Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Season of Squash (Spanish Pumpkin Stew)

Winter is coming. And I'm not just saying that as a Game of Thrones fan. With the early sunsets and icy breezes, winter is always a great time for soup, but soup is unfortunately not typically regarded as haute cuisine. I wanted to try to make a soup that would put some excitement back on the dinner table. People may appreciate chicken noodle, but it doesn't usually elicit oohs and ahsI also wanted to find a way to feature pumpkin, as it's the signature produce of October, without falling prey to the ubiquitous assault of pumpkin spice (insert noun). Eventually, I found my way to a Spanish stew named Berza de Calabaza. Many sources list this as an Andalusian specialty, though the recipe I settled on as a base template employs a Catalan ingredient in picadaan almost pesto-like blend of toasted bread, almonds, and garlic, as a thickener. Between the pumpkin, picada,  and beans, this makes an extremely hearty winter stew to warm the toes, stick to the ribs, and lift the spirit.

Like magic
Beans provide most of the soup's heft and body. Historically, beans were considered more of a peasant food, as immortalized in the painting The Beaneater by Annibale Caracci, which depicts a genre scene, or glimpse of every day life, in which a peasant man dines on a rustic spread of beans, onions, and coarse bread. The belief was that since beans were darker and grew lower to the ground, they were more appropriate to the lower classes, whereas aristocratic fare was expected to be fairer in complexion and enjoy loftier growing conditions. That's all nonsense, of course, but beans are grown lower to the ground, often in rocky soils, so when using dry beans, it's important to pick them over beforehand, sifting out any pebbles or small stones that may have crept into the mix. This process and the requisite overnight soaking may seem overly fussy and unnecessary, when one can simply grab a can of prepared beans off the shelf, but dried beans offer lower sodium, less mealy texture, and superior flavor, so it can be worth a few minutes of extra effort.

Soaking away the blues
One of the earliest European mentions of the pumpkin comes from an account written by Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, who found them growing near Tampa, Florida in 1528 . Like tomatoes and potatoes, pumpkins are a uniquely American offering that have gone on to find popular acceptance throughout the world, albeit sometimes in different forms. While the stereotypical pumpkin is round and orange, that phenotype is, like so many of our food products, the result of years of careful breeding and selection for uniform traits. In a Spanish market, pumpkins are more likely to be green on the outside (but still Orange on the inside), more closely resembling their wild ancestors. Spaniards are also far less likely than Americans to waste perfectly good pumpkins carving holiday decorations that invariably find themselves smashed on the street, instead cultivating a host of unique recipes that take advantage of the highly adaptable fruit. It's made into creamy bisque with rice, stewed with beans, sausage, and vegetables (as it is here), sautéed with vinegar and oregano, or cooked into a preserve with a sweet syrup made from the first press of grapes for winemaking. Cakes and custards round out the sweet offerings and, of course, the seeds are always saved to be roasted in the oven.

Pumpkin power
The original recipe I started with required several pots and pans and employed far more steps than necessary. I simplified things a bit, lightly trimming ingredients (the pears of the original seemed, to me, affected and overly sweet) and arranging it so that everything can be prepared with only a baking sheet, food processor, and stockpot. If you don't have a mortar and pestle for grinding saffron threads, use a saucer and the back of a spoon. The finished soup is heady with the flavors of garlic, paprika, and saffron, and boasts a blazing display of autumnal colors, accented by the brilliant green of haricot vert. Serve by heaping ladlefuls in heated bowls and congratulate yourself on a job well done. 

Berza de calabaza (Spanish pumpkin stew)
Adapted from Williams Sonoma

If you're planning for leftovers, batch the soup base after cooking in the picada and add the pumpkin and green beans only when freshly heating it. Exposing them to heat for too long (like cooking once, cooling, and reheating) will cause the pumpkin to abandon all structural integrity and rob the green beans of their vibrant color. Serves 8.
  • 1 cup dried chickpeas
  • 1 cup dried Great Northern beans
  • 2 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (divided)
  • 3 small yellow onions, chopped
  • 1 pound chorizo, chopped (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon hot paprika
  • Pinch of saffron threads + a pinch of sea salt, ground together with a mortar and pestle
  • 2 cups tomatoes, diced (with their juice)
  • 8 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 12 almonds
  • 1 slice bread, torn to pieces
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry
  • 1 pound sugar pumpkin, cored, peeled, and coarsely chopped
  • 1 pound haricot vert (very thin green beans), cut into thirds
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Pick over the chickpeas and beans for any small stones and discolored or misshapen beans (which are probably also stones), rinse well, and set aside in a bowl full of plenty of cool water to soak overnight.

Drain chickpeas and beans and warm the first two tablespoons of olive oil in a large, heavy stock pot over medium-high heat. 

Add onions and chorizo to the pot and cook until the onions are translucent. Add the paprika, saffron-salt, and tomatoes and cook until warmed through and fragrant, then stir in the stock and bring to a low boil.

Pork fat rules
Add the beans, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer the soup, uncovered and stirring frequently, for about an hour. 

While the soup cooks, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and toss the almonds, bread, and garlic on a baking sheet with the remaining olive oil. Bake until toasted to a light golden brown, about 10-15 minutes.

Toasted to perfection
Pour the almonds, bread, and garlic into a food processor and pulse into a fine paste, much like pesto, while streaming in the sherry. The mixture will be very thick.

Pictured: thickness
Once the beans are tender, stir in the bread mixture, pumpkin, and green beans. Continue to simmer for another 15 minutes, until the soup has thickened and the vegetables are tender. Serve immediately.

This post is also available in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

No comments: