Spanish Food 101: Ensaladas y Verduras, La Primera Parte

A culinary journey through Spain via the unparalleled medium of informal oral testimonies. This is written in English. If you would like a Spanish/Spanglish translation may I recommend reading slower, louder, and adding the letter “o” intermittently to the end of words. This is the third part in the series of this crash course in Spanish cuisine. An introduction to this tale can be found by clicking here, and you can see the earlier forays of this adventure by scrolling down and reading more of this blog, which I would recommend that you do anyway. 

Onto the more healthy eating. The Mediterranean diet* is often cited as among the healthiest diets in the world. Indeed, if you ignore the stomach virus that I have been going through these past few days, I can scarcely think of a time that I have felt better. Everything is cooked from scratch using fresh ingredients, the only oil they use comes from the magnificent olive (aceituna or oliva), and all meals are served with a side of ensalada or verduras, or both.

The nearby town of Premià de Mar has an annual festa pirata, or pirate festival; surely their pirates would never have suffered from scurvy, especially when you add the family’s love of fruit to this loose comparison.

*What is the ‘Mediterranean diet’ or the ‘Mediterranean’ really? Spain sits beside the Balearic yet we still call it the Mediterranean, and the cuisine of the Mediterranean covers Greek, Italian, Spanish, French, Mahgrebi, Levantine and Ottoman food. It’s this type of specificity that I lost love in life.

 

Ensalada Mixta

ensalada

Mixed salad. The staple of the table. The durable, changeable, simple salad which acts as accompaniment to the plato principal or the primer plato unto itself. Lettuce is the base, then add your choice of  pimiento (pepper), tomate, radish (I have never eaten so much radish in my life), cucumber, olives, onions, green beans, or frijoles. Then drizzle with aceite y vinagre as you like and you have yourself a salad. The tuna in the picture is not representative of the salads that I have had.

In my attempt to try to learn more life skills I have been reading a number of listicles. Illuminating as they undoubtedly are, they advise learning how to make salad. I am yet to meet anyone who is unable to make a salad. If you know anyone who doesn’t know how to make a salad (a salad for goodness sake), please write to me. Other advice included “being able to shake hands”, “being able to talk to others”, and “knowing how to dress”. Illuminating.

If the time of year is right, you might also add calçots, a special Catalan spring onion which they love so much that they even have an annual celebration in honour of their harvest. To eat them traditionally, as you would do at the Calçotada (celebration), you barbecue them until charred, wrap them in newspaper to steam, peel the skin, and dip the remainder in romesco sauce. But my visit hasn’t coincided with calçot season, so here I am lumping it in with salad after coming across it as a note in my notebook.

 

Ensalada Rusa

Ensalada rusa

The salad for those of you who are feeling that salads are too healthy. Trust the Russians, eh.

I recall once passing a window on a lunchtime where a man was drowning (drowning) his salad in salad dressing. So close yet so far to achieving the aim of healthy eating.

Ensalada Rusa (Russian salad) is potato, carrots, hard-boiled eggs, olives, parsley, and tuna, all chopped, mixed and slathered with (handmade) mayonnaise. Extra mayonnaise was available on the side in our case, and it was served with nachos.

The kids liked it a lot. So parents, take note, all you need for kids to eat their greens is some healthy, hearty mayonesa.

 

Escalivada

img_escalivada_catalana_52266_600

A simple labour of love, and, in my humble opinion, las mejores verduras. Considering there seems to be escalivada on the table during at least half of the mealtimes each week, it would seem that the parents agree, too. This is also one of the few dishes that was made by my hosts in both Andalusia and Catalunya. In fact, maybe the only if we do not accept cheese and bread as a meal.

My host in Andalusia excitedly told me about how crazy the Spanish were with this one “great, two-ingredient dish that was so simple and so mad”. That dish was Escalivada, and it is an accompaniment more than a dish, though with all the diets that are already out there in the world we might as well throw an exclusively-escalivada diet into the mix too. The “madness” that he was specifically referring to was that the first step in making the dish is frying it in a pan without any oil. The rest of the world uses oil, and the Spanish love oil more than the Texans, so to fry something without oil is frankly mind-boggling. Like many culinary trends in Spain, this came from a period of war and/or famine, when olive harvests were scarce or farmers otherwise preoccupied. You dry-fry the pimientos for 10-15 minutes, then oven roast them until the skin is blackened.

Yes, you roast them. In oil. My Catalunyan hosts do not do the dry-frying step, so I think my English host in Andalusia may have either been had or frankly just incorrect.

After roasting, watching, turning, and roasting some more, you take them out of the oven, wrap in newspaper and plastic bag and cool for another hour or so. Once cooled comes the therapeutic or infuriating task (depending on your disposition) of peeling the blackened vegetables. The mother spent half an hour doing this the first weekend that I arrived. She was very excited for me to try it. I was mildly excited to try it, though, more than this, was enthralled at the amount of effort that went in to cooking a vegetable. I am a lazy cook, but Spain more than anywhere else (possibly because I have enquired more about their food than elsewhere) has taught me that if you put in a pinch of effort and a dash of love, even the most simple ingredient can come alive; food is more than a vessel for nutrition after all.

“Have more, have more, the children won’t eat, is food for adults” she said, as I shovelled more and more onto my plate.

The family serves red bell pepper and aubergine escalivada, but you can also use this method on tomatoes, onions and, like my Andalusian host, green pepper. After roasting and peeling, you finish with yet more oil, a dash of salt, and a smile on your face.

The peppers have a sweet kick, and for the aubergines this method brings out the punch of the otherwise quite bland vegetable.

The simplest things are often the best (this is my subtle way of throwing shade at the croquembuche and some of my sentences). Grilled vegetables; a phoenix from the ashes – with escalivar being Catalan for “to cook in ashes”.

 

Find more on ensaladas y verduras in part two.

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