Photo by Patricia Esteve
A good way to make a food budget go further without sacrificing flavour is to get back to basics in the kitchen. Catalunya’s traditional cuisine is typical of a nation famed for its common sense and careful ways, which makes it a great source of penny-saving recipes and resource-stretching techniques in these economically uncertain times.
In a pickle
When trying to stretch the budget further, it’s a good idea to buy in bulk and take advantage of price deals. But there’s no point buying two kilos of sardines for the price of one if most of them end up being thrown away. One way of making bargain food last longer is to preserve it. And, one of the tastiest ways of doing this is to make an escabetx.
The recipe and its name come from sikbaj, a stewed meat and vinegar dish of the medieval Islamic kitchen. Meat or vegetables are cooked and then preserved in a spiced and seasoned vinegar marinade. This technique is not unique to Catalunya: similar processes are found in other European, as well as South and Central American, cuisines. However, Catalan linguist Juan Corominas claims the name suggests it was first introduced to Europe via Catalunya.
In theory, anything could be ‘escabetxed’, but the most popular protagonists for this treatment are chicken and game birds, or oily fish such as sardines and mackerel, which hold up well against the sharp acid flavours of the marinade. They tend to be cheap, too. Colman Andrews, in his book Catalan Cuisine (Grub Street), suggests the following recipe for pickling one kilogramme of sardines: dredge cleaned sardines in seasoned flour, and sauté them in a cassola in 60 to 125 millilitres olive oil until cooked and golden brown. Drain over paper towels and lay in another clean cassola. Heat together 875 millilitres of olive oil, 250 of white wine vinegar, one head of garlic separated into cloves and peeled, two to three bay leaves, a sprig of fresh thyme and rosemary and half a teaspoon of sweet paprika until boiling, then pour over the fish, making sure they are completely covered. Cover and refrigerate for at least three days. The dish should keep in the fridge for a month.
Although there’s a long tradition of ‘making the most of’ in Catalan cuisine, over the last couple of generations the natives have lost their taste for cooking the cheapest cuts of meat, and offal-based dishes. The offal stalls in Barcelona’s Boqueria market now serve mostly immigrants from South America and Africa. Yet the same people who might disdain the idea of stewing up a cap i pota at home often happily pay over the odds for a pig’s foot when it’s transformed into a sophisticated carpaccio at one of the city’s high-end restaurants. So for those who want to continue entertaining and impressing high-end guests, don’t be afraid to go for offal and cheap cuts—just say the crujiente of trotter is a Santi Santamaría recipe.
For those who want something a bit more approachable and meaty than organs, there are many cheap cuts of meat that are delicious when cooked the right way. Galtes or carrillada of pork are, basically, pig cheeks. It’s a coarse-fibred but deeply flavoured cut, normally less than half the price of, say, pork loin. It responds well to roasting and braising. Bone and fillet one kilo of pig cheeks (or get the butcher to do it). Dip in flour and fry in olive oil, just browning each fillet on both sides. Set aside. Make a sofregit from two finely chopped onions, and when they’re browning and melting, add a ‘water’ glass of water and one of white wine, let the liquid and sofregit combine for a few moments, then add the meat and around 50 grammes of seasonal mushrooms. Let everything cook together slowly, making ‘chup chup’ as the delightful Catalan expression goes (reflecting the slow bubble of a thick stew on a low simmer) for about 45 minutes until the meat is melting in a thick brown sauce.
Tricks or Treats?
Resourceful home cooks had to think of many ingenious ways of filling out their dishes or making substitutions for rare or expensive ingredients in the lean years after the Civil War in Spain. There are lots of dishes that have ‘secret’ tricks to make food go further. The Lenten recipe truita amb trampa (omelette with a trick/swindle), adds flour or breadcrumbs to make this egg dish more filling. In the Diputació de Barcelona’s book of recipes, created by clients of the province’s markets, Igualada resident Roser Junyent Muntané has contributed her evocatively-named ‘canelons de postguerra’. These replace the cannelonis with omelette, and the filling with mashed potato. A simple tomato sofregit sauce is the only garnish.
Thankfully, the Catalan canon is full of less bland ways to fill up. There are countless pulse and bean soups and stews, cooked slowly with aromatic herbs and fragrant spices, and enhanced with richly-flavoured xarcuterie. It’s important to not make false economies here. It’s best to go for quality, not quantity. A tiny piece of good-quality, highly spiced chorizo or morcilla will fill the pot with flavour. Jordi Asín, of Bar Pinotxo in the Boqueria, makes a beautiful spiced chickpea and morcilla dish with a balsamic dressing that belies its humble origins. For four people make a sofregit from one finely chopped onion, then add two sliced-up morcillas, a soupspoon each of pinenuts and raisins and season with ground coriander, cumin and black pepper to taste. Add 300 grammes of cooked chickpeas, mix and heat through. Serve sprinkled with chopped garlic and parsley, balsamic vinegar and rock salt.
Making the most of
Rice and pasta are other cheap and filling starch sources that play a star part in many Catalan dishes. One such dish, fideua, is also an example of how Catalan cooking extracts the most flavour from poorly regarded ingredients, using things that other nations and cuisines may completely ignore. Short noodles, the fideus, form the basis of the dish. But these are flavoured with a rich fishy stock, often made with what elsewhere would be thrown away, not worthy of any place on a fishmonger’s stall, such as small crabs, fish heads, spiny, bony rockfish, etc. However, the wily Catalans know that it is often the most unappealing looking creatures that taste the best.
To make fideus rossejats, make the trusty sofregit from an onion and four ripe tomatoes and four cloves of garlic. When it’s thick and sticky add about a kilo and a half of ‘peix de sopa’ with 250 millilitres of water and cook for about half an hour. Then strain this stock and set it aside. Brown 400 grammes of fat fideu noodles in olive oil in a cassola or paella, add the stock (about one litre) and cook for about 15 minutes until the noodles are tender but dry. Serve with allioli.