Not everyone can be a roscón winner. I think that’s mini-Balthazar.
Not everyone can be a roscón winner. I think that’s mini-Balthazar.
Morcilla: What Your Study-Abroad Teacher Warned You About. The not-so-secret ingredient that gives this Spanish sausage its characteristic blackish hue and earthy flavor is pig’s blood, which somehow manages to give many foreigners the heebie-jeebies. However, having already fallen in spicy vampiric love with Thailand’s nam tok – spicy soup deepened in flavor by the addition of fresh sangre – I remain free of such tikismiquis qualms; morcilla is one of my absolute top Spanish dishes.
There are two common variations, the kind made with onions and the Burgos variety made with rice. Burgos’ is best and has the rep to back it up. Lateral‘s version, pictured above, is total offal magnificence.
These gorgeous green puppies are pimientos de Padrón, and I think there’s some kind of blogging law about including the following gallego couplet in their description:
Coma os pementos de Padrón,
uns pican e outros non
The wiki claims 1 in 10 are unexpectedly hot enough to rattle your bones, but personal experience slates it at more like 1 in 20. Either way, the majority of the sautéed (or sometimes grilled) peppers taste of charred vegetable sweetness, accented perfectly by unmistakable Spanish EVOO and crunchy crystals of salt; it’s only when you’ve finally given up on seeking out any lurking Scoville beasties that they come out to play.
Funnily enough, I encountered these the last time I was back in the states, there marketed as Exotic Shishito Peppers From Japan. Munching them with mom and bro was magnificent in Greensburg back in June; the most recent Iberian iteration was the pictured plateful from Bar El Jamón in Lavapiés.
Couchsurfer Eddie convinces me to order up a ración of oreja along with the beloved peppers, and I savor hot, gooey, greasy gelatin vaguely reminiscent of animal product for the first and last time.
It’s been on the list for ages, and my betentacled destiny beckons at last. It’s time to cook my first Spanish octopus.
It would be a stretch to call my first octo-stint wholly “successful” – grilling the partitioned beast over fiery coals on the Puerto Peñasco beach was a cheerful affair, but resulted in what would inevitably be remembered as rubber. Since then, I’ve done my reading; proper octopus (known by some as proptopus) (okay, this stops now) must be exposed to heat for either an extremely short amount of time, yielding a pleasantly springy final specimen, or stewed for an extended period, resulting in supremely tender cephalo-goodness.
I hunted down my frozen eight-legged friend at El Corte Inglés; I could swear they normally have them at Mercadona as well, but perhaps there was a run on them this weekend – I can’t be the only one who craves it. It took a warm water bath until totally defrosted, which took perhaps 10 minutes.
One of the neatest things about octopus is the amount of liquid they hold within their bodies; upon braising, this releases into the pot, conveniently cooking the flesh in its very own juices. It simmers this way for at least an hour, filling the air with aromas of tentacled tempation.
After a slew of stewing and an equally lengthy period of cooling rest, the octopus is ready for the knife. There’s nothing rubber-esque about it whatsoever at this point, and it smells divine. The head gets cut up completely as well; the only inedible bit is the small hard circle where the mouth bone has been removed – amazing.
My octopus was treated to a pairing with garlic, spinach, garbanzos, and a pair of thai bird chiles. The broth is purely what was released during braising, which ends up being quite strong, seafood-y and salty. The subtle heat imparted by the chiles rounds out this dish, prolonging the magic of the octo’s complex and dominating flavor.
It’s also ridiculously good for you; octopi are almost purely protein, plus a great source of iron and omega-3 fatty acids. Add spinach, and you have a seriously nutritious soup.
Octopus and Garbanzo Soup with Spinach, Garlic, and Chiles
Adapted from epicurious
takes: 2 1/2 hours, mostly unattended
makes: at least 4 hearty servings
1 cup cooked garbanzos
extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a knife
Zest of 1 lemon
1 small octopus, defrosted and rinsed
1/2 package frozen spinach, defrosted
1-2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
2 dried thai bird chilies
1. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a pot (preferably heavy-bottomed, but you know, make do with what you got). Stir in 3 of the garlic cloves, the lemon zest, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic begins to soften.
2. Add the octopus, stir to coat it with the oil, and then weight it down with a plate or lid to ensure it does not begin to float once it starts releasing its water. Cover the pot and adjust the heat to a gentle simmer. The octopus will start slowly releasing its water, creating its own braising liquid.
3. Cook for about 30 minutes and check to see how much braising liquid is in the pot. If it is about 1 cup or less (unlikely if you are using an uncooked whole octopus), add 1/2 cup of water. Check the tenderness and continue to cook for 30 to 50 minutes longer, or until almost completely tender. The octopus will dramatically decrease in volume.
4. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the octopus to cool in the braising liquid for 1 hour.
5. Once cooled, transfer the octopus to a large cutting board and strain the braising liquid through a fine-mesh strainer. Give the pot used to cook the octopus a quick wash and return it to the stove.
6. Starting at the thickest point of the tentacle, slice into 1/4-inch-thick-pieces, increasing the thickness of the pieces as the tentacle becomes narrower. Halve the head, then cut it into 1/4-inch strips. Set aside.
7. To prepare the soup, heat a few tablespoons olive oil in the cleaned pot over medium heat. Add the remaining 3 garlic cloves, the celery, and the chiles. Stir in the beans and the octopus, plus however much reserved braising liquid you desire. Heat until hot and then taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed (probably not). Stir in the spinach and simmer for a few minutes more.
8. Serve immediately. Holy moley.
After the exquisite lunchfeast in Toledo, I feel inspired to dabble in the realm of Spanish cuisine. My reasons for not doing so before are twofold:
1. In Thailand, it is a bit on the foolish side for a foreigner to cook any variety of Thai food at home – it’s quicker, cheaper, and likely more delicious to buy it from the street. This isn’t the case in Spain, and I’ve had to adjust my thinking.
2. I’ve never been impressed by tortilla española.
Eating with Alvaro is a beautiful reminder that there are many facets to every branch of cuisine, and that there is a whole host of very good reasons why Spanish food is currently so in vogue. Family-style dining is popular and fairly inexpensive if you manage it right, and the range of flavors is decent, especially when it comes to regional specialties.
Our unanimous favorite from Toledo is asadillo manchego, a cold tomato-based dish with hard-boiled eggs, salty fish, and piquillo peppers. It’s the natural sweetness of the peppers that catches the tongue off-guard; it pairs lovingly with the fruity overtones of olive oil.
It’s certainly not the most high-profile Spanish dish, which is perhaps what causes such difficulty in encountering a proper recipe online (the one I’ve linked insists on the use of something called a “Thermomix Varoma”…). We first find the dish lacking in acidity; a few squeezes of an unconventional lime help brighten the mix, but it’s still lacking in magic. We munch it regardless. Interestingly, after the few remaining bites have sat in their own juices for about thirty minutes, the flavors seem to have developed – most notably that of the dash of cumin. I’ll be trying this one again, next time preparing it in advance to see what happens.
I remember loving a rice dish my Valencian host made me a few years back that included the combination of garbanzo beans and raisins, which I never would have thought to put together. The internet informs me that arroz con pasas y garbanzos is well-known as a Valencian specialty. My version includes chicken, because everyone likes extra protein, and lacks colorante alimentario, because no thank you.