Saturday, April 20, 2019


Grelos are leafy greens similar to broccoli raab. They are the emblematic vegetable of Galicia in northwest Spain. I bought this bunch at a supermarket near my home in southern Spain

Finding a big bundle of leafy greens—grelos—at a local supermarket transported me back to Galicia where I first encountered grelos years ago. Here are some excerpts from my trip.

Galicia, which occupies the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula, a chunk of Spain set above Portugal, is like another country altogether. Green pastures, Atlantic mists and grey stone remind you more of Brittany or Wales, perhaps. Certainly not of Mediterranean Spain, which is where I live.
   We drove through rolling countryside where spumes of mist floated over the green of vineyards, in and out of chestnut forests, through small villages. Interior Galicia is intensely rural. Small garden plots are tended by women, who seemed everywhere to be digging in the dirt—hoeing, sowing, weeding, plowing behind a team of oxen.
    Around lunch time we stopped at a village shop that doubled as a bar and restaurant, and bought cheese, ham, tomato, and the local wine, intending to put together a picnic. But the shop had no bread. The shopkeeper, a woman, who also tended the bar and two small children, directed us through a village backstreet, past hórreos, to the panadería or bread bakery.
    We bought a simple wheaten loaf; admired a roscón, a sponge cake baked in a ring mold. The village baker, having sold most of the morning’s loaves and banked the oven’s fires, was disposed to chat with a couple of foreigners. Turns out he was also the postman, so could tell us local lore.
    We pointed across the road. What are those plants growing in that garden? We had seen them in fields everywhere—stalks, about knee-high, with big leaves. He said it was grelos, a member of the turnip family. The stems and leaves are cooked with pork and potatoes. The root of the plant, a knobby turnip, goes for animal fodder.

My bunch of grelos inspired me to try some Galician recipes. The two most typical are caldo gallego, a soup with pork, potatoes, white beans and grelos, and lacón con grelos, greens cooked with cured pork shoulder, plus the essential potatoes.

Galician soup, caldo gallego, has chunks of cured pork, chorizo, potatoes, white beans and grelos.

An adaptation of lacón con grelos--roast pork hock with grelos and potatoes. Serve this meal with a red wine from Ribeira Sacra.

I had my grelos, but now I needed the lacón.

Lacón is the Galician term for the front leg of a pig, fresh or cured. Cured lacón is more like American southern country ham than like Spanish serrano ham. It’s salt-cured and air-dried, sometimes smoked. After curing, lacón has to be soaked in water to remove the salt, then fully cooked, either by simmering in water or roasting, before eating.

Once upon a time in a bar in Orense. A van pulled up at the curb and the baker’s boy got out carrying a huge tray, squeezing past us to deliver it to the bar. The tray held a whole lacón (front leg) of roast pork. The barman poured off the juices into a pitcher. Then he sliced the pork, put it on a split bread roll, crossed it with strips of roasted peppers and dribbled some of the juice over. And served us a free tapa. Delicious.
I found packets of cooked and sliced lacón—perfect for sandwiches or adding to soup—I couldn’t find a big joint. Nor a whole bone-in fresh shoulder cut. I finally settled on codillo, pork hock or knuckle, in salmuera, brine.

The traditional way of cooking lacón (a bone-in piece of about 4 pounds), once it has soaked 48 hours, is to put it in a big pot, cover with fresh water and cook with sliced onion and bay leaf until completely tender (30 minutes per pound), about 2 hours. You add potatoes and chorizo during the last 30 minutes, then the grelos at the very end (10 minutes).

The same caldo, or broth, can be used to make caldo gallego, soup with white beans, potatoes, chorizo and grelos.

I used one of the pork hocks to make the soup and, following a recipe for lacón asado, roast fresh pork shoulder, in a Galician cookbook, Cociña Galega by Álvaro Cunqueiro, I roasted the second hock and served it with grelos, chorizo and potatoes from the caldo.

Traditionally, the lacón and accompanying potatoes and grelos are served with nothing more complicated than extra virgin olive oil to dress the vegetables. Nevertheless, I served mine with sharp mustard and a tangy salsa verde.

To accompany the food, try a red Mencia wine from Ribeira Sacra, the Galician wine that’s not Albariño.

“Ribeira Sacra” means “the banks of a holy river”--so-called because the River Sil is on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela. A string of Romanesque monasteries, dating from between the eighth and twelfth centuries, occupies spectacular sites along this river bank.
    We caught our first glimpse of the River Sil, which cuts a canyon through the highlands, on the steep descent to the Monastery of San Esteve, which nestles into the forest over the river far below. The river is wide and twists in S-curves through green banks. If the sun is shining, the water is blue. If not, it can appear grey or even black.

Leaving the car, we could hear only the twitter of birds and, somewhere nearby, the rhythmic sound of somebody hoeing in the garden. We imagined a monk tending the herbs and vegetables, but, in fact, the monastery is long in disuse. On our visit we encountered no one at all.
    A Romanesque church, flanked by a tiny graveyard, adjoins the monastery, where we wandered through the cloisters. Gargoyles keep an eye on all that passes through these silent courtyards, while deep naves lead to solitary niches where one can contemplate the beauty of the valley. We visited on a day of sparkling sunshine, but frequently the valley fills with swirling mists that drift up to the monastery’s portals. On such occasions, you might feel transported back to medieval times, when this isolated monastery was a center for the meditative life. (The monastery has since been converted to a Parador Nacional, a beautiful hotel.)
    The steeply terraced land is planted in vineyards right down to the banks of the river. The wines of Ribeira Sacra date from Roman times, but became renowned during the medieval era, when vineyards were tended by monks in the several monasteries. Today they are small family holdings, cultivated on a very local scale.

Roast pork hock (not actual lacón) served with traditional accompaniments of grelos, potatoes and chorizo, with olive oil to drizzle on the vegetables.

Roast Pork with Greens
Lacón Asado con Grelos 

Use soft, cooking chorizo, preferably smoked Galician or Asturian chorizo. Use either ordinary sweet or smoked pimentón (paprika). If grelos or broccoli raab are not available, try turnip greens, kale, chard or collards in their place. 

If you are using fresh pork, brine it before roasting. If you have a (cured) picnic ham or authentic lacón gallego, prepare it for cooking according to package directions. 

Serves 4-6.

Pork hocks after brining.
For the pork:
4 ½  pounds bone-in pork hocks, picnic shoulder or Boston butt
6 cups water
½ cup kosher salt for brining
12 cloves garlic
10 peppercorns
2 cloves
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons oregano
½ teaspoon pimentón (paprika)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon wine vinegar
1 cup white wine
Water or meat stock

Two days before roasting the meat, prepare the brine.

Bring the water to a boil. Add the salt and stir to dissolve it. Remove from heat and add 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed; peppercorns, cloves and bay leaves. Let the brine cool completely.

Place the pork in a non-reactive container and pour the cooled brine with spices and herbs over it. Place a plate on top of the meat to keep it submerged. Cover and refrigerate at least 24 hours or up to 48 hours. Turn the meat once a day.

Drain the pork, discarding the brine.

In a small bowl combine the remaining 6 cloves of crushed garlic, oregano, pimentón, pepper, oil and vinegar. Spread this mixture on all sides of the pork. Place the pork in a roasting pan and allow it to come to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Roast the pork for 30 minutes. Pour over the wine. Roast 60 minutes more. Add additional liquid (wine, water or meat stock) as needed, so there is always some liquid in the pan.

Raise heat to 450ºF. Roast the pork until the skin is browned and crispy, about 15 minutes.

Remove pork from the oven and place on a cutting board. Reserve pan juices. Allow the meat to stand 10 minutes. Remove skin and slice the meat off the bone. Arrange it on a platter with the cooked greens, potatoes and chorizo.

This is the pork hock that cooked with beans to make caldo, soup. Pieces of the pork went back into the soup with the beans, potatoes and grelos.

To accompany the pork:
1 ½ pounds grelos or other greens
4-6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in half
2 chorizos
Extra virgin olive oil, to serve

Cut off and discard thick, fibrous stem ends from the grelos. Discard any yellowing leaves. Fill a basin with cold water and wash the greens very well. Twist and snap the stalks into three or four pieces. Drain the grelos.

Grelos after blanching in boiling water.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the grelos and blanch them 3 minutes. Drain in a colander and refresh in cold running water.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook 10 minutes. Add the grelos and the whole chorizos. Cook until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes longer.

Remove potatoes and greens with a slotted spoon and place on serving platter with the sliced meat. Remove the chorizos to a plate. Use scissors to cut them into smaller pieces. Place the chorizo on the platter. Drizzle oil over the greens, potatoes and meat.

The recipe for Caldo Gallego is here.

About Lacón Gallego.
About Grelos de Galicia IGP.

Parador (hotel) de San Estevo.

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