Category: Recipes: Spain

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.

Coca – Spanish Flatbread

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Like many of you around the world, I’ve baked more bread since March than ever before in my life*. Out of the infinite breads to choose from, I’ve felt most drawn to those that require no or minimal kneading. Although I feel the romantic tug of sourdough love stories, the reputation of this ancient bread-making technique has thus far deterred me. Words like high-maintenance and fickle come to mind—two adjectives I’ve had enough of over the past year.

This make-ahead, slow-rise and nearly-no-knead coca is, too me, a perfect bread for these troubled times. The antithesis of high-maintenance and fickle, this recipe produces consistently excellent results with minimum effort, as long as you plan ahead. It is also versatile (another adjective I value more than ever these days) and welcomes improvisation with any toppings you have on hand.

Let’s talk cocas

Also known as tortas, cocas are the Spanish take on flatbread. They come in countless sweet and savory forms throughout Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Murcia. Some cocas are sponge cakes, some are flaky and crisp, and others, like this recipe, are akin to their more famous Mediterranean cousin, the pizza. In fact, according to the Mercado Little Spain website (the José Andrés project), “cocas are the original pizza.” Of course José Andrés would say that.

Although it’s impossible to know which really came first, the history of the coca and pizza are undoubtedly intertwined in the ancient Mediterranean past.

Cocas, like pizzas, are an ingenious combination of basic ingredients abundant in the region: wheat flour, olive oil, salt and seasonal produce. Although there are traditional cocas (like the coca de trempó, coca de recapte and coca de San Juan), there is no single authentic recipe, and certainly no international regulations like those of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. The coca is unpretentious, whatever you want it to be.

While I see this humility as a strength (there is no holy grail like the New York or Neapolitan pizza hanging overhead as you make a coca), José Capel, the food critic for the Spanish daily El País, laments that this “jewel” of Spanish cuisine has been eclipsed by the pizza. He lauds efforts like those of chef Pep Romany in Alicante to honor the coca by making it a star in local haute cuisine.

“Will Spanish cocarías (coca shops) take off in the future?” Capel asks in this 2017 article, “or will we continue to speak only of pizzas and never of cocas?”

While I can’t imagine Spanish cocarías supplanting New York pizzerias any time soon, I’m all for championing the coca movement from my home kitchen.

I invite you to join me.

*According to NPD BookScan, bread cookbook sales in the US alone grew by 145% in the first three quarters of 2020*.

Coca—Spanish Flatbread

I discovered this coca recipe in El Comidista, the always entertaining and inspiring food section of the Spanish daily newspaper El País. Spanish cooks use a variety of leaveners to make their cocas rise, ranging from sourdough to beer. This recipe uses a small amount of yeast and a long rising time (at least overnight) in the refrigerator, resulting in excellent flavor and texture. It is based on Spanish bread guru Ibán Yarza’s genius Unidad Basica de Masa (Basic Dough Unit), a simple, versatile dough. The opposite of high-maintenance.
As for the toppings, the sky’s the limit. I’ve provided some ideas below, but feel free to improvise with what’s in your fridge.
Excellent warm or at room temperature, cocas are a good make-ahead option for a picnic or tapas spread.

Ingredients

Makes 2 cocas

    For the dough

    • Scant 1 cup (240 ml) water
    • cups (350 g) all-purpose or bread flour, or 2 cups (250 g) all-purpose or bread flour + 1 scant cup (100 g) spelt or whole wheat flour (I love the spelt version.)
    • tsp (7 g) salt
    • 3 g fresh yeast or ⅓ tsp (1 g) instant yeast

    Topping ideas

    • Escalivada (my favorite), with or without anchovies (see Notes)
    • Roasted red peppers, with or without sardines
    • Caramelized onions, with or without pine nuts
    • Sobrasada
    • Thinly sliced veggies like zucchini, onions and tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt
    • Tapenade and goat cheese
    • Anything else that strikes your fancy
    • Extra-virgin olive oil, sugar and pine nuts

    Instructions

    A day ahead

    • Place the water in a large bowl or dough tub, add the yeast and swish to dissolve. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until just blended. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.
    • Without removing the dough from the bowl, flatten it into a rough rectangle with your fingertips. The dough will be very shaggy and sticky (as you can see in the first photo in the original recipe). Fold the dough in three, business letter-style, then flatten and fold it in three once more.
    • Let the dough rest, covered, for 15 minutes, then flatten and fold in three twice more as above.
    • Cover well and refrigerate overnight (or up to 2 days).

    The next day

    • Scrape the dough onto a well-floured surface and divide it into two equal pieces. With your fingertips or a rolling pin, flatten each piece to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. You can make any shape you like—circles, ovals and rectangles are all common coca shapes. To fit two on the same baking sheet, I like making long, narrow ovals, measuring roughly 13 x 5 inches each. If the dough shrinks back easily, let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes and try again.
    • Transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and cover loosely with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. Let rise for 1–1½ hours, until puffy.
    • Preheat the oven to 475°F (250°C). Brush the entire surface with a thin layer of extra-virgin olive oil and cover with your topping(s) of choice. Less is more here—if the toppings are too dense, the crust underneath will remain soggy.
    • If you are making a sweet coca, use your fingertips to make dimples in the dough, then sprinkle it with sugar.
    • Bake for 10–15 minutes, until the coca is golden.
    • Enjoy warm or at room temperature.

    Notes

    Click here for an escalivada recipe I published on this blog a while back. I like to add the anchovies after baking so that the flavor melts into the coca, but the anchovies do not disintegrate.
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    Apricots!

    This time of year, we literally get to enjoy the fruits of my husband’s labor. He’s an apricot breeder, which means that throughout the short and intense season in May and June, quickly ripening apricots overtake our kitchen counters and refrigerator shelves and drawers. We eat them fresh, of course, but there are so many that we also make tarts and jams and share bag-loads of apricots with anyone willing to take them. If you lived nearby, I would share apricots with you, too.

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    If you’re not an apricot fan, it may be because you’ve never had a great one. Even in Mediterranean climates, where apricots thrive, good ones can be hard to come by. They do not tend to travel well, and if they don’t turn mushy in the trunk of your car on the way home, one day in a warm kitchen will do the trick.

    But if you can get your hands on a great apricot, and you are not already an apricot fan, one bite may convert you as it did me. A great apricot threatens to overpower the senses—the charming red blush on the skin, the sunny orange flesh, the floral and sweet yet enticingly tart aroma and flavor. I discovered this fact relatively late in life, after moving to Spain. In fact, I don’t recall any apricot before this time that left any impression on me at all besides the “Apricot” doll from the Strawberry Shortcake collection. Although I’ve accumulated far more delicious apricot memories in the years I’ve lived in Spain, I nevertheless think of Apricot every time I step into my kitchen this time of year. What did they ever put in her hair to make such an indelible scent?

    For my son, it will be a different story. Apricot was one of his first fruits, and his papá’s apricots will be one of his earliest food memories. Perhaps someday he’ll long for this taste of his youth.

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    I hope you can sink your teeth into some great apricots this season. And if they ripen a bit too much, don’t fret, make a tart! The tart pictured below, Verlet’s Apricot Tart from Patricia Wells, is one of my favorite ways to enjoy and share the season’s bounty. This is of course a French tart—in Spain, the most traditional way to eat apricots is the way you see my son eating his in the photo above. But since I began making it twelve years ago, Verlet’s tart has become a perennial crowd favorite among my Spanish family and friends.

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    Baking intensifies the tartness of the apricots, which complements the sweetness of the buttery crust. With a dash of almond extract and a sprinkling of ground almonds, this pastry also takes brilliant advantage of the affinity between apricots and almonds, two stone fruits in the same genus (Prunus).

    With so many new memories, the scent of apricots in my kitchen grows richer every year, evoking so much more than a fragrant childhood doll.

    Verlet’s Apricot Tart from The Food Lovers’ Guide to Paris by Patricia Wells

    Since I follow the online recipe more or less to a tee, I have provided a link rather than writing up the recipe here. The only modification I make is that I do not add almond extract to the filling, because I find the bitter almond taste stands out too much. But I do love the subtle flavor that the ground almonds add to the cream. If you cannot get good fresh apricots, this tart is also delicious with peaches.

    What are your favorite apricot recipes? I’m always looking for more ways to use them ;).

    Sustenance – Orange olive oil cake with whole wheat flour

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    This cake has become a lifeline for me in the long stretches of time between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner in Spain. With 50% whole-wheat flour and no refined sugar, it is a slightly healthier take on the classic Spanish bizcocho, or teacake, made with olive oil, yogurt, orange juice and orange zest. The cake is luxuriously moist and packed with bright citrus flavor. With a cup of coffee and a square or two of dark chocolate, it has gotten me through many mornings and afternoons.

    On the surface, I have adapted to the late lunch and dinner times in Spain. Unless we want to eat alone, we must adapt to the local rhythm, wherever we are. But I realize that I still see the Spanish mealtime hours with foreign eyes, particularly now that I have a child. Trying to feed my fussy two year old his “early” dinner at 8 pm, for instance, I daydreamed about my friends in the States who had their children in bed by this time, cutting the witching hour short.

    Now that my son is four—and more Spaniard than American—the hours have gotten easier. He no longer melts down during our (early) 8:30 pm weeknight dinners. In his perspective, this is dinnertime on school nights—any earlier would mean less playground time. And 2 pm, when he gets out of school, is, for him, a normal time for lunch. In his second year of the infantil cycle—for children aged three to six—his school day starts at 9 am and ends at 2 pm, without a lunch break! (My need to add an exclamation point here betrays my lingering outsider perspective…)

    With such late meal times, snacks are vital, especially for children. The mid-morning almuerzo and the mid-afternoon merienda have to be substantial enough to sustain energy and keep melt downs (my son’s and my own) at bay.

    Rather than a lunch, I pack a snack for my son in his school bag, following guidelines from his teacher (see the chart below) that encourage variety and discourage too many convenience foods. (As in many industrialized countries, childhood obesity is on the rise in Spain, which is a whole other topic.) So it’s a sandwich on Monday, cookies or homemade bizcocho (quick bread or teacake) on Tuesdays, fruit on Wednesdays, cereals and grains on Thursdays and dairy on Fridays.

    This orange olive oil cake, which I pack along with nuts and dried fruit, has become one of my staples for my son’s Tuesday snack. It has also become one of my own snack-time staples.

    With an olive oil cake on the counter, the Spanish mealtime hours do not feel so foreign. I am at home.

    Orange Olive Oil Cake with Whole Wheat Flour

    I make this cake in my Thermomix, the do-it-all kitchen appliance from German engineers, although you could, of course, also use a stand mixer, another type of food processor or mix the batter by hand. The recipe is adapted from a Spanish Thermomix recipe and calls for grinding the sugar into superfine crystals, which in theory makes the cake more tender. I haven’t yet tried making the cake without the grinding step, so can't vouch for the results.I love the crisp edges the day the cake is made, but think the flavor is even better after a day, covered, on the counter.

    Ingredients

    • loosely packed cups 180 g unrefined brown sugar
    • Zest of 1 orange
    • 3 eggs
    • ½ cup (120 g) plain or Greek-style yogurt
    • Scant ½ cup (100 g) mild-flavored extra-virgin olive oil (see Notes)
    • ¼ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice from about ½ orange
    • teaspoons baking powder (see Notes)
    • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
    • ¾ cup (100 g) all-purpose flour
    • ¾ cup (100 g) whole wheat flour
    • 1 pinch salt
    • Confectioners’ sugar optional

    Instructions

    • Preheat the oven to 350ºF and butter and flour a 9-inch round cake or springform pan.
    • Grind the brown sugar into very fine crystals in a food processor. Add the orange zest and pulse several times to grind the zest and evenly distribute it throughout the sugar.
    • Add the eggs to the sugar and mix on low speed until pale and frothy.
    • Add the olive oil, yogurt and orange juice and mix until blended.
    • Sift in the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt and mix on low speed until just blended.
    • Pour the batter into the greased pan and bake until the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes.
    • Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then remove it to a cooling rack. Serve once the cake is completely cool. If you like, you can dust it with confectioners’ sugar for decoration.
    • This cake keeps beautifully on the counter, covered, for several days.

    Notes

    Be sure to choose an olive oil whose flavor you enjoy, because you will taste it in the cake. If you cannot find a mild extra virgin olive oil, try “light” olive oil US, which has been refined and is not as pungent.

    Early spring stew with fava beans, artichokes and serrano ham

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    If I had to capture early spring in Murcia in just a few words, fava beans would have to be among them. In the markets, woven baskets overflow with tangles of bright green fava bean pods. Shelled, the beans make their way to the table in a variety of traditional dishes, from omelets to stews to sautés.

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    Many locals like to snack directly on the raw beans, which are firm and slightly bitter. This time of year, it is not unusual for restaurants to drop a handful of pods on your table to peel and enjoy like peanuts.

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    Growing up in Florida, fava beans were not on my culinary radar. But since I moved to Murcia nearly a decade ago, I have come to love this legume—among the most ancient Mediterranean crops—in all of its guises. Every year, I particularly look forward to making this early spring stew, inspired by a similar recipe in one of my favorite Spanish cookbooksThe New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen.

    The stew is loaded not not only with fresh fava beans, but also artichokes, another of my favorite vegetables at their prime in early spring. Sherry and serrano ham give the dish a decidedly Spanish flair. As the name “stew” suggests, this is not a flash-cooked affair. Instead, the vegetables simmer until tender with garlic and onions in a rich, ham-infused broth. Raw garlic and parsley pounded to a paste and stirred in before serving add bright speckles of spring green and a lively garlic kick.

    Happy spring!

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    Early spring stew with fava beans, artichokes and serrano ham

    Adapted from The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen
    When using fresh fava beans and artichokes, this is not a quick recipe—there is a lot of paring and shelling to be done. But your time will be rewarded. If you have young children in the house, shelling fava beans is a perfect task for little hands. In fact, my four-year-old son loved the work so much that he got mad at my husband for shelling too quickly and claimed the final handful for himself!
    I haven’t actually tried the stew with frozen artichoke hearts and fava beans, but I’m sure that’s delicious, too, if you cannot get the ingredients fresh. Von Bremzen suggests fresh or frozen peas or soybeans as a fava bean substitute.
    Von Bremzen's recipe also calls for green beans and potatoes, but I wanted to focus on my favorite ingredients, so used more artichokes and fava beans and left these other vegetables out. She has you do all of the prep work in advance, but I like to prepare the artichokes while the onions are slowly cooking with the ham to streamline the process a bit and to give the onions richer flavor.
    Enjoy this early spring stew as a tapa, side dish (it's excellent with fish) or light meal, with bread, of course!

    Ingredients

    • 2 cups shelled fresh fava beans about 2 pounds/1 kilogram unshelled
    • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    • 1 large onion finely chopped
    • 1 1/4-inch thick slice serrano ham or proscuitto, about 1.5 ounces (40 grams), diced
    • 6 medium artichokes
    • 1 lemon
    • 4 large garlic cloves minced and divided
    • 1/3 cup dry sherry
    • 1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken broth plus more as needed
    • 2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley

    Instructions

    • Cook the shelled fava beans in a pot of salted boiling water until they are just tender, about 4 minutes, depending on their size. Drain the beans and run them under cold water to stop the cooking process. Once the fava beans are cool enough to handle, gently press them between your fingers to pop the tender green centers out of the skins. Set the beans aside.
    • Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large pot. Stir in the onions and diced ham and reduce the heat to low. Let the onions slowly cook, stirring occasionally, while you prepare the artichokes. Reduce the heat to very low if the onions begin to brown.
    • Fill a medium bowl with water and squeeze in the juice from the lemon. Clean and quarter the artichokes (here are some excellent instructions), dropping the quarters into the bowl to prevent browning. Since the stems are also delicious when cooked, I like to peel them and leave a 1- to 1 1/2-inch tail.
    • When the artichokes are ready, the onions should be soft and beginning to turn golden (it took me nearly 30 minutes to prepare the artichokes – I'm slow). Stir in half of the garlic and the artichoke quarters. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the artichokes have begun to soften, about 10 minutes. Add another tablespoon of olive oil if the pot seems dry. Pour in the sherry and increase the heat to high. Cook the sherry for about 1 minute, allowing it to reduce slightly. 
    • Add enough chicken broth to just cover the vegetables and bring the liquid to a simmer. Cook the stew over low heat, partially covered, until the artichokes are completely tender, about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on their size. Add more broth as needed to keep the artichokes barely covered. Once the artichokes are done, add the fava beans and cook until they are tender, about 5 more minutes.
    • Place the parsley and remaining garlic in a mortar and pound them into a paste using a pestle. A pinch of salt can help. Stir the paste into the stew and cook for another minute to allow the flavors to blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve warm.

    Oven-roasted escalivada

    IMG_4957Spring in Murcia has begun with a cold north wind, but I still feel summer breathing down my neck. Come April, suffocating heat could appear any day, robbing us of a proper spring. It happens every year. The pressure is on to crank up the oven and bake and roast as much as I can while I still appreciate the added warmth in my kitchen. This is a perfect time to make escalivada, one of my favorite foods in Spain.

    Simple, versatile escalivada—a roasted Mediterranean vegetable dish of Catalan origin—is cherished throughout the country. It can be a salad, a side dish or a condiment, and it pairs perfectly with other Spanish favorites like jamón and tortilla de patatas. The exact composition can vary, but most versions of escalivada (sometimes spelled escalibada) contain roasted red peppers, eggplants and onions; tomatoes and garlic are other popular additions.

    In Catalan, the name escalivada means cooked over a flame or embers, the traditional means of making the dish. In fact, purists argue that the only way to cook escalivada is over fire, and that the dish is missing something essential without the smoky flavor the flames impart, although many home cooks make a respectable escalivada in the oven. As an apartment dweller myself, I say that a delicious oven-roasted escalivada is far superior to no escalivada at all.

    One of the best things about escalivada is that it is a cinch to prepare. To make an indoor version, you simply place your vegetables in a hot oven on a baking sheet and forget about them for an hour or so, removing them when the heat has done its work to make them ultra-tender and sweet on the inside. The hardest part (let’s not get too lazy here) is peeling the vegetables once they are cool enough to handle, removing any seeds and tearing the tender insides into thin strips. Minimal dressing is all you need to enhance the natural flavors—a sprinkling of fine sea salt and a generous drizzle of the most flavorful extra virgin olive oil you have.

    The result is a jammy escalivada that you can eat throughout the week in a number of different guises, if you make a large enough batch. Alone, escalivada is excellent with fish or meat (or jamón) or simply for dunking bread. You can also eat it as a main-dish salad, topped with fillets of high quality olive-oil packed tuna and some black olives. Or use it on flatbread or pizza, or chopped up and mixed with eggs to make a veggie-packed Spanish omelet or scramble. You get the idea. One of my favorite ways to eat escalivada is on toasted country bread with anchovies, whose saltiness beautifully complements the sweet vegetables.

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    If only I’d made more….Well, there’s always next week, as long as the north wind continues to blow.

    Oven-roasted escalivada

    I've come across two different approaches to roasting the vegetables for escalivada in the oven—the minimalist approach, i.e., roasting the vegetables uncovered on a baking sheet (parchment-lined or not) and the slightly-more-involved approach, i.e., brushing the vegetables lightly with olive oil and wrapping them individually in aluminum foil before placing them on the baking sheet.
    I've tried both and have to say I like a blend of both methods. I preferred the red peppers and eggplants roasted uncovered and the onion brushed and wrapped, because the onion gets tender more quickly this way. I've written the recipe accordingly, but recommend trying the different methods yourself to see which you prefer.
    The quantities are also subjective. I particularly love the sweetness of the red peppers in this dish, so used three big ones, but, of course, feel free to adjust the amounts according to your taste, what looks good at the market and how much space you have on your baking sheet (my oven in Spain is smaller than most ovens in the US).
    When adding garlic, keep in mind that the flavor will intensify over time if you have any escalivada left over.
    As for the sizes of the vegetables, I like to use smallish eggplants, which I find have a sweeter flavor, and small to medium onions, which don’t take forever to roast.

    Ingredients

    • 3-4 red peppers
    • 2-3 small to medium eggplants
    • 2 small to medium onions
    • 6 tablespoons flavorful extra-virgin olive oil or more to taste
    • 2-3 garlic cloves sliced in half lengthwise
    • Salt

    Instructions

    • Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
    • Rinse and dry the vegetables. Place the red peppers on the baking sheet whole. Pierce the eggplants with a fork and place them on the baking sheet. Lightly brush the onions with olive oil, wrap them in aluminum foil and place them on the baking sheet.
    • Bake the vegetables until they are collapsed, completely tender (check the eggplant and onion by piercing with a fork) and charred in places. In my oven, this took about 45 minutes for the eggplants and peppers and about 1 ¼ hours for the onions. When you remove the peppers from the oven, place them in a covered bowl or in a sealed plastic bag for 15 minutes to allow them to steam, making it easier to peel them later. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them, remove the seeds and cut or tear the flesh into thin strips, working over a bowl to catch the juices. Peel the eggplants and cut or tear them into strips similar in size to the pepper strips. Finally, peel the onions and slice them into strips.
    • Arrange the vegetables in a single layer on a serving plate, either by type or alternating rows. Tuck the garlic slices between the layers, drizzle everything generously with olive oil and season with salt to taste. Allow your escalivada to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature so the flavors can develop. If you store your escalivada for any longer, be sure the vegetables are covered with olive oil, cover the dish and place it in the fridge. Allow the escalivada to come to room temperature before serving.
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    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 ;).

    Macedonia de frutas – Soupy fruit salad, a toddler favorite in Spain

    A quick note on the name change: This blog will no longer be called “go with curiosity,” but “Bread & Onions” instead, a more food-centric title. This new name comes from the Spanish food idiom, “contigo pan y cebolla,” “with you, bread and onions.” Briefly, this idiom conveys the same idea as the classic marriage vows “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.” More to come in my next blog post!

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    An introduction to Feeding Mateo: This is the first post in an ongoing series that will chronicle my experiences feeding a baby and toddler in Spain. I in no way pretend to speak for all Spanish babies. For one, I live in a provincial city, Murcia, which is quite different from living in a cosmopolitan capital like Barcelona or Madrid. Furthermore, Mateo’s diet includes a heavy dose of my own food memories and nostalgia.

    This is therefore my personal toddler feeding adventure in progress, rooted in a few essential ingredients: my Spanish husband’s traditions and family recipes; food ideas exchanged with other moms and dads I know on both sides of the pond; and my own “foodprints,”i.e., the flavors and food experiences I have collected in all the places I have lived and traveled.

    I also hope to hear ideas from readers who have either been there and done that or who also have a hungry toddler on their hands.

    Let’s dig in!

    Fruit First – Preparing food as a mother begins

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    Since I had Mateo, cooking is no longer the optional hobby it used to be. Before, I would often spend a full day (when I felt like it) preparing an elaborate new recipe that would provide me with leftovers for the rest of the week. Now, however, I must cook a wider variety on a more regular basis.

    I do not say this begrudgingly, as I obviously love to cook, but my relationship to cooking has certainly changed. Now I cannot wait for the muse to light the burners. Furthermore, I feel pressure to offer Mateo new flavors and textures to expand his palate beyond the typical toddler favorites (pasta, hot dogs, rice, anything sweet).

    At 28 months, Mateo loves to eat, although he is not one of those toddlers who will eat just about anything. In fact, he is going through a so-called picky phase. To give an example, he loves paella, although he has begun to suspiciously eye each spoonful for any stray bits of meat. If he finds one, despite my efforts to cut it into rice-sized pieces, he spits it out, saying disparagingly, “carne” (the Spanish word for meat). The only meat he will eat that is not chopped up into tiny pieces is jamón serrano, Spanish cured ham. Perhaps he’s destined to be a vegetarian, with an exception for Spanish jamón. In the meantime, however, I keep trying.

    One thing he never turns up his nose at is fruit. I often wonder if this is because the first “real” food he tried at five months old was a spoonful of fresh-squeezed orange juice, per his pediatrician’s recommendation.

    For the next several months of his life he got fruit every day for his merienda, his afternoon snack, in the form of papilla de frutas – a thick smoothie of blended fresh fruits like bananas, apples and pears, all with a squeeze of orange juice.

    The transition to pieces of fruit was seamless. Mateo happily devoured soft bits of ripe bananas and juicy melons and pears. He spent much of his first apricot season with a bright orange ring around his mouth (my husband is an apricot breeder and we get the most delicious apricots I’ve ever eaten, a topic which deserves its own post).

    One of Mateo’s favorite ways to eat fruit these days is in a macedonia de frutas, a fruit salad. As he eats, we talk about the different fruits, colors and textures (“crunchy,” he often says to me when taking a bite of apple). When all the fruit is gone, he slurps up the juice from the bowl.

    At least I know with fruit I can never go wrong, perhaps thanks to that first sweet, juicy spoonful.

    Macedonia de frutas – Fruit salad

    The name of this diverse medley of fruits in Spanish (macedonia) is an allusion to the ancient kingdom of the same name under Alexander the Great’s (356-323 B.C.) rule. This vast empire stretched from the Mediterranean to India, encompassing many different cultures, races and creeds.

    While Alexander’s empire may not have been a harmonious blend, in the macedonia de frutas, all fruits are welcome. So my “recipe” here is just one example of the infinite possible combinations, depending on what your family’s favorites are and what’s in season. Bananas, pineapples, kiwis, berries, melons, you get the idea. Quality canned fruits make a nice addition as well.

    The version below is inspired by my friend Paz, whom I met in birthing classes at our local health clinic when we were both pregnant. Just about every time we get our kids together for an afternoon snack, Paz makes a delicious macedonia de frutas. The other week, her salad included high quality canned peaches from Murcia and a bit of the syrup (Paz is from the Murcian town of Cieza in the main peach producing area in Spain). I (and Mateo, too, of course) liked the added sweetness of the canned fruit, making for a special treat.

    Serves 2, although the recipe can easily be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, etc.

    1 apple

    1 pear

    2-3 quality canned peach halves and 1 teaspoon of the syrup, or more to taste

    4 strawberries (Strawberries are in season in Spain, although these are definitely not the sweet little berries I remember from my youth.)

    1-2 oranges

    Wash and then cut up all the fruits, except for the oranges, into uniform bite-sized pieces. I tend to peel the apples and pears, but this is not a necessary step. Sometimes I add in bits of orange sections with the membranes removed, too.

    Squeeze enough orange juice into the salad until it nearly covers the fruits, removing any seeds of course. Mix in a teaspoon or more of the syrup from the canned peaches if you would like some added sweetness.

    Allow the salad to sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes so that the flavors can begin to meld. If you would like to serve the salad cold, cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

    For guests, it is best to serve this salad on the same day, although I often happily polish of the leftovers on the second day, depending on the fruits (the apples, pears and peaches hold up better than the strawberries and bananas, for example).

    A Quince Summer

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    Summer tends to linger well into the fall in Murcia, and this year has been no different.  The Segura River valley where the city is located heats up like a sauna in July and August and does not easily yield to cooler temperatures come September. Weeks after the fall equinox, highs in Murcia remained stubbornly in the 90s. Once again, it has been a veranico del membrillo – a quince summer.

    This expression, a version bearing the Murcianized diminutive ico (in other parts of Spain, the saying is  veranillo del membrillo), is the equivalent of an Indian Summer, when unseasonably high temperatures assert themselves in early autumn, just when ripened quinces are beginning to appear in the markets.

    Up until several years ago, I admittedly would not have known a quince had I seen one. This curious fruit was certainly not a Florida childhood staple, although it would not have been out of place on my grandmother’s New England table. In my mind, the quince evokes Colonial America and sensible Yankee desserts, preserves and ciders. Its roots, however, extend much further back. In fact, many botanists believe Adam and Eve’s Forbidden Fruit may have actually been a quince.

    Even if it was one day a sinful temptation, the quince nonetheless fell out of favor, at least in the US. Its irregular shape and hard and astringent flesh that must be cooked to be eaten made it an outcast in a grab-and-go world.

    Yet these are the precise qualities that have contributed to a quince renaissance in recent years. The humble quince has become a lovable poster child for champions of slow food and opponents of perfectly round fruits without character.

    In Spain, quince has remained relatively common over the years. Here, it is typically cooked down with sugar to make concentrated blocks of dulce de membrillo, quince paste. Slices of the sweet jelly are the perfect foil to salty and tangy sheep’s milk cheeses like Manchego.

    Quince became an important crop in Murcia in the Middle Ages under Arab rule, and centuries later contributed to the growth of the still significant canning industry in the city. Even though quince production has declined here over the last several decades (largely coinciding with the fateful construction boom), the fruit has not lost its power to conjure up hot fall days in the expression, el veranico del membrillo.

    Little by little, the seasons are indeed shifting. Murcia’s imposing summer has finally begun to give way, allowing crisper air to seep into the night, which the sun labors to chase away with dwindling strength. Yet if experience proves me right, the heat will return at least one more, prolonging the quince summer.

    Summer’s last stand calls for quince paste. Cooking down quinces into concentrated and sweet dulce de membrillo is a means to preserve the taste of warmer days for the inevitable winter to come.

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    Dulce de Membrillo – Quince Paste

    The basic steps of this recipe are relatively straightforward – peel and core the quinces either before or after cooking; boil until tender; puree the peeled and cored fruit; mix with sugar and cook over low heat until concentrated; then pour into a mold and cool. But, as I learned through trial and error, timing can significantly influence the results.

    Most recipes I came across in local Murcian cookbooks had a lot of gaps, presumably to be filled in with experience. For example, El Libro de la Gastronomía de Murcia suggests cooking the pureed fruit and sugar for 15 minutes, which was enough to make a tasty quince sauce (akin to apple sauce) but not enough to make a concentrated paste. I kept cooking and stirring for 30 minutes more and achieved satisfactory, and sliceable, results.

    I have since researched different cooking methods and have come across wildly varying simmer times, from 8 minutes to several hours. I am still experimenting to find the version I like best. In any case, far worse things could happen than to end up with a delicious quince sauce.

    I encourage you to visit Janet Mendel’s recent blog post on quinces for her complete and easy-to-follow recipe for dulce de membrillo. Mendel uses several techniques I am eager to try, such as adding some of the quince poaching liquid to the fruit puree and lining the mold with plastic wrap for easy removal. Mendel’s post also includes a lovely story about quince paste in Spain and a savory quince recipe with lamb inspired by several Mediterranean dishes.

    To determine the amount of sugar you need, measure or weigh the cooked and pureed fruit and add the same quantity of sugar. I used three quinces, which was enough to fill a 5.5 x 4.5 x 1.5 inch aluminum container.

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    Sugar

    Cut the quinces in half and place them in a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer until the flesh is tender and easily pierced with a fork, after about 30-45 minutes. Completely drain and, once the quinces are cool enough to touch, peel and core them.

    Puree the fruit, then weigh or measure it and mix it with an equal amount of sugar in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium low heat until the puree is reduced nearly by half, stirring frequently so it does not stick to the bottom of the pan. Pour into a rectangular mold and cool. Properly concentrated quince paste will keep in the refrigerator for up to several months. Serve thinly sliced with an assertive cheese such sheep’s milk Manchego.

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