the hot water until it comes halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the custard is set and the top layer is golden (a knife inserted comes out clean). Remove the loaf pan from the water bath and allow to cool for 1 hour at room temperature before placing in the refrigerator to chill thoroughly before serving (ideally at least 3 hours and up to a day ahead).

To serve, run a knife along the edge of the pan to loosen the custard. Place a serving dish (deep enough to catch the caramel) over the top of the loaf pan and with a swift movement turn upside down. Carefully lift off the pan. If the custard does not fall onto the plate, gently encourage it with a knife. And, of course, pour any remaining caramel over the top.

Many restaurants in Murcia serve slices of pan de calatrava garnished with whirls of whipped cream from a can, but I prefer it plain and simple, allowing history to speak for itself.

One a Penny, Two a Penny… Monas de Pascua!

[Murcia’s] unique Holy Week…is made up of little gestures and familiar movements, of the comings and goings of the nazarenos (penitents) dressed in red or purple (the nazareno colorao or the nazareno morado), who step out from under the floats they carry, momentarily passing the weight to their friends, to place a beautiful mona de pascua in the trembling hands of a child.

These words penned by Murcian author Juan García Abellan in his ode to the city and its food, Murcia, entre bocado y trago (1965), resonate for anyone who has been to a Holy Week procession in Murcia. Here, the pace and drumbeat of the daily marches leading up to Easter are as solemn as in other parts of Spain, yet a festive ambiance reigns at several of the city’s most celebrated processions. This is particularly true for children, who, like the child in the quote, gaze up in awe and expectation at the hooded nazarenos. Local children know – and have known for generations – that the striking robed figures, many with their faces covered, are not to be feared, for they come bearing gifts – candies, eggs, and for the lucky few, monas de pascua.

This penitent (a nazareno morado) is not as fat as he looks – most of that bulge hanging over his belt is in fact space for treats like candy and goody bags, often containing mini monas, to be handed out along the procession route.

The mona de pascua is an Easter pastry found in several regions of Spain, most notably in Cataluña, Valencia and Murcia. (In these areas, the mona is as typical as hot cross buns, hence the title of this post.) In its most traditional version, the kind typically found in Murcia, the mona de pascua is a sweet bread roll (not dissimilar from hot cross buns, in fact) topped with a hard-boiled egg, itself topped with a cross shaped from dough.

Traditionally, the mona de pascua was eaten on Easter Sunday or the following Monday, marking the end of Lent. In the past, eggs, considered akin to meat, were among the forbidden foods of this period of abstinence. Eggs – representative of fertility, birth and resurrection – are also, of course, a powerful symbol for this time of year. It’s no wonder that eggs (especially hard-boiled – a means to preserve the inevitable yields in the henhouse) play such an important role in many Easter customs around the world.

Certain communities in and around Murcia still refer to the Monday after Easter “el día de la mona,” Mona Day, and many families ritually take to the countryside on this day for a picnic starring monas de pascua. Yet the mona has become a common treat to be enjoyed throughout the entire week leading up to Easter. Monas – either full-size with a chicken egg or mini with a quail egg – are a favorite snack for the lengthy Holy Week processions, welcome fuel for spectators and marchers alike.

As is the case with many long-standing food traditions, the mona de pascua in and of itself has become an essential symbol of the season, and not just for religious reasons. It also represents the generosity of spring, reflected in Murcia’s giving Holy Week processions.

Monas de Pascua

This is my fourth Easter in Murcia, and I have begun to feel twinges of nostalgia for this seasonal pastry, meaning Semana Santa is just not complete without a mona de pascua. This is the first year I decided to make them myself, wanting to share with friends and family near and far the spirit of the season in Murcia.

Monas really do remind me of hot cross buns in flavor and texture, and the dough is actually quite similar, although monas in Murcia are typically made with a mild-flavored olive oil instead of butter and contain a hint of orange blossom water, like a southern breeze.

The resulting pastry is characteristically dry, perfect for dunking. The recipe writers on the Region of Murcia’s website offer the following solution: “As the dough is a little dry, some kind of liquid accompaniment is appropriate. This could be mistela (a sweet wine like muscat) for adults and milk for children. Adding a bit of chocolate makes the monas irresistible.”

I found many slightly different variations on this recipe, which invites tinkering in the search for a favorite texture and flavor. So far, I have tried two different versions, one with a blend of bread and all-purpose flours and one with bread flour only. Both were good, but I preferred the denser texture of the all-bread-flour mona.

Whether you make larger, oblong-shaped monas with hard-boiled chicken eggs, mini monas with quail eggs, or skip the egg altogether, the procedure is basically the same, although the baking time will of course vary slightly.

For the dough:

80 ml. (1/3 cup) warm milk

25 g (≈ 0.9 oz.) compressed (fresh) yeast

500 g (≈ 3 1/2 cups *SEE NOTE) bread flour

¼ teaspoon salt

140 g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar

3 Eggs, plus one more, beaten, for glazing

80 ml. (1/3 cup) mild-flavored olive oil

Zest of one lemon

½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the topping:

Quail eggs, hard-boiled, as many as you want (Optional)

Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Stir yeast into warm milk. Let stand for 5-10 minutes.

Sift together the flour and salt together in one bowl. In another bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar. Stir in the yeasted milk. Then add the olive oil, orange blossom water if using and the lemon zest, stirring just until well blended. Gradually stir in the flour until a dough is formed. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour by the tablespoonful as needed (the dough should be moist and slightly tacky, but not sticky). Transfer dough to a large oiled bowl and turn it to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ – 2 hours (it may take longer, depending on factors like ambient temperature).

Divide the dough into 12-14 equal pieces on a floured surface. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Arrange 1 ½ inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap for a second rise of about 45 minutes.

Towards the end of the second rise, preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

Brush monas with egg glaze. If you are using hard-boiled eggs, make indents in the center of the monas with your fingers, creating a nest for the eggs. Sprinkle monas generously with sugar. Bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

*NOTE: I measured out the cups, but have not tested this recipe with the standard American measurements, so have put an approximate amount here. If using cups, I suggest starting with this amount of flour and adding more by the tablespoon as needed to get the consistency indicated in the recipe.

  One a penny, two a penny… 

HAPPY EASTER!

Guiso de trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

El guiso de trigo es humilde y sencillo, una muestra más de lo mucho que puede lograse disponiendo de poco. (Murcia’s wheat berry stew is humble and simple, yet another example of how much can be achieved with little at hand.)  From Gastronomía Regional Murcia, a newspaper supplement published in the mid-1980s.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia

Like many expats and emigrants, I often rely on foods from my past to nourish connections with people and places far away. This is why, for example, I always have  homemade granola in the cupboard and enough butter and brown sugar to whip up a batch of cookies when a longing for home swoops in. Yet over time, I have also come to crave local foods in Murcia, which I see as a sign of rootedness and contentment in my relatively new home. As the days turn colder and my third winter here begins, I find I am hungry for traditional Murcian stews like the guiso de trigo.

This hearty (and meatless) stew with wheat berries, vegetables and beans is one of Murcia’s staple dishes, whose ingredients reflect the city’s agricultural heritage. For centuries, Murcia has been a center of fruit and vegetable production in Spain, which has resulted in a vegetable-rich cuisine out of necessity.

For me, the guiso de trigo is a perfect example of local culinary thrift, of coaxing maximum nutrition and flavor out of available raw materials. One trick is the sofrito, a building block in many dishes in Murcia as well as in the rest of Spain. By sautéing the onions and tomatoes in olive oil in a separate pan with salt and sweet pimentón – instead of just throwing everything uncooked into the pot with the beans and wheat – you significantly multiply the flavor potential.

A sprinkling of mint, dried or fresh, contributes a cooling contrast to the warming pimentón, which stimulates the senses. Saffron threads, if you have them, are like red lipstick, adding a touch of color and intrigue.

The squash aïoli is a stroke of genius. With four thrifty ingredients – squash (of course), garlic, salt and a ribbon of olive oil – you get a luxurious condiment. Swirling in a spoonful not only adds zing to the stew, but also lends a touch of sophistication, proving that frugal does not have to mean austere.

Even though far more ingredients are available today in Murcia than in the leaner times when the guiso de trigo became a local tradition, the stew remains popular. It can be found on weekday lunch menus in long-established bars and restaurants throughout the city, and commonly appears on grandmothers’ tables. In both settings, it is typically served in wide soup plates with country bread on the side for dipping and soaking up the last traces of broth.

On a cool day like today, when the sun probably won’t quite make its way through the clouds, it is easy to imagine adults and children throughout Murcia hovering over steaming bowls of guiso de trigo. This satisfying stew is not only nourishing and economical, but also familiar and comforting.

I, too, will be having bowl of guiso de trigo today, enjoying the warmth and flavors which root me in Murcia.

Guiso de Trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

Adapted from two principal sources: A recipe in the cookbook Memorias de la cocina murciana, written by Carmen Peréz, and a recipe from the Hotel Rosa Victoria in Murcia as seen on the national TV program España Directo in 2009 (you can watch the video here) .

I’ve doubled the quantity of pumpkin in order to make the aïoli and because I love pumpkin. (In other words, the exact vegetable quantities are a matter of taste.)

As the guiso de trigo is a classic peasant dish, real saffron, an expensive ingredient, is not always included, and that is why I say it is optional. Many locals use a natural yellow food coloring, commonly used in paella, because the result is warming and visually appealing. Yet I find that the pimentón and golden olive oil lend sufficient color if you do not use the saffron. The saffron threads of course add complexity to the dish, and I have included them, toasted and mashed with garlic, according to the recipe in Memorias de la cocina murciana.

The key factor in drawing full flavor from the ingredients is time, and all the little steps do make a difference.

For the stew:

1 ¼ cups (250 g) wheat berries, soaked for 24 hours

3/4 cup (150 g) garbanzos, soaked overnight

3/4 cup (150 g) white beans, soaked overnight

10 cups water

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, diced

2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced or grated (*See note)

Salt to taste

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

A pinch of saffron threads (optional)

1 clove garlic (optional)

1/3 pound (150 g) Italian flat beans, cut into 1-inch pieces measure for cups

1/2 pound pumpkin or other orange-fleshed winter squash like butternut, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

1 medium potato (a waxy or “in-between” variety would work best – see Cook’s Illustrated Potato Primer)

Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus more for serving

For the squash aïoli (ajo calabaza): (Make about 10 minutes before the stew is ready.)

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

A pinch of fine sea salt

Several chunks of cooked pumpkin from the stew

A swirl of olive oil

For the stew:

Place the soaked and drained wheat berries, garbanzos and white beans together in a large soup pot (I used a 6-quart pot) and add water. Bring to the boil and skim off any foam, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 1 hour. The beans and wheat berries should be partially tender at this point.

While the beans and wheat berries are simmering, prepare the sofrito and the saffron, if using. For the sofrito, heat the 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and just beginning to turn golden. Add tomatoes, bring to the boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened, about 25-30 minutes. Add salt to taste toward the end, since the flavor becomes more concentrated as the sauce cooks down. Add pimentón and sauté for another minute. Remove the sofrito from the heat and set aside.

To toast the saffron threads, warm a small, dry skillet over low heat. Add threads and stir frequently so they do not burn. Once the color has deepened and the threads are aromatic, remove from heat. Then pound the toasted threads in a mortar with a clove of garlic. (See here for more information about toasting saffron.)

Add the sofrito and saffron to the pot with the partially cooked wheat berries and beans (after the first hour of cooking), then add the green beans, pumpkin and potato to the broth, which is now a vibrant red color. Season with salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste. (If you are using dried mint, add now as well.) Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until the wheat berries, beans and vegetables are fully tender and the broth has slightly thickened, about 45 minutes. If you are using fresh mint, add it now, and adjust seasonings as necessary. Allow to sit off the heat for 5-10 minutes before serving.

For the squash aioli (ajo calabaza):

Ajo calabaza

About ten minutes before the stew has finished, mash a clove of garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt to make a smooth paste. Remove half of the cooked pumpkin or squash from the pot and pound to a purée with the garlic in the mortar. Stir in a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.

Serve the stew in soup plates garnished with a sprinkling of fresh mint. Add squash aïoli until your bowl has as much garlic flavor as you like.

  • Yield: Six to eight servings.

* NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many cooks I know in Murcia. Cut the tomato in half, 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.

Soaked Wheat Berries  Soaked Beans  Local Pumpkin Pumpkin Chunks Flat Green Beans Organic Sweet Pimentón from Murcia

Murcia’s Ensaladilla Rusa: Not your typical Russian Salad

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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.

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