Saturday, April 27, 2013


A field of dwarf irises in bloom.

The campo—countryside—is abloom. After spring rains, wildflowers spring up everywhere. On an embankment near my house, I pick 10 or more different wildflowers. In a nearby field, drawf irises cover the ground in a mauve carpet.

Pack up some lunch and let’s go on a picnic! A merienda campestre—“lunch in the country”—is a favorite diversion on fiesta days, such as May Day, coming up next week; the fiestas of San Isidro, mid-May in Madrid, and San Juan, the midsummer’s day holiday in June.

Tortilla de patatas, potato-egg tortilla, is probably the most favorite picnic food of all. In Madrid, a variation on the classic, tortilla de escabeche, with potatoes and escabeche tuna, is typical for a verbena or outing in the park. In Galicia (northwestern Spain), empanada, a thick-crusted pie filled with pork loin or sardines,  is essential for country outings.
Coques--flat breads--with two different toppings. (Photo by Sofie Koevoets)

In Catalonia, it is the coca, a flat bread with topping, that is considered picnic fare. The coca (plural is coques in Catalan or cocas in Spanish) is sort of a cross between pizza and focaccia. Made from bread dough, the coca is usually served room temperature, rather than hot from the oven. Barcelona bake shops sell it in huge slabs or in tiny, individual coques. Unlike pizza, coca rarely has cheese (although, I quite like slices of fresh goat cheese as a final embellishment). The toppings can be a simple as a few strips of red pepper and olives or as replete as the coca de recapte, provisioned with everything in the cupboard. Canned tuna or sardines in olive oil are often added to vegetable toppings.

Below I’ve given recipes for two favorite toppings, escalivada, of roasted eggplant and peppers, and menestra, a mélange of mushrooms and artichokes. Also good are pisto, also known as samfaina, stewed vegetables much like ratatouille (pisto recipe), and spinach or chard with raisins and pine nuts (recipe ).

Catalan Flatbread with Two Toppings

Makes 14 (5-inch) mini-cocas or 2 (14-inch) cocas

For the coques:
1 recipe Basic Bread Dough, risen once
Olive oil to brush the coques
Escalivada (roasted eggplant and peppers)
7 anchovy fillets from a can
7 olives, preferably Arbequina
Menestra (mushroom and artichoke mélange)

Basic Dough for Coques

This basic bread dough recipe can be used for coques, for empanadas, for pizza or for making bread rolls. After rising once, the dough is kneaded again with additional olive oil.

2 ½  teaspoons active dry yeast (1 envelope)
½ teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup + ¾ cup very warm water (100º-110ºF)
4 cups flour plus additional for dusting baking sheets
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons olive oil plus additional for the bowl and dough

Place the yeast and sugar in a small bowl and add 1/3 cup warm water. Stir to dissolve. Allow it to stand 10 minutes until bubbly.

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the yeast mixture, remaining ¾ cup of warm water and 2 tablespoons of the oil. Stir to combine the ingredients into a ball. Turn out on a board and knead the dough until smooth and glossy, 3 minutes. Dough will gradually become less sticky with kneading.

Clean out the mixing bowl and oil it lightly. Gather the dough into a ball and turn it in the bowl to coat on all sides with oil. Cover with a dampened cloth and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk, one to two hours.

Before rising--
after--dough doubles in bulk.

To assemble the coques

Preheat oven to 425ºF.

Punch down the dough and turn it out onto the board. Press the dough out flat and sprinkle it with 1 tablespoon of oil. Fold the dough over several times, then knead until the oil is incorporated. Knead in 1 tablespoon more of oil in the same manner.

Divide the dough in half. Roll, pat and stretch each ball of dough into a rectangle or oval, approximately 14 inches X 8 ½ inches. Place each sheet of dough on a baking sheet. Brush the dough with olive oil and prick it all over with a fork.

Spread one coca with the roasted eggplant, peppers, onions and garlic. Lay strips of anchovy fillet across the eggplant and peppers. Scatter olives on top and sprinkle with oregano. Drizzle with additional olive oil.

Spread remaining coca dough with wild mushroom and artichoke mélange. Drizzle with olive oil.

Bake the cocques until edges are lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot or room temperature.

Menestra con Setas y Alcachofas
Mushroom and Artichoke Mélange

Coca with topping of menestra--mushrooms and artichokes.

Menestra can be made with all manner of seasonal vegetables. For this version, use wild mushrooms, if available, or any cultivated mushroom. I used fresh artichokes, quartered, and cooked in olive oil. You could substitute a jar of oil-packed artichoke hearts.

Use half of the mushroom and artichoke mélange as a topping for 1 coca.

