Class Tomorrow! Shock an Octopus, Discover Majado and Rejoice in Rice Pudding

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One of the most satisfying dishes I have ever eaten, this Galician-style Octopus with Potatoes (Pulpo a la Gallega con Cachelos) is at once sleek and simple yet altogether spectacular.

In the Galician language, the dish is called Polbo á Feira, fair-style octopus, and it is traditionally prepared by polbeiras (octopus cooks, usually women) in large copper pots at rural fairs, and in the more modern restaurants also known as polbeiras.

The preparation is straightforward — octopus and potatoes are boiled and served with a few aromatic enhancements — yet the result can be surprisingly transcendent.

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Polbeira preparing octopus in Galicia. Photo source: Wikipedia Commons.

But unless you have actually been transported to Octopus Heaven (as I am every time I eat Pulpo a la Plancha at La Cuchara de San Telmo), or even to a fair in Galicia, you may be skeptical. Octopus not rubbery? With boiled potatoes…transcendent?

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Octopus Heaven: Pulpo a la Plancha at La Cuchara de San Telmo. Photo by José Lopez, published in Pintxos de Vanguardia a la Donostiarra, Elkar Fundazioa, 2009.

The key, of course, in addition to the quality of the few necessary ingredients (octopus, potatoes, coarse salt, pimentón and olive oil), is the careful execution of the dish. This is what we will aim to master tomorrow.

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Valeria shocking our lunch into shape.

Above all, we’ll learn about proper handling and treatment of the octopus, from the time we first see it (and even before), to the time it makes it to our plates…and disappears.

We’ll also try our hands at a dish from the far-opposite corner of Spain, from the region of Murcia (known for its bountiful vegetables), called Murcian Gypsy-pot Stew (Olla Gitana Murciana), a kind of potaje (pronounced “po-ta-he”), or vegetable-and-legume stew. In this case, the main elements are garbanzo beans, white beans, winter squash, green beans, potatoes, and — the showstopper — pears.

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Pears awaiting their cue to perform their starring role in the Olla Gitana.

If that doesn’t sound lovely enough, it gets better. What makes this dish much more interesting than your ordinary pot o’ veggies and beans (I had lots of those during my 7 years as a vegetarian!) is the incorporation of several important elements that supercharge the potaje‘s flavor and body. 

First off, the Olla Gitana (pronounced “oh-ya hi-ta-na”), like so many soups and stews throughout Spain, gets a major flavor boost from a robust sofrito, but in this case, instead of serving literally as a base upon which the rest of the stew is built (in the same pot), the sofrito is made separately and stirred into the potaje once the vegetables and legumes are cooked.

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Grating tomatoes to sofreir with onions and garlic.

Secondly, the potaje gets its body through its majado (not to be confused with the Peruvian dish majado) — a beautiful mash-up of toasted bread, garlic, almonds, cooking liquid and vinegar. We’ll explore the different results we can achieve by creating our majado both by hand, in a mortar and pestle, and by using a blender.

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Almonds, garlic and bread toasting to make a majado.

Thirdly, our potaje is tipped into flavor paradise through the additions of saffron, pimentón and fresh mint. The quality of these elements can vary greatly, so to achieve this dish’s full potential, it’s essential to use spices and herbs of the highest possible quality.

Finally, we’ll finish our menu with a dessert beloved throughout Spain: Rice Pudding (Arroz con Leche). The recipes vary slightly from region to region, and even from home to home, but our lovely pudding will get its aroma from lemon peel, vanilla beans, and cinnamon, and a final nudge into creamy dreaminess with a bit of butter.

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Creamy, dreamy Arroz con Leche.

Arroz con Leche is often served chilled, but it is also enjoyed warm, freshly made, as we will tomorrow, as the winds and rains rattle the windows of our cozy kitchen. I can’t wait!

See you again soon! On Egin!

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Class Tomorrow! Fending off the Chill…

I am looking forward to class tomorrow! The temperatures have been dropping, and the rain has begun. No better place to be than in the kitchen, I say.

We’ll steam up the windows and warm our whiskers making several dishes that appear on Basque tables throughout the year, but that are particularly suited to these first days of the rainy season, when one can’t help but be reminded that more rain falls on average here than in any other region of Spain.

Our first recipe — Rioja-style Potatoes with Pork Ribs (recipe posts coming soon!) — is a dish typical of the Rioja region, most of which lies just south of the Basque Country, except for the Rioja-Alavesa sub-region, a small piece of the Rioja that overlaps with the Basque Country. This hearty dish starts with a full-bodied sofrito, it incorporates potatoes that are “chipped” through a special technique we will learn called cascar, and it comes together as a complex, earthy stew through the additions of Riojan chorizo, white wine, pork ribs and broth.

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Paola helping test the recipe

Our second recipe — Salt Cod in Pil Pil Sauce with Piquillo Peppers — is one of the most emblematic of all Basque dishes. It is as simple as it is fascinating to prepare, with a technique that originated in the cazuelas of early Basque cod fishermen, as their boats rocked and swayed on the oceans.

Our third recipe — Pears in Red Wine — is a dessert known throughout Spain, particularly in the northern regions. As the pears poach, the aromas of sweet wines and spices will undoubtedly fill our kitchen with cheer as we look forward to the chilly weeks ahead, cooking elkarrekin. On egin! 

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Pears in Wine