Soups and Stews


El guiso de trigo es humilde y sencillo, una muestra más de lo mucho que puede lograse disponiendo de poco. (Murcia’s wheat berry stew is humble and simple, yet another example of how much can be achieved with little at hand.)  From Gastronomía Regional Murcia, a newspaper supplement published in the mid-1980s.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia

Like many expats and emigrants, I often rely on foods from my past to nourish connections with people and places far away. This is why, for example, I always have  homemade granola in the cupboard and enough butter and brown sugar to whip up a batch of cookies when a longing for home swoops in. Yet over time, I have also come to crave local foods in Murcia, which I see as a sign of rootedness and contentment in my relatively new home. As the days turn colder and my third winter here begins, I find I am hungry for traditional Murcian stews like the guiso de trigo.

This hearty (and meatless) stew with wheat berries, vegetables and beans is one of Murcia’s staple dishes, whose ingredients reflect the city’s agricultural heritage. For centuries, Murcia has been a center of fruit and vegetable production in Spain, which has resulted in a vegetable-rich cuisine out of necessity.

For me, the guiso de trigo is a perfect example of local culinary thrift, of coaxing maximum nutrition and flavor out of available raw materials. One trick is the sofrito, a building block in many dishes in Murcia as well as in the rest of Spain. By sautéing the onions and tomatoes in olive oil in a separate pan with salt and sweet pimentón – instead of just throwing everything uncooked into the pot with the beans and wheat – you significantly multiply the flavor potential.

A sprinkling of mint, dried or fresh, contributes a cooling contrast to the warming pimentón, which stimulates the senses. Saffron threads, if you have them, are like red lipstick, adding a touch of color and intrigue.

The squash aïoli is a stroke of genius. With four thrifty ingredients – squash (of course), garlic, salt and a ribbon of olive oil – you get a luxurious condiment. Swirling in a spoonful not only adds zing to the stew, but also lends a touch of sophistication, proving that frugal does not have to mean austere.

Even though far more ingredients are available today in Murcia than in the leaner times when the guiso de trigo became a local tradition, the stew remains popular. It can be found on weekday lunch menus in long-established bars and restaurants throughout the city, and commonly appears on grandmothers’ tables. In both settings, it is typically served in wide soup plates with country bread on the side for dipping and soaking up the last traces of broth.

On a cool day like today, when the sun probably won’t quite make its way through the clouds, it is easy to imagine adults and children throughout Murcia hovering over steaming bowls of guiso de trigo. This satisfying stew is not only nourishing and economical, but also familiar and comforting.

I, too, will be having bowl of guiso de trigo today, enjoying the warmth and flavors which root me in Murcia.

Guiso de Trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

Adapted from two principal sources: A recipe in the cookbook Memorias de la cocina murciana, written by Carmen Peréz, and a recipe from the Hotel Rosa Victoria in Murcia as seen on the national TV program España Directo in 2009 (you can watch the video here) .

I’ve doubled the quantity of pumpkin in order to make the aïoli and because I love pumpkin. (In other words, the exact vegetable quantities are a matter of taste.)

As the guiso de trigo is a classic peasant dish, real saffron, an expensive ingredient, is not always included, and that is why I say it is optional. Many locals use a natural yellow food coloring, commonly used in paella, because the result is warming and visually appealing. Yet I find that the pimentón and golden olive oil lend sufficient color if you do not use the saffron. The saffron threads of course add complexity to the dish, and I have included them, toasted and mashed with garlic, according to the recipe in Memorias de la cocina murciana.

The key factor in drawing full flavor from the ingredients is time, and all the little steps do make a difference.

For the stew:

1 ¼ cups (250 g) wheat berries, soaked for 24 hours

3/4 cup (150 g) garbanzos, soaked overnight

3/4 cup (150 g) white beans, soaked overnight

10 cups water

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, diced

2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced or grated (*See note)

Salt to taste

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

A pinch of saffron threads (optional)

1 clove garlic (optional)

1/3 pound (150 g) Italian flat beans, cut into 1-inch pieces measure for cups

1/2 pound pumpkin or other orange-fleshed winter squash like butternut, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

1 medium potato (a waxy or “in-between” variety would work best – see Cook’s Illustrated Potato Primer)

Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus more for serving

For the squash aïoli (ajo calabaza): (Make about 10 minutes before the stew is ready.)

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

A pinch of fine sea salt

Several chunks of cooked pumpkin from the stew

A swirl of olive oil

For the stew:

Place the soaked and drained wheat berries, garbanzos and white beans together in a large soup pot (I used a 6-quart pot) and add water. Bring to the boil and skim off any foam, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 1 hour. The beans and wheat berries should be partially tender at this point.

While the beans and wheat berries are simmering, prepare the sofrito and the saffron, if using. For the sofrito, heat the 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and just beginning to turn golden. Add tomatoes, bring to the boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened, about 25-30 minutes. Add salt to taste toward the end, since the flavor becomes more concentrated as the sauce cooks down. Add pimentón and sauté for another minute. Remove the sofrito from the heat and set aside.

To toast the saffron threads, warm a small, dry skillet over low heat. Add threads and stir frequently so they do not burn. Once the color has deepened and the threads are aromatic, remove from heat. Then pound the toasted threads in a mortar with a clove of garlic. (See here for more information about toasting saffron.)

Add the sofrito and saffron to the pot with the partially cooked wheat berries and beans (after the first hour of cooking), then add the green beans, pumpkin and potato to the broth, which is now a vibrant red color. Season with salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste. (If you are using dried mint, add now as well.) Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until the wheat berries, beans and vegetables are fully tender and the broth has slightly thickened, about 45 minutes. If you are using fresh mint, add it now, and adjust seasonings as necessary. Allow to sit off the heat for 5-10 minutes before serving.

For the squash aioli (ajo calabaza):

Ajo calabaza

About ten minutes before the stew has finished, mash a clove of garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt to make a smooth paste. Remove half of the cooked pumpkin or squash from the pot and pound to a purée with the garlic in the mortar. Stir in a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.

Serve the stew in soup plates garnished with a sprinkling of fresh mint. Add squash aïoli until your bowl has as much garlic flavor as you like.

  • Yield: Six to eight servings.

* NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many cooks I know in Murcia. Cut the tomato in half, and gently grate over a bowl, flesh side down, using the large holes of the grater. The tougher skin will not pass through the holes, and you will be left with a tomato purée perfect for sautéing in this recipe.

Soaked Wheat Berries  Soaked Beans  Local Pumpkin Pumpkin Chunks Flat Green Beans Organic Sweet Pimentón from Murcia

When I first heard the word michirones, Manolo and I were strolling through Murcia’s historic center trying to decide where to stop for tapas. He casually suggested we try michirones at El Pepico del Tío Gínes, and I, having been in Murcia for less than one month, literally had no idea what he was talking about. Nothing sounded familiar, which is not surprising in retrospect, for you can’t get much more local than this.

Michirones, I would find out, are fava beans stewed with cured ham, bacon, chorizo, garlic, a good dose of sweet pimentón and bay leaves. This classic Murcian tapa is rustic and hearty, packed with sustenance and a deep cured ham flavor. The pimentón and chorizo turn the broth a vibrant red color that is both warming to look at and to eat.

Michirones are typically served in an earthenware dish strategically placed within reaching distance of everyone at the table. As is the case with many tapas, eating michirones is a communal experience. You help yourself to the beans and meat in the central dish with your fork, and try to get them to your mouth without leaving too much of a trail. (This distance seemed precariously long to me at first.)

This is not to say that the delicious broth goes unconsumed. For soaking up the pimentón spiked liquid, fresh bread is the favored tool, dipped with gusto directly into the common dish.

The bar where I had my first michirones, El Pepico del Tío Gines, was founded in 1935 and is a tradition in itself, with an ambiance you’d expect in an old Spanish bodega –chrome bar, hams hanging from the ceiling, the requisite wooden barrel. I loved my first taste of michirones, unlike anything I had ever eaten, although I struggled to remember how to say what I had eaten. The word just wouldn’t stick.

I can’t remember exactly when the word michirones began flowing off my tongue naturally. I think it was a gradual process, aided by weekly dinners with friends at the cantina of a neighborhood association dedicated to preserving local traditions. We’d invariably order the flavorful michirones, some of the best I’ve had (the restaurant has since closed, sniff, sniff).

After watching Valentina, Manolo’s mom, prepare a batch, I decided it was time to try for myself.

So how about some michirones for dinner?

Michirones

This recipe is based on Valentina’s version in addition to recipes I consulted in the following books on local cuisine: Las 50 Mejores Recetas de la Cocina Muricana and Memorias de la Cocina Murciana.

The dish is traditionally prepared with unshelled dried fava beans. Peeled and split beans fall apart more easily in the cooking process, which isn’t appropriate for this dish. Keep in mind that the cooking time can vary depending on the size and age of the beans. If the skins are too tough for your liking, simply remove them as you are eating by squeezing on the shell with your fingers to release the soft interior into your mouth. In fact, you often see heaps of fava bean skins on plates when michirones have been served.

I suggest not adding any extra salt until the end, if it is needed. I have found that the cured meats provide enough.

A strong red wine from Jumilla, a wine-producing zone in Murcia, pairs well with the dish.

1 pound dried fava beans, soaked at least overnight*

3 quarts water

⅓ pound dried Spanish chorizo, cut into ¼-inch rounds

¼ pound unsmoked bacon (thick slices are best), cut into 1-inch lengths

1 serrano ham bone, if available

¼ pound thick-sliced serrano ham or proscuitto, cut into 1-inch lengths

1 head of garlic, rinsed

6 bay leaves

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

1-3 whole dried cayenne peppers (optional, if you like a little kick)

Salt and pepper to taste

Put all ingredients (except salt and pepper) together in a 5-quart soup pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil, uncovered, for 10 minutes and skim off any foam. Lower heat and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender but not falling apart, about 2-2 ½ hours. Add more water if necessary. (The cooking time can vary depending on the size and age of the beans.) The broth should be intensely red from the pimentón and chorizo, but relatively thin and clear in consistency. Once the beans are cooked, season with salt and pepper to taste.

*NOTE: Some recipes say to soak the beans for 48 hours, changing the water once or twice. I haven’t tried this yet, but am curious to see how much the longer soak decreases the cooking time.

olla gitana 010

With the onset of chilly days, I find myself daydreaming about the soup pot, which had collected dust during Murcia’s long, hot summer. Now, simply imagining the steam rising off a simmering, one-dish meal warms and soothes me. My chilly fingertips typing away at the keyboard long to be wrapped around the promised bowl.

Soup is comfort food in many cultures – a condensed version of the smells, flavors and rituals of one’s childhood. Perhaps this is why a single bowl of fresh, piping hot soup in any language offers reassurance beyond words.

Here in Spain, stews are often called comidas de cuchara, meals which require no more than a soup spoon to eat. Most versions involve an aromatic broth packed with vegetables, beans and meats that easily yield to said spoon. There is comfort in this simplicity – one pot, one dish and one utensil. And the repeated act of lifting each bite to the lips and softly blowing, like I learned as a child, has a calming, meditative effect.

For me, Murcia’s olla gitana, or gypsy stew, is particularly inviting. As is the case with most stews around the world, it is a dish of ingenuity, a hearty and satisfying blend of ingredients at hand. This vegetarian stew showcases the diverse fruit and vegetable offerings of Murcia’s long-cultivated lands.

Yet the olla gitana is more than delicious nourishment – it is also evocative. The seasoning blend, for instance (extra virgin olive oil, sweet paprika, saffron and mint), recalls the region’s diverse roots, from Romans to Moors to the Roma people who lend the stew its name. And the warm-hued spices give the dish itself  a sunny appearance, reflective of Murcia’s Southern Mediterranean climate.

This is a traveler’s stew, or, more precisely, a dish whose ingredients from far and wide, and the people who carried them, have found their home, right here in my soup pot.

Olla Gitana con Peras – Murcia’s Gypsy Stew with Pears

I first learned to make olla gitana in the kitchen of Valentina, a gifted home cook in Murcia (who also happens to be my boyfriend’s mother). The recipe that follows is based on Valentina’s version with some additions, such as pears, inspired by several recipes I found in local cookbooks, including a tome on regional gastronomy entitled, “Region de Murcia – El libro de la gastronomía.”

Most traditional recipes call for saffron, which imparts the dish with a golden hue and smoky essence. However, due to the cost of this luxury spice, many home cooks I have met here use a natural yellow food color instead, as brightness is considered an essential quality. An olla gitana without saffron is delicious in its own right, but a pinch of saffron certainly deepens the regional flavor of the stew.

1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight

1 cup dried white beans (such as Great Northern, navy or cannellini beans), soaked overnight

2 quarts plus 3 cups water

2 teaspoons salt

½ pound Italian flat beans or green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 ½ -2-inch lengths

1 pound pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes

3 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered

3 medium or 4 small, slightly underripe pears, peeled, halved and cored

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 medium ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or grated (see note below)

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

A pinch of saffron threads

½ teaspoon dried mint

Salt and pepper to taste

Drain chickpeas and white beans and rinse well. Transfer to a large pot and add the water; bring to a boil. Allow to gently boil over medium heat for 10 minutes, then skim off and discard any foam that has collected on the surface. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until chickpeas and beans are partially tender, after about 45 minutes. Add the salt and green beans, pumpkin, potatoes and pears. Return to a simmer and cook uncovered until vegetables have softened, another 20 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent and just beginning to turn golden. Then add tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently, until reduced, about 7 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and stir in paprika (Valentina says that adding paprika over heat can make it turn bitter). The sauce will have a paste-like consistency. Add to the pot with the cooked beans and vegetables, stirring to distribute the color and flavor.

Crush saffron threads between your fingers and add to the pot; stir in mint. Simmer for another 10-15 minutes, until flavors are blended. Vegetables will be falling-apart tender.

If you find the broth is too thin, remove ½ cup of the cooked chickpeas and white beans from the pot and mash to a purée in a mortar and pestle (or using a food processor). Return purée to the stew.

Remove stew from heat, and allow it to rest for 10 minutes before serving, giving flavors time to settle. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.

I particularly enjoy this stew with a warming glass of hearty red wine, such as  Monastrell from Jumilla, a wine-producing zone in Murcia.

Yield: 6-8 servings

NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many Spanish cooks. Cut the tomato in half (from top to bottom), and gently grate over a bowl, flesh side-down, using the large holes of the grater. The tougher skin will not pass through the holes, and you will be left with a tomato purée perfect for sautéing in this recipe.