Category: Tapas

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.

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.

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.

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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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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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Morcilla de Verano – Murcia’s Eggplant Caviar

Think Spanish food, and the word vegetarian likely does not come to mind. Yet in Murcia, fabled as the “market garden” of Europe, meatless dishes starring local vegetables abound.

Take morcilla de verano, for example, or summer morcilla, a local tapa of eggplant, onion and garlic slow-cooked in olive oil until sweet and tender, seasoned with oregano and studded with toasted pine nuts.

Morcilla de verano even qualifies as vegan, yet you won’t find it labeled as such on a menu. Traditionally, vegetable-based dishes here were not so much a matter of dietary choice as they were of necessity, forming the cornerstone of local cuisine. The variety of rich, flavorful vegetable dishes in Murcia today reflects generations of ingenuity with the ingredients at hand.

In fact, many grandparents in Murcia refer to this meatless eggplant dish as morcilla de guerra, wartime morcilla. As the name suggests, this was considered a substitute for the other morcilla — a  pork blood sausage — during lean times. Or during the summer – in the past, morcilla was made in the fall, just after the slaughter. (Murcia’s meat morcilla, like the eggplant version, is flavored with onions, oregano and pine nuts.)

Today, morcilla is available year-round, yet morcilla de verano remains a popular dish, one of many traditional vegetable-based tapas served up in bars throughout Murcia, whose cuisine has been shaped by the market garden harvest.

Morcilla de Verano – Murcia’s Eggplant Caviar

This olive oil-rich recipe is nothing short of unctuous, perfect for slathering on a thick slice of country bread. Serve as an appetizer or as a light meal accompanied with a salad and a plate of sliced manchego cheese.

3 medium eggplants, peeled and diced into ½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 medium onions, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and fresh-ground pepper

Soak diced eggplant in a bowl of salted water for ½ hour to temper any bitterness. Drain and pat dry.

Meanwhile, lightly toast pine nuts in a dry sauté pan over medium-high heat.

Heat oil in a deep sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to turn golden. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Toss in eggplant, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and reduce heat to low. Cook partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is thoroughly tender, about 45 minutes. Drain any excess oil, then stir in oregano and toasted pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

YIELD: 4-6 servings

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?

Michirones

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.