Saturday, February 17, 2024


The Spanish have a name for it, la comida de cuchara, “spoon food,” that genre of comfort food that’s soupy, stewy, saucy, slow-cooked deliciousness. It’s heart-warming food that also warms up the kitchen. These include potajes and cocidos, pots of legumes plus veggies plus meat, but also estofados and guisos, two words for stews, these usually without legumes.

While slow-cooked stews are perfect for chill February days, hints of spring (almond trees in bloom, daffodils poking up through damp soil) suggest a switch to new-season vegetables—artichokes and peas go into this beef stew. 

This stew is different from the old-fashioned one my mother made. The gravy is thickened with ground almonds instead of flour. The almond sauce, sometimes known as pepitoria or ajopollo, is equally good with meatballs, with vegetarian dishes such as potatoes, with chicken and fish. 

A heart-warming beef stew for February. Artichokes and peas give a hint of spring.

Serve red wine with this stew.

Spoon food! With bread, of course. 

I used cabezal de lomo, a cut of beef from the top of the loin. Chuck is the best equivalent. Also good are brisket, beef cheeks or shanks. They have enough collagen and fat to keep the braised meat juicy. Lean beef cooks up dry. Pork or lamb stew meat can be cooked using the same recipe. For a vegetarian version, use mushrooms instead of beef, vegetable stock, and add quartered hard-boiled eggs to the finished stew.

Beef Stew with Artichokes
Guiso de Ternera con Alcachofas

If using whole spices, crush them in a mortar then add them to the bread and almonds in the blender. Add ground spices directly to the blender.

Serves 4.

1 ½ pounds stewing beef
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves peeled garlic
1/3 cup blanched and skinned almonds
1 slice bread, crusts removed
½ cup white wine
Pinch of saffron threads
½ teaspoon coarse salt
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
1 clove
1 red onion, julienned
2 ½ cup meat or chicken stock
1 bay leaf
2-inch cinnamon stick
2 large artichokes (1 ¼ pounds) 
3 carrots, cut in 1-inch pieces
Lemon juice
1 cup shelled peas, fresh or frozen

Cut the beef into spoon-size (1-inch) chunks. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Let the meat come to room temperature.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a stew pan or deep skillet. Add the garlics. When they begin to sizzle add the almonds and slice of bread. Fry them, turning, until they are golden. Skim them out and place in a blender. Add a sprig of parsley and the wine. Let these ingredients soak until the bread softens.

Add remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the stew pan. On medium heat sauté the onions until they begin to brown, 8 minutes. Turn up the heat and add the cubes of beef. Let the meat brown on one side. Turn it and continue browning. Add 2 cups of the stock, the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Simmer, covered, 30 minutes.  

While beef is cooking, place the saffron in a mortar with the coarse salt, peppercorns and clove. Crush the spices and add them to the blender with the fried bread. Blend to make a smooth paste. Set it aside.

Scoop out choke.
Add the carrots to the pan with the meat. Strip the artichokes of outer leaves, cut off and discard the top 2/3 of the leaves, leaving the bottoms only. Cut the bottoms into quarters. Use a melon ball cutter to scoop out the fuzzy chokes. Drop the artichoke pieces into water with lemon juice.
Simmer until beef is tender.

After the beef has simmered 30 minutes, add the carrots and artichokes to the pan. Stir in the paste of almonds, garlic, and fried bread. Add remaining ½ cup of stock. Cook, uncovered, until the alcohol cooks off, 2 minutes. Taste for salt and add more if needed. Cover the pan and simmer until beef is very tender, 30 to 60 minutes more. Add the peas 2 minutes before removing the pan from the heat. Discard the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Let the stew settle 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with chopped parsley.

More stews:

Saturday, February 10, 2024


Chef Charo Carmona

Having become ubiquitous, the party dip for every occasion, hummus perhaps is ready for its remake. I tasted a version this week that I’m trying out in my kitchen.

It was not called hummus, but ajo pimentón, “garlic-paprika”. It was a thick spread—what is called paté in Spanish—of chickpeas, garlic, pimentón and a good dose of cumin. The spread was served with crisp toasts as an appetizer before a stunning meal at Arte de Cozina, a restaurant in Antequera (Málaga), where Chef Charo Carmona is famed for her interpretation of local, traditional dishes.

 Charo’s mission statement: Recuperar sabores desplazados, investigar sobre elaboraciones ancestrales y conocer la mejor manera de aprovechar los productos de la zona son nuestras máximas.  (To retrieve forgotten flavors, to seek out ancestral recipes and to discover the best way to take advantage of the products of our region.)

 Charo generously shares recipes for the dishes served at Arte, nicely printed on index cards. But I forgot to ask her for the ajo pimentón, so I am winging it in the kitchen.

Ajo Pimentón somewhat resembles Ajo Colorao, a dish of potatoes mashed with bacalao and lots of pimentón. But it’s most like Middle Eastern hummus, without the tahini and with pimentón that turns it a ruddy red. Serve it accompanied with toasts, regañás (crispy crackers), or pita crisps for spreading or dipping.

This dip, called Ajo Pimentón, is a little like hummus, made with chickpeas plus lots of pimentón. 

Serve with toasts or crisps for spreading or dipping.

Garlic-Pimentón Spread
Ajo Pimentón

Use both sweet and hot pimentón.
1 ½ cups cooked chickpeas
2 teaspoons pimentón de la Vera (smoked paprika)
½ teaspoon pimentón picante de la Vera (smoked hot paprika)
2 cloves garlic
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Chickpea cooking liquid or water, to thin the spread
Sesame seeds
Toasts or crackers  to accompany

Combine the chickpeas, two kinds of pimenton, garlic, cumin, oil, salt and lemon juice in a blender. Add enough liquid, about ¼ cup, to turn the mixture into a thick cream. 

To serve, place in a bowl and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve with toasts or crackers.

Ajo pimentón is a smooth chickpea spread with pimentón.

Three dishes from Arte de Cozina. Clockwise from top left,  Chestnut Stew, Kid-Goat in Pastoril Sauce, and Olla Podrida, a soup/stew with chickpeas, chicken, pork, beef, pork belly, tongue, trotter, ear, tail, plus rabbit, partridge, kid, blood sausage, chorizo, turnip, cabbage, garlic, and saffron. Sprinkled with parsley. Intense flavors. 

The restaurant: Arte de Cozina.

Recipes from Arte de Cozina Season for "Spoon Foods."

Accompaniments to the dip:

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Saffron: Fool’s Gold?


Saffron threads.

Is this real saffron? Maybe not, as it was very cheap. I bought it because I trusted the labeling with the store’s trademark. It stated, “Ingredients: saffron. May contain traces of cereal with gluten, frutos cáscara (nuts?), mustard and sesame.” Was dye among the traces? 

The threads of saffron appear uniformly crimson, whereas my La Mancha saffron with denominación de origen shows variations in color. The cheap saffron has a very slight aroma, whereas “real” saffron is quite pungent—a warm scent of honey, hay and floral perfume that I think of as exotic. When I crushed the threads and added hot water, the infusion turned immediately bright yellow-orange. My authentic Spanish saffron takes longer to infuse. 

Saffron (azafrán) is expensive because it’s extraordinarily labor intensive to produce. It takes the tiny stigmas of 75,000 crocus sativus to make a pound of the spice. The mauve-colored crocuses must be hand-picked and the delicate stigmas plucked out by hand. Most saffron sold in Spain and globally comes from Iran, although it is not usually so-labeled. Iranian saffron is good quality and cheaper than Spanish saffron.

So much for my doubts. But, does it really matter? Saffron has long been an ingredient in special foods, those served on fiesta days, for weddings and baptisms. But, for ordinary day-to-day cooking, Spanish home cooks may use artificial yellow coloring.

La comida amarilla, the “yellow meal,” is beloved in Andalusia. Rice dishes such as paella, of course, but many other dishes as well. Yellow spice with green vegetables, with potatoes and noodles, in fish dishes, in stews with almond sauce. 

White fish, green peas and golden saffron sauce.

Serve white rice with the saffron sauce. Or, cook potatoes right in the sauce.

This dish of delicate hake in saffron sauce is quite elegant. It’s a refined version of pescado en amarillo, fish in yellow sauce, a Cádiz specialty. It can be made with any fish available—cazón (dogfish, a kind of shark), corvina, skate, bacalao. The Cádiz version usually has potatoes cooked in the sauce. If you want to prepare it that way, use double the quantity of liquid and cook the potatoes until tender before adding the fish.  

Everything—potatoes and fish—submerged in the yellow sauce will turn yellow. If you want the fish to stay white, cook it on top of the sauce and lift it out carefully. 

Hake in Saffron Sauce
Merluza al Azafrán

If possible, buy a whole hake and use the head, bones and trimmings to make a flavorful fish stock. Add shrimp heads and shells, if available, for added color and flavor to the stock. If you've got a cooked carrot from the stock, mash a piece of it and add to the saffron sauce.

Crush saffron threads, infuse them in hot water.

Serves 4.

4 (4-ounce) fillets of hake
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
¼ cup hot water
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
2 cloves chopped garlic
2 slices cooked carrot, mashed (optional)
¼ cup white wine
1 tablespoon flour
1 ¼ cups fish stock
1 cup shelled peas
Chopped parsley to garnish

Sprinkle the fish lightly with salt and let it come to room temperature.

Crush the saffron and add the hot water to it. Let the saffron infuse 5 minutes.

Heat the oil in a cazuela or skillet and sauté the chopped onion on medium heat. Do not let it brown. Add the garlic and continue sautéeing, 5 minutes. Add the carrot, if using. Add the wine and cook off the alcohol. Stir in the flour. Whisk in the fish stock. Stir until the sauce thickens slightly. Add salt to taste. Cook the sauce 10 minutes, adding the peas during the last 3 minutes. Sauce can be prepared up to this point in advance of cooking the fish.

When ready to cook the fish, heat the sauce. Place the fillets in the sauce skin side up. Cover the pan and cook on moderate heat 4 minutes, or until fish flakes easily. 

Spoon some of the sauce and peas onto serving plates. Lift the fish out of the pan with a spatula and serve a fillet on each plate. Garnish with parsley.

More recipes with saffron: