Salads


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In most places, tomato salad is a symbol of summer – of warm, sunny days and cool, refreshing meals. But in Murcia, tomato salad is a year-round treat. And I’m not talking about salad made with those flavorless, greenhouse-produced tomatoes that can be found in the markets even in the winter.

I’m talking about the ensalada murciana (Murcian salad), yet another genius combination of Mediterranean pantry staples that is made, not with fresh, but with canned tomatoes, which are roughly chopped and then tossed together with oil-packed tuna, onions, hard-boiled eggs, cured olives, and, of course, a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.

Why is this called the Murcian salad? As is the case with many local dishes, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact origin, but the salad was obviously ubiquitous enough to take on the name of the city itself. This makes sense, because tomatoes (both fresh and canned) are emblematic of the huerta, the fertile lands within and surrounding the city that have long been recognized for their agricultural potential. Indeed, traces of Roman irrigation systems have been discovered in the area, which were expanded and improved upon by the Arabs who founded and ruled the city for over 800 years. Tomatoes of course came later, brought back from the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. Tomatoes thrive in Murcia’s huerta, so it is logical that canning eventually became an important local industry, too.

I love the tomato-packed ensalada murciana because it is easy to make and can be thrown together in any season. Served chilled in the summer, it refreshes like gazpacho, and at room temperature in winter, it adds a splash of sun and sea (and Murcia) to the table.

Ensalada murciana

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This salad can be served as a tapa or side dish, or as a light dinner or lunch. It improves as it sits, so should be made at least an hour (and up to a day) before you plan on serving it.

Most home cooks and bars toss all of the ingredients together, which of course helps the flavors meld. Yet some high-end restaurants artfully arrange their top-quality tomatoes, tuna, olives and eggs on a plate and then sprinkle them with sea salt flakes and drizzle the olive oil over the top. This is a good option for luxury canned tomatoes and tuna, where you really want each ingredient to shine.

The steps here are just basic guidelines, because it really doesn’t matter what you add first (or how much you add) to the bowl. Feel free to improvise as they do here in Murcia, as all of the quantities can be adjusted according to your preferences or what you have on hand.

Serves 4-6

½ – 1 small onion, thinly sliced

1 28-ounce can of good quality tomatoes, drained

1 5-ounce can of tuna packed in olive oil, drained

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

1/2 cup small black olives (such as Niçoise – see note)

Extra virgin olive oil, to taste (start with 2 tablespoons and add more as you like)

Salt, to taste

Soak the thinly sliced onion in a bowl of ice water for ten minutes to make it easier to digest. Drain and set aside.

Roughly chop the tomatoes (I do this right over the bowl) and place them in a large bowl along with their juice. Break up the tuna and add it to the bowl. Stir in the onions, chopped eggs and olives. Add salt to taste (I don’t tend to add much, since the tuna, tomatoes and olives already contain salt). Drizzle as much olive oil as you want over the salad and then toss everything together. Cover and chill for at least one hour before serving for the flavor to develop.

Remove the salad from the refrigerator at least 15 minutes before serving (depending on the season) so that it is not ice cold (which dulls the flavors). In fact, in the winter, I prefer to eat ensalada murciana at room temperature. Serve with plenty of bread for dipping.

Notes:

The traditional olive used is a small, black (and brine-cured) Spanish variety called cuquillo. If you cannot find cuquillo olives, Niçoise olives are a good substitute.

This one goes out to all of those luscious summer tomatoes ripening on vines around the world.

pipirrana and aguilas 008

On a recent trip to a natural park in Jaén, a province in Northern Andalusia (read more here), I ordered pipirrana (not only delicious to eat, but also fun to say) every chance I got. Each version I had of this refreshing salad was a slightly different blend of the following base ingredients: ripe tomatoes, green peppers and hard-boiled egg in a garlicky olive oil vinaigrette. The result was akin to gazpacho, in salad form. I loved the blend of textures – the juiciness of the tomatoes, the crunchiness of the peppers — and the deep flavor of the dressing, perfect for dipping bread (my favorite way to clean the plate). Some versions were more soup-like than others, and the egg whites sometimes came grated and not diced, a nice decorative flourish (and a way to have a bit of egg in nearly every bite). One of my favorite versions, seasoned with cumin, was redolent of Andalusia’s Moorish past.

In all cases, this quenching salad, typically served cold, provided delectable relief from midday heat.

Pipirrana de Jaén– Tomato and Green Pepper Salad from Jaén

As is the case with many traditional Spanish recipes, there are likely as many variations of pipirrana as there are cooks, some more complicated than others. An entirely different pipirrana, with roasted peppers and salt cod, can be found in the region of Murcia. The following recipe is based on what I remember from the salads I had in Andalusia; several pipirrana recipes on Spanish websites; and Janet Mendel’s version in her book, Traditional Spanish Cooking. I have chosen a simple version, which makes for a quick and easy addition to any summer meal.

The olive oil from Jaén (where about 70% of Spanish olives are produced) tends to be fruity and assertive, so be sure to use a flavorful extra virgin olive oil in this recipe.

Pipirrana can be served as a side dish or fortified with canned tuna or sliced cured ham to make a light meal.

3 medium tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 medium green pepper, cut into 1/8-inch dice

1 hard-boiled egg, the white and yolk separated

1 garlic clove

Salt

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (red or white wine vinegar will work, too)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Combine the tomatoes and green peppers in a medium bowl. Dice the white from the hard-boiled egg (1/8 inch pieces) and add to the vegetables.

For the dressing: Pound the garlic with 1/4 teaspoon salt in a mortar and pestle, forming a paste (or put the garlic through a press). Add the yolk from the hard-boiled egg and mash to blend. Combine the garlic, yolk and vinegar in a small bowl, then whisk in the olive oil, adding it in a steady stream. The dressing will be thick and smooth. Taste for salt, and add more vinegar for balance if needed.

Pour the dressing over the tomatoes, green peppers and egg whites, and toss well.

If you like, garnish with additional ingredients: tuna, ham, olives… (see variations below).

Chill for one hour before serving.

Yield: 4 servings

Variations:

  • Top off the salad with 1 (5-ounce) can tuna, packed in water or olive oil, drained.
  • Or, garnish the salad with several slices of  serrano ham (to taste), cut into thin strips. (You can use any cured ham here.)
  • Toss in 1/2 cup flavorful olives (green or black), such as Arbequina, Picholine or Niçoise, either pitted and chopped or whole.
  • For a more seasoned vinaigrette, add 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin, blending it into the garlic-salt paste before adding the yolk.