Yesterday, after reading my post on Fabada Asturiana, a friend of mine asked if the Spaniards have a version of ¨cassoulet¨. This is a really interesting question for me, because unbeknownst to him, cassoulet has a special little place in my consciousness. Here´s why.
One of my all time favorite movies is Gigi. The reason it is one of my favorite movies is because it contains many of the ingredients that combine to make me love a movie: an older actor (Maurice Chevalier), an innocent heroine (Leslie Caron), a dashing and elegant hero (Louis Jourdan), a Belle Époque or Fin de Siècle theme, great music and Paris. Yes, Paris. So when I think of cassoulet, the first thing that comes to mind is Louis Jourdan’s character, Gaston Lachaille. At the beginning of the film we find that Gaston has turned up at the apartment of a long time family friend, Madame Alvarez (a.k.a. Mamita – played by the wonderful Hermione Gingold), searching for comfort and a raison d’être for his otherwise jaded life. While there he is invited to stay for, yes, cassoulet, and he decides to forego the fabulous party-of-the-day for a plate of this stew. The irony in this is that Gaston is quite wealthy and well accustomed to eating at the best restaurants and cafés in Paris. Yet he is happiest and comforted when he eats cassoulet, a common person’s dish.
That said, yes, Spaniards do have a version of cassoulet which is called cocido or, more significantly, Cocido Madrileño. As with cassoulet and fabada asturiana, cocido is a stew of beans and meat. In this case the ingredients can include garbanzos, carrots, potatoes, repollo (cabbage), and many different (and often less desirable) cuts of meat including bones with marrow, falda (flank), chorizo, morcilla, trotters, beef shank, tocino (salt pork) and, yes, chicken. It also may or may not contain a “bola” or meat ball which is added to the soup as it stews. (Regular meatballs in Spain are called ¨albondigas¨. ¨Bola¨ is the term used for the meatball in the cocido.) It is not a meal, it is a MEAL. It was the meal that my mother, and many other Spaniards, ate every day during the dark days following the Spanish Civil War. It is a meal which is the culmination of the many cultures of old Spain. It is, today, a meal that is made and served at some of Spain’s finest and most traditional restaurants, for example Casa Lhardy in Madrid, where it is a specialty of the house and actually quite expensive. Finally, it is a meal which is respected in Spain for its cultural importance. But it is, first and foremost, a peasant dish.
I’ve had Cocido Madrileño on several occasions. The first was a time my Tia made it as a special treat for us. My aunt is one of the finest cooks I have ever known, and whose food I have ever had the good fortune of eating. I can still taste the garbanzos con tomate y comino (chick peas with tomato sauce and cumin seeds) which she served. This is a typical part of the meal and evidence of Moorish influence. Another time was at Casa Lhardy with friends where it was served very elegantly by serious and pompous waiters. The last time I ate it in Madrid was as the guest of one of my cousins whose wife made it as a special meal for the visiting Americans. (That’s us.) It was delicious. It is interesting to see how what was once a peasant meal made from poor cuts of meat is now a dish to be served on special occasions.
So last January I decided to cook a cocido madrileño myself. As always, cooking a traditional ethnic meal with a long and distinctive memory for me, such as cocido or fabada, is a gamble. For starters I would have to cook it with American ingredients. That is an automatic obstacle. The meat and the vegetables taste different automatically. If it flopped, I’d be scarred. Nevertheless I decided to tempt fate… and it worked out well. Here are a few photos of the memorable event…
The most traditional part of the Cocido Madrileño is the fact that it is served in stages. Therein is the point of the dish. It is, as I mentioned, an entire meal. First you serve the soup, the broth in which everything was cooked. To the broth, which you must strain out, you might add little stars or pastina. Then you have the vegetables – the garbanzos and potatoes with fresh tomato sauce flavored with cumin seeds, or the cabbage which you sauté with olive oil, garlic and pimentón (paprika). After the soup and the vegetables, the meat is served. A good, old school Spaniard, or connoisseur of nose to tail eating, will suck the marrow out of the bones and dip his bread into the tocino (salt pork). If you don’t like trotter, you can eat another meat. A piece of the chicken, perhaps? Let’s not forget the meatball, which I did not make this time around. The great thing about cocido is that there is something there for everyone. Cocido can be as complex as you are inclined to make it, if you choose to add special touches on the side. If so, be ready to wash just about every pot you own. But the basis of it is the meal in the pot.
And so now I am motivated to try it again. This time I won’t use fancy cabbage or overcook the garbanzos. And I will make sure to take a photo of the soup.
Can American kids learn to eat like this? Yes they can!
¡Buen provecho! That’s “Bon Apetit” Spain-style.