Several years ago, on a trip to northern Spain I found myself in the small town of Santillana del Mar in the region of Cantabria on a cold and rainy night. Outside the hotel, a herd of dismal-looking goats shivered together in the lee of a thorn bush as it got dark, and all I wanted after a miserable day of traveling was a hot dinner and a bottle of wine.
Walking into the only restaurant in town, which had only one other diner, I went swiftly to the back in a vain attempt not to be conspicuous. The room was dimly-lit, oaky and very, very warm – the stone floor was actually warm to the touch, yet the other diner sat opposite from me in a jacket, scarf and an ancient beanie.
The menu I was presented with wasn’t much of a menu at all, being a small chalkboard with items handwritten in a spidery cursive that I couldn’t decipher a word of, except the “postres” section which offered a choice between flan and fruta. In fact, that was the only choice on the menu it turned out when the thick-set hostess took my order, but at 9 euros for three courses, including drinks and bread, choice might have been too much to ask.
Unsure as to what I was about to eat, I settled in to my complimentary bottle of red wine, jug of tap water and enormous loaf of bread. Shortly after, a deep clay bowl of “cocido” (see “The Real Cocido“) was placed in front of me. Stirring it, lumps of potato, carrot, chorizo, smoked ham and chick peas rose to the surface. Twenty minutes later, I was sweating, full, and only halfway down the bowl, as the proprietress circled, eyeing my attempt at the starter(!) and, with contempt, she pointed out that I had left the greens untouched at the bottom of the bowl.
Fortunately, she spied my desperation and whisked it away, and kindly gave me ten minutes grace before delivering the main course — a large pork schnitzel with a whole roasted red pepper on top. To my credit, I did finish this course, and washing it down with rest of my wine, I was looking forward to a nice fruit salad to finish.
The dessert was a pear. It came with a plate and a knife. That’s all. A fitting end to a simple, rustic dinner.
I’ve spoken highly of this meal regularly since then, and on days like today, when the rain is coming down like crazy and I’ve had an exhausting day at the office, I still crave cocido. Unfortunately, we can not make the traditional dish quickly – typical Castillian cocidos are supposed to simmer slowly for hours over a fire. We would also need some other Spanish sausages and various pork products to make it authentic. Since I don’t have a huge black cauldron and hours to prepare it, no morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) or pork belly and we use kale instead of cabbbage, we can’t dare call this a real cocido. Instead, it is a dish inspired by that wonderful meal in Cantabria – I will call it Chorizo, Chickpea and Potato Soup. Even though I use a ready-made stock, it does turn out well in a hearty, warming way.
CHORIZO, CHICKPEA AND POTATO SOUP
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 carrot cut into thin half-moons
5 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped fine
2 large potatoes, cut into 1 inch cubes
1/2 lb curly kale, roughly chopped
1 24oz can of chickpeas
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tomatoes, diced
2-4 chorizo links (Spanish-style not Mexican) cut into half-inch cubes
2 large smoked ham hocks
3 pints hot chicken stock
salt and black pepper to taste
Sautee onions, potatoes and carrots until soft and potatoes become slightly crispy. Add chorizo and ham hocks and allow the fat to render before adding the garlic. Add chickpeas when you can smell the garlic, and cook together for five minutes, stirring occasionally, before adding stock.
Bring to a boil and simmer gently for 30 minutes before adding the kale. Cook for a further five minutes, and skim off orangey (delicious chorizo) fat before adjusting seasoning. Serve in deep bowls, topped with diced tomatoes and parsley, and if you like, some thick slices of rough, country bread.
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