12 ounces mushrooms
4 tablespoons olive oil
½ onion, sliced crosswise
2 cloves garlic, sliced crosswise
1 ounce chopped serrano ham
Salt and pepper
Pinch of thyme
1 (15-ounce) jar artichoke hearts, drained (about 1 cup)

Clean the mushrooms carefully. Slice them crosswise.

Heat the oil in a skillet and sauté the onion and garlic on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and ham and continue sautéing on high heat until mushrooms release liquid and begin to brown. Add the salt, pepper, thyme and artichokes. Cook gently until most of the liquid has cooked away.

Roasted Aubergines and Peppers

Coca with escalivada--roasted eggplant, peppers and onions.

You can roast the eggplant and peppers under the broiler or on a grill. Use half the recipe as a topping for 1 coca.

1 small eggplant, about 10 ounces
1 red bell pepper, 8 ounces
1 medium onion
1 small head garlic
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat broiler.

Arrange the eggplant, pepper and onion in a shallow oven pan. Pierce the eggplant and pepper with a sharp knife in 3 or 4 places (to prevent steam from building up inside the skin). Slice the top off the head of garlic and add to the pan. Place the pan under the broiler. Grill until eggplant and pepper are charred on one side, about 10 minutes. Use tongs to turn the vegetables. Return and grill until charred on all sides. Remove them to a bowl.

Cover the vegetables and let them set until cool enough to handle. Peel the eggplant. Pull the flesh into strips and place in a bowl. Peel and cut pepper in strips and add to the eggplant. Peel onion and cut in lengthwise slivers. Squeeze the softened cloves of garlic from the skins. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper, vinegar and olive oil.

Wildflowers galore.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


Cultivated green asparagus.

In Spain, asparagus comes in three sorts, the wild, the cultivated and the processed.

Wild asparagus, known as esparragos trigueros, “wheat-field” asparagus, because it often grows on the verges of fields, sends up spindly shoots after early spring rains. It’s part of traditional country cooking in Andalusia (southern Spain) and La Mancha (central Spain). Kids still go out hunting wild asparagus after the rainy season.

The spears of wild asparagus are somewhat bitter and fibrous. Usually they are cooked in boiling water first, then sauteed in olive oil and incorporated in a tortilla.

Cultivated asparagus, both green and white, is grown in Andalusia (in particular, Granada province, where the green-purple asparagus from Huétor-Tajar has PGI—Protected Geographic Indication), Navarra (white asparagus with PGI), Aranjuez (near Madrid), and Extremadura.

Some years ago, on assignment for Spain Gourmetour magazine, I visited an asparagus plantation in Extremadura. Here is my report.

Spring comes very early to the Valle de Tiétar, a region west of Madrid in Extremadura. By mid-February, the cherry trees are already in flower and the storks are busy tidying up their nests atop roofs and towers. After several days of rain, the Tiétar River, lined with trees, fairly gushes along its banks. The backdrop of the Sierra de Gredos is still frosted with snow.

On the asparagus farm, bordered by the river, puddles remain in troughs between mounds of earth. But the soil, covered with plastic to trap the sun's heat, is warm to the touch. It takes a sharp eye to spot the slight crack in the soil's surface, indicating a stem pushing its way up through the mounded soil. If missed today, by tomorrow it will have poked through to the light, and its white tip turned to violet, decreasing its market value by nearly half.

The freshly-picked asparagus is quickly put through a cold-water shower. Chilling keeps the asparagus from becoming fibrous. It’s ready for shipping fresh—a luxury product in northern-European markets—or for canning.

Canned white asparagus.
White asparagus in cans or jars is highly prized in Spain. Perhaps it is the silky, non-fibrous texture that makes canned asparagus so esteemed. (There is a Spanish saying, disparaging of woody asparagus: Quien nísperos come, esparragos chupa, bebe cerveza y besa a una vieja, ni come, ni chupa, ni bebe, ni besa. He who eats loquats, sucks asparagus, drinks beer and kisses an old woman, neither eats, nor sucks, nor drinks, nor kisses.) And another: Esparragos—los de abril para mi, los de mayo para el amo, y los de junio para ninguno. April’s asparagus (the best), for me; asparagus in May (less good), for the master, and that of June, for no one.

Asparagus in the Kitchen
Long ago, following proper French technique, I used to peel asparagus. It was a time-consuming, but oddly rewarding task. I also used to “steam” it upright in a narrow pan, so the tips were never submerged. I neither peel nor steam anymore.

I cook asparagus in a wide, flat skillet, just deep enough to hold the asparagus in a single layer. How long to cook? To keep the spears a little crisp, 5 minutes in boiling water is long enough. A stalk should just barely bend across a fork. Another way is to put the asparagus into boiling water, bring to a rolling boil again then cover and turn off the heat and leave for 30 minutes. I serve asparagus, room temperature, with extra virgin olive oil and lemon. Maybe a dollop of mayonnaise for the kids.

If I’m making a revuelto, chopped asparagus scrambled with eggs and green garlic shoots, I don’t cook the asparagus in water at all. I sauté it in olive oil until crisp-tender.

Canned asparagus is a classic garnish for Spanish mixed salad (recipe). It’s also served with dos salsas—homemade mayonnaise and a vinaigrette with chopped egg, onion, red and green pepper. Asparagus is especially good with salty foods such as ham, smoked salmon, cheese. It's a lovely foil for rich sauces. It's a natural with seafood such as sole, hake, salmon, shrimp.

Asparagus Andalusian style, with eggs.

Esparragos a la Andaluza
Asparagus, Andalusian Style

This is such a classic preparation for wild asparagus that when other vegetables are cooked in the same manner, they are called “esparragado,” as in, espinacas esparragadas, or “asparagussed” spinach. The asparagus is chopped and blanched, then cooked in a sauce seasoned with garlic and pimentón and thickened with bread. Other foraged greens, such as tagarninas, the stems of wild thistles, are prepared in a similar manner. (More about tagarninas here.) This recipe is for cultivated green asparagus. If desired, use part ordinary sweet pimentón and part smoked pimentón.

Serves 4.

1 ½ pounds green asparagus
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 slice bread, crusts removed
1 teaspoon pimentón (paprika)
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon wine vinegar
1 cup water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Chopped serrano ham (optional)
1 egg per person

Snap off and discard butt ends of asparagus. Cut the spears crosswise into 1 ½-inch pieces. Blanch in boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water.

Heat the oil in a cazuela or skillet. Fry the garlic and bread until golden on both sides. Remove. In a blender or with a mortar and pestle grind the garlic, bread, pimentón, cumin and vinegar to a paste, adding ½ cup water.

Add the blanched asparagus to the oil in the cazuela and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic paste and the remaining ½ cup of water. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the asparagus is desired degree of tender, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle chopped ham, if using, over the asparagus.

Break one egg per person into the asparagus. Cover the cazuela or skillet and cook on medium heat until the whites are set and yolks still runny, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

White asparagus, Basque style, with shellfish.
Esparragos Blancos a la Vasca
White Asparagus in Basque Style

Canned white asparagus is calibrated—extra fat, very thick, thick and medium. If you’re using the extra thick spears, you’ll need only about three spears per person, or two cans of about 390 grams (14 ounces) each.

Serves 4 as a starter.

    12 to 16 spears of canned white asparagus, drained
    ½ pound clams (such as Manila)
    5 tablespoons olive oil
    3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
    1 tablespoon flour
    1/3 cup white wine
    4 ounces peeled shrimp
    2 tablespoons cooked peas
    Salt to taste
    2 tablespoons chopped parsley
    1 hard-cooked egg, sliced

Cut the asparagus spears into thirds and reserve. Add 1 cup of water to the clams in a small pan. Cover and steam them open.

In an earthenware cazuela heat the oil and add the chopped garlic. Fry for a minute, then add the pieces of asparagus. Turn them in the oil for a few minutes, then sprinkle them with the flour. Add the wine and the strained liquid from the clams. Tilt the cazuela back and forth to combine or stir gently with a wooden spoon. Cook until sauce is thickened.

Add the peeled shrimp and peas and salt to taste and cook until shrimp is pink, about 5 minutes, adding additional water if sauce seems too thick. Immediately before serving from the same cazuela, add the clams and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Garnish with sliced egg.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


Cabbage--spring clearance.

Spring clearance! All stock must go. That was the gist of the promotion at the grocery store recently, where heaps of cabbages were going at bargain-basement prices. That’s a fine way to close out on winter.

Cabbage occupies an important place in Spanish cooking, as an ingredient, along with chicken, beef, ham bone, sausages, chickpeas, carrots and potatoes, in cocido, a meal-in-a-pot. It also goes into sturdy potajes, usually with beans and sausages. In Mallorca, cabbage is the principal vegetable in sopa seca, “dry soup,” that contains enough bread to soak up all the soup. Cabbage also is braised with partridge in an old-fashioned rural dish. In Catalonia, cabbage is served, hot or cold, with romesco—a terrific dressing for any kind of vegetable.

How had the whole winter gone by without my ever making my favorite stuffed cabbage? The perfect way to welcome spring and use my cut-rate cabbage.

While defrosting the freezer, in my own spring clearance, I found the tag-end of last year’s frozen tomatoes and a pot of ham stock, made from the bones of the Christmas ibérico ham. Both went into the stuffed cabbage dish.

Cabbage leaves are layered with meat stuffing.

My favorite way to prepare stuffed cabbage is to remove all the leaves from the cabbage, spread them with stuffing, then reconstruct the head of cabbage by layering the leaves and wrapping them into a ball.

Col Rellena
Stuffed Cabbage

While ground pork is usual for this stuffing, it could be made with lamb, beef or chicken instead. The same mixture can be used for stuffed peppers, stuffed zucchini or stuffed onions.

Serves 4 to 6.

For the meat stuffing
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 eggs, beaten
1 pound ground pork
1 ounce chopped serrano ham or pancetta
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt (½ to 1 teaspoon)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground cloves
¼ teaspoon pimentón (paprika) sweet or hot
2 tablespoons white wine

Combine the bread crumbs and eggs in a bowl. Add the ground meat, chopped ham, 2 cloves of chopped garlic, parsley, salt, pepper, nutmeg, cloves, pimentón and wine. Mix the meat thoroughly.

After boiling, leaves are loosened.
For the cabbage
1 medium cabbage
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tomatoes, peeled and quartered (or canned)
1 bay leaf
½ cup white wine
4 cups stock or water
salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. To remove the leaves from the cabbage, first discard any loose leaves from the cabbage and slice off the stem. Use a knife to cut deeply all around the core. Place the whole cabbage, stem side down, in the boiling water for 5 minutes. Very carefully turn the cabbage, stem side up. Cook another 3 minutes.

Remove the cabbage to a colander and allow to drain until cool enough to handle. Carefully loosen each leaf and release it from the head. Drain the leaves in a colander.

Layer cabbage leaves with meat stuffing.
 Spread a clean, dampened kitchen towel or square of muslin on a work surface. Use kitchen scissors to cut out hard stem ends of cabbage leaves. Arrange a layer of darker colored outer leaves on the towel. Spread each leaf with a spoonful of the meat stuffing. Add another layer of leaves, spreading them with meat. Continue layering the cabbage leaves and meat, keeping the pile as circular as possible.

When all the leaves and stuffing are used, gather up the four corners of the towel and twist to make a compact ball. Tie the towel tightly with kitchen twine.

In a pot large enough to hold the wrapped cabbage, heat the oil. Sauté the carrots, onion and garlic until softened, 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, wine, stock, salt and pepper. Carefully lower the cabbage into the stock.

Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, covered, 40 minutes. Very carefully turn the wrapped cabbage over. Cook 30 minutes more.

After cooking, unwrap cabbage.
Lift the cabbage out of the pot into a colander. Untie the towel and unwrap the cabbage. Invert it onto a serving bowl.

Slice the cabbage into wedges and serve with the carrots and liquid from the pot. Or, if desired, thicken the liquid with some flour to make a gravy.

Cut whole cabbage into wedges and serve with the vegetables from the pot.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Fava beans from the garden.

It’s coming up to 1:30 and I’m feeling hungry. The rain has finally let up, so I grab my basket, pull on some mud boots and head to the garden. The chard, broccoli and kale have all been picked in the past couple days (vegetable soup and a stir-fry). The peas aren’t ready. But, here are some habas—baby fava beans.

Nobody else is home this weekend and a good thing, because there are just enough favas for my lunch.

I heat olive oil in a small cazuela while I shell the beans. These freshly-picked ones don’t need to have the skins removed. Truth be told, home cooks in Spain never remove fava skins. This, in my opinion, is an unnecessary refinement, not worth the bother. In fact, when small and recently gathered, even the pods are edible.

Into the cazuela go a clove of garlic, sliced crosswise, and some chopped serrano ham (pancetta would be a good substitute for the ham).

I add the beans to the cazuela and stir them around, lower the heat a bit. Earthenware cazuelas hold a steady, even heat. The beans take only about 5 minutes to cook. While they’re cooking, I fry an egg in olive oil, Spanish style, estrellado, scooping hot oil over the top of the egg, and slide it into the cazuela with the beans. Toast with olive oil is all I need to complete my lunch.

Favas with serrano ham and fried egg.

The dish, simply known as habas con jamón, favas with ham, is a specialty of Granada. It can be finished off with a sprinkle of chopped fennel fronds (wild fennel is sending up new shoots in this season), mint or parsley. 

Two pounds of favas in their shells will yield 1 ¾ to 2 cups of shelled beans. Here are two more recipes for fava beans in this blog post . And for a wider survey (beyond Spanish borders) of how to prepare fava beans, check out this article by Russ Parsons in the Los Angeles Times.