The ‘El Limonar’ is not an everyday stew. It reflects the culture and produce of a special little corner of Spain, the Costa Calida.
This dish that would suit any occasion this summertime, especially a special time when you are eating outside in the sunshine with the people who you love, a time when you are planning to open a few bottles of good wine (it is a Spanish stew after all!) and let the world just pass you by.
‘El Limonar’ is the name of the place my parents have in Spain, its near Cartagena, Murcia, for me it is one of the worlds most beautiful and relaxing places. The lifestyle in Spain is slow, steeped in history, with much fiesta and siesta. Relaxing is a way of life and food and drink play a major role in everyday life and traditional celebrations.
When I am in Spain, more than anywhere else in the world, I can happily revert to the wise words below:
‘Sólo un idiota puede ser totalmente feliz.’
‘Only an idiot can be totally happy.’
Mario Vargas Llosa
The Mediterranean sun brings life to the dry red earth. Murcia is the hottest and driest region in Spain, but the local farmers use a lot of new technology and plenty of old world know-how to make the most of the parched land. The area is covered with lemon, almond and olive trees, many old and gnarled. A whole host of incredible local produce blooms with stunning flavours. This stew combines many of these treats, most notably the sweet and smoky local pimenton (paprika). We use Coato Paprika, an excellent local co-operative (http://www.coato.com/en/about-coato/). The figs and almonds reflect the Moorish (North African) influence who were here for hundreds of years. You can hear the sound of North Africa in every flamenco song.
Being a veggie in Spