Photo by Patricia Esteve
Catalan root vegetables
You don’t have to be Charlie Brown to know that Halloween means pumpkins. Every October 31st pumpkin sellers rub their hands in glee at the thought of making a few extra bucks on their oversized squash. But both Halloween as it’s celebrated now and the pumpkin itself are imports from the Americas. The roots of Halloween are actually said to come from ancient Celtic festivals in Ireland, where there weren’t many pumpkins growing back in the day. Instead, the story goes, the original Jack, of Jack-o-lantern fame lit his way out of hell with a lantern made from a turnip. But it doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it, ‘Halloween turnip’? In fact, one wonders how anyone could make room even for a tealight in one of the slim little white turnips seen in the markets here.
When I was child in northwestern England, many aeons ago, I would make my Halloween lanterns out of rutabaga, which were a much more suitable size, but were extremely tough and quite stinky. Luckily, this root isn’t readily available in Barcelona. My advice is to embrace both of your other options—the pumpkin and turnip both have lots to offer in terms of health, happiness and Halloween fun.
Let’s turn to the turnip first, in honour of its greater age—at least on these shores. There’s a traditional saying that goes: “For All Saints, look to your turnips.” I’m not sure if this is some form of rustic double-entendre, or just a recognition that at this time of year it’s a good idea to make friends with a root vegetable for a vitamin boost before the winter.
The most famous Catalan turnip is the nap de Talltendre from the Cerdanya region, which is traditionally served with local duck (tiró) or pig’s trotters on All Saints day. The high manganese content in the local soil is said to give this king of neeps its distinctive flavour. However, although any turnip from the Cerdanya can be given the name of nap de Talltendre, it’s only those grown in the mineral rich soil of Bellver, in the villages of Talltendre and Orden that are said to have the right, distinctive flavour.
It’s not just the root of this veg that’s appreciated. Turnip tops are also eaten, especially in Galicia where grelos, as they’re called, are combined with meat, potatoes and other vegetables in the traditional caldo gallego.
Galicia also has links with perhaps the longest-used squash in Spain, the calabaza del peregrino or calabaza del vinatero (Lagenaria vulgaris). A bottle-shaped fruit, it’s from a different family than the pumpkin, and may have been introduced from Asia. Its name—pilgrim’s or winemaker’s squash—derives from the fact it was more commonly used as a receptacle than in a recipe. The dried and hollowed gourd was the perfect shape and consistency for carrying water or wine, and was often used by pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.
Perhaps it’s this form of squash that appears in the 16th-century pioneering Catalan cookbook El Llibre del Coch, which features a recipe for carabassa (the Catalan word for pumpkin) boiled up with almond milk, sugar and rose water to make a soft mushy pudding. It’s still as a source of sweetness that the pumpkin is mostly used today to make angel hair jam, which is such a common ingredient in Catalan pastries.
Cabell d’angel is made from the obviously-named carabassa confitera/. This is a large, round orangey squash with a thick, ribbed skin. But there are lots of other winter squashes to play with this season of various shapes and colours, such as the elongated banana squash (carabassa plàtan) or the cider squash (cidra), bright yellow with thick sticky flesh. When buying winter squash look for heavy specimens (relative to their size) and thick unbroken skins. They store well, keeping for up to six months.
Even though the pumpkin here mostly comes in pastry form, it’s actually a great source of nutrients. Rich in potassium, vitamins C and E, and and beta-carotene, its fibrous flesh and relatively high water content make it great for the digestive system. Both pumpkins and turnips are good for weight watchers, with high water and fibre contents and low calorie counts. Turnips are also good sources of Vitamin C and sulphur-containing compounds—both great antioxidants. Beware though, the sulphuric compounds also have a more negative effect. In some people they produce a mighty wind! However, this could come in handy for trick or treating. Like the squash, the turnip also contains folic acid, which is an important nutrient for pregnant women and children. It’s rich in potassium and low in sodium, which helps with problems of water retention. It seems turnips, rather than diamonds, might be a girl’s best friend. Now that’s scary.
Tiró amb naps/Duck with turnips
For 4 people
You need to roast your duck (seasoned first), either whole in the oven or in pieces in a casserole dish. Then drain away the excess fat. Let it cool and cut into slices. In a terracotta casserole dish, add a couple of tablespoons of oil and heat gently, add a finely chopped onion and tomato and cook slowly until they form a mush (sofregit). Then add the slices of duck and a glass of white wine. Meanwhile, peel four turnips (preferably naps de Talltendre) and boil until tender but still intact. Drain and cool a little, then season, dip in flour and fry in oil. Add to the casserole with the duck, add a little water or stock, cover and cook on a low heat for 20-30 minutes. If desired, you can make a picada with the duck liver, some almonds, a clove of garlic and some parsley—chop all together then add a few minutes before the end of cooking to thicken.
Confitera de cabell d’angel/Angel hair jam
Choose the most mature carabassa confitera you can find. Peel, remove the seeds and cut the flesh into chunks, then boil until tender. Drain and cool. Press each piece of pumpkin with your hands to extract the fibrous threads. Put the flesh back into a pot with cold water to cover, bring to the boil then take off the heat and leave to soak until cool. Then drain well. In another pot make a syrup from the same amount of sugar as the cooked pumpkin, a glass of water, some lemon peel and a stick of cinammon. Add the cooked pumpkin and heat until you get a thick jam and the pumpkin is melting.