Tag: Murcia

Empanada murciana

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

Empanada murciana

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

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

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

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

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

Empanada murciana

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

Ingredients

Tomate frito

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

Dough

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

Filling

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

Instructions

Prepare the tomate frito

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

Prepare the dough

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

Prepare the filling

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

Assemble and bake

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

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 ;).

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.

Aletría – History in a pan

Stopping to look, I find traces of Murcia’s history everywhere—in crumbling bits of medieval wall around the city; in ruins beneath the cathedral; in my husband’s black hair and olive skin; in my son’s deep-as-midnight eyes; and, especially, in local foods like aletría.

Aletría—saffron-seasoned pasta cooked in the same pan with short ribs, artichokes, tomatoes, red peppers and potatoes—reveals layers of the past just as an archaeological excavation would.

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The name aletría comes from an Arabic word for dried pasta, iṭriyah, and the dish is very similar to ittrilla, which appears in an anonymous thirteenth century cookbook from Al-Andalus. In the medieval version, noodles simmer in a broth made with fat-rich cuts of meat and seasonings like salt, pepper and coriander; before serving, the dish gets sprinkled with cinnamon and ginger.

Today, the foundation is the same—you cook the noodles in a flavorful meat broth—but the dish has dropped most of the Moorish seasonings and taken on ingredients that reflect new rulers, like pork, and New World discoveries, like tomatoes.

I found myself thinking about the layers of aletría on a recent visit to my favorite museum in Murcia, the Museo de Santa Clara, which provides another way to look at the city’s strata.

The museum is part of a working convent, where a handful of elderly nuns continue to live in their cloistered community. Like many religious buildings in Murcia, the convent was constructed on top of Moorish remains, in this case a luxurious palace to different Arab rulers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

On the ground floor, devoted to Murcia’s Islamic past, I gazed upon remnants of the palace and reconstructions of intricate archways and a Moorish garden with a reflecting pool. Upstairs, I soaked in the history of the convent and its patron, Saint Clare of Assisi.

As I looked at the layers, I could see all of the forces that had shaped the city, and dishes like aletría, more clearly.

Here were the foundations of my son’s gaze and the basic building blocks of this stew that has nourished Murcia for generations.

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Aletría

To make aletría, you follow the same basic techniques used in making paella – the pasta cooks in the pan with the vegetables and meat, soaking up flavor of the broth – but this dish is more forgiving, because it is easier to overcook rice than pasta.

A similar dish minus the bell peppers, artichokes and potatoes, called fideos a la cazuela, is made in other parts of Spain.

The final amount of water you need depends on many factors, such as the speed of the boil, the surface area of your pan and the exact amount of pasta you use. Add more hot water as needed to keep the ingredients just barely submerged. The final dish should be nearly dry rather than soupy. The cooking times are approximate, too. It may take more time, for instance, for the meat to become tender and the potatoes to cook.

  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided (plus more as needed)
  • 1 red pepper, cut into thick strips
  • 2-3 artichokes, cleaned and quartered
  • 1 medium or 2 small potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes (not so little that they’ll disintegrate into the stew), then rinsed in water until the water runs clear
  • ½ kilo (1 lb) short ribs, cut into 1 ½-inch lengths
  • 2 tomatoes, cut crosswise and grated down to the skin using the large holes of a box grater
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • Powdered yellow food coloring (optional – see notes)
  • 1 lb (500 g) thick fideos (see notes)

The first step is to sear all of the ingredients separately to concentrate the flavors. Heat 2 tbsp oil over medium-low heat in a heavy casserole or deep skillet. Add the red pepper strips and a pinch of salt. Cook the peppers, turning them frequently, until they have softened and are lightly brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. If the peppers brown too quickly before softening, lower the heat. Remove the peppers from the skillet and set aside.

Raise the heat to medium, add another tablespoon of olive oil, the artichoke quarters and a pinch of salt. Sauté the artichokes until they are lightly browned on all sides and begin to soften, about five minutes. Remove the artichokes with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil if necessary, the cubed potatoes and a pinch of salt and sauté until lightly golden on all sides. Remove and set aside.

Generously season the ribs with salt and pepper. Once again, if there is not much olive oil left in the pan, add another tablespoon and increase the heat to medium-high. Sauté the ribs until they are nicely browned on all sides, turning frequently. The idea is not to cook the ribs, but to sear them and seal in the juice and flavor.

Once the ribs are browned, reduce the heat to medium, stir in the minced garlic and cook for a minute or two until the garlic is fragrant. Add the grated tomato and cook, stirring frequently, until the tomato has lost much of its water, about five minutes. Cover the meat with water (about 2 cups/500 ml) and stir in the pinch of saffron and powdered yellow food coloring, if using. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat until the water simmers steadily. Cook uncovered until the ribs are nearly tender, about 20 minutes, then add the artichokes and potatoes. Add more water to cover if needed and more salt to taste. Continue simmering until the potato is half-way cooked (about 10 to 15 minutes).

Add another 2 cups/500 ml of water to the pan and bring to a boil. Stir in the pasta and red pepper and reduce the heat to a steady simmer. Taste the broth for salt, adding more as needed. Cook the pasta uncovered until it is al dente (about 11 minutes – follow the instructions on the package). Add more hot water as needed as you cook to keep the ingredients submerged. The final stew should not be soupy, but it should have a bit of broth. Remove the pan from the heat and let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving.

Notes: In Spain, use No. 2 fideos, or break long, thin pasta such as spaghetti into one-inch (2.5-cm) lengths. My mother-in-law adds a handful of pasta per person plus an extra handful “for the pot”.

Since saffron is a luxury ingredient, many home cooks in Spain rely on a sprinkling of powdered yellow food coloring to give dishes like paella and aletría a desirable sunny color that would take far too much of the exquisite spice to obtain.

Ensalada murciana – A tomato salad for all seasons

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In many places, tomato salad is a symbol of summer—of warm, sunny days and cool, refreshing meals. But in Murcia, tomato salad is a year-round treat. And I do not mean salad made with the nondescript, greenhouse-produced tomatoes that can be found in Spanish markets even in winter. I’m talking about the ensalada murciana (Murcian salad), yet another genius combination of Mediterranean pantry staples that is made, not with fresh, but with canned tomatoes, which are tossed together with oil-packed tuna, onions, hard-boiled eggs, cured olives, and, of course, a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.

Why Murcian salad? As is the case with many local dishes, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact origin, but the salad has been ubiquitous for long enough to take on the name of the city itself. This makes sense, because tomatoes (both fresh and canned) are emblematic of the huerta, the fertile lands within and surrounding Murcia that have long been recognized for their agricultural potential—traces of Roman irrigation systems have been discovered in the area, which were expanded and improved upon by the Arabs who founded and ruled the city for centuries. Tomatoes of course came later, brought back from the Americas in the 16th century. Tomatoes thrive in Murcia’s huerta, so it is logical that canning eventually became an important local industry, too.

I love the tomato-packed ensalada murciana because it is easy to make and can be thrown together in any season. Served chilled in the summer, it refreshes like gazpacho, and at room temperature in winter, it adds a splash of sun and sea (and Murcia) to the table.

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Ensalada murciana

This salad can be served as a tapa or side dish, or as a light dinner or lunch. It improves as it sits, so should be made at least an hour (and up to a day) before you plan on serving it.

Most home cooks and bars toss all of the ingredients together, which of course helps the flavors meld. Yet some high-end restaurants artfully arrange their top-quality tomatoes, tuna, olives and eggs on a plate and then sprinkle them with sea salt flakes and drizzle the olive oil over the top. This is a good option for luxury canned tomatoes and tuna, where you really want each ingredient to shine.

The steps here are just basic guidelines, because it really doesn’t matter what you add first (or how much you add) to the bowl. Feel free to improvise as they do here in Murcia, as all of the quantities can be adjusted according to your preferences or what you have on hand.

For 4-6 people:

  • 1/2 – 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 28-ounce can of good quality tomatoes, drained
  • 1 5-ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil, drained
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
  • 1/2 cup small black olives (such as Niçoise – see note)
  • Extra virgin olive oil, to taste (start with 2 tablespoons and add more as you like)
  • Salt, to taste

Soak the thinly sliced onion in a bowl of ice water for ten minutes to make it easier to digest. Drain and set aside.

Roughly chop the tomatoes (I do this right over the bowl) and place them in a large bowl along with their juice. Break up the tuna and add it to the bowl. Stir in the onions, chopped eggs and olives. Add salt to taste (I don’t tend to add much, since the tuna, tomatoes and olives already contain salt). Drizzle as much olive oil as you want over the salad and then toss everything together. Cover and chill for at least one hour before serving for the flavor to develop.

Remove the salad from the refrigerator at least 15 minutes before serving (depending on the season) so that it is not ice cold (which dulls the flavors). In fact, in the winter, I prefer to eat ensalada murciana at room temperature. Serve with plenty of bread for dipping.

Notes: The traditional olive used is a small, black (and brine-cured) Spanish variety called cuquillo. If you cannot find cuquillo olives, Niçoise olives are a good substitute.

Tostada con tomate – Spanish breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Murcian-style tostada con tomate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

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

Fiesta!

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Pan de Calatrava – Calatrava Bread Pudding

Pan de Calatrava

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pan de Calatrava – Calatrava Bread

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

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

Serves 6-8

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

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

For the rest:

4 1/4 cups milk (1 liter)

1 cup sugar

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

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

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

6 eggs

Baking dishes and pans needed:

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

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

1 small heavy saucepan for the caramel

1 medium heavy saucepan for heating the milk

To prepare the caramel:

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

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

To prepare the rest:

Preheat oven to 350 ºF.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crisis Cooking: Frugal Recipes from Murcia

Why frugal cooking now feels imperative in Spain.

Migas

At a market showcasing culinary traditions in Murcia, a man tends to a pan of migas, a filling dish made with flour, salt, olive oil and garlic, judiciously flavored with bits of fresh sausage and chorizo (more or less, depending on the budget). Such frugal meals born of necessity survive in part because of nostalgia, and also because they make economic sense.

Back home in the States, one hears very little good news coming out of Spain, soccer victories notwithstanding. On my most recent trip to Florida, I was often asked if I had noticed the effects of the economic crisis in Spain. Sort of, I would reply, but the quality of life remained. I thought of the countless times I had been with friends in Murcia walking through downtown past bustling restaurants and bars, so packed that patrons spilled out onto plazas, filling the streets with spirited conversation. “Crisis?” someone would inevitably ask rhetorically. “¿Qué crisis?”, “What crisis?”

But upon my return to Spain in August, I have to say that I can really feel the impact now. Until recently, I personally hadn’t noticed so many specific manifestations. Yet I am beginning to sense more shadows creeping into the good life, cast by growing dark clouds of uncertainty and insecurity.

Now, people in my immediate circle are losing jobs, the stores where they work are closing, they have been forced to go to court to demand late payments from their employers who are months behind. Last week, a friend’s home in a modest neighborhood was broken into. The thieves took everything in gold they could find, worth precious little compared to the sentimental value of the objects.

Just about everyone, it seems (minus those soccer stars, perhaps), has similar stories to tell about someone they know. I hear it in the news, in conversations in markets and on the bus. Spain is a talkative place, and I sometimes wonder whether all these words and stories told again and again might actually be contributing to the dark cloud. And here I am, telling the story.

The truth is that the feelings matter and carry real weight once they are heard and spoken. And as of yet, there is no clear silver lining. I have heard and even said time and time again, “We’ll see what happens…,” as if we are all waiting.

This is not to say you won’t find the bars packed on a Friday or Saturday night. But the uncertain climate permits fewer nights on the town.

These circumstances make me particularly appreciate the frugal ingenuity of traditional Spanish home cooking. The fact that Spain is no stranger to hard times* is reflected in the seemingly endless variety of nourishing and inexpensive dishes made from stretching out the ingredients at hand.

Cooking frugally feels like one way to defy the current crisis. There will be no cloud at my table, but rather a reminder that Spain can indeed pull through.

See some of my past examples of frugal traditional cuisine in Murcia:

Guiso de Trigo – Wheat Berry Stew

Olla Gitana – Gypsy Stew

Michirones – Fava Bean Stew (as with the migas in the photo at the top of the post, the amount of meat added to the beans can be adapted to one’s budget.)

Morcilla de Verano – Eggplant Caviar

And stay tuned for my next post about a thrifty yet rich local dessert.

*For an excellent, in-depth analysis of contemporary Spanish history, I highly recommend Ghosts of Spain by British journalist Giles Tremlett.

I would love to hear your reflections and observations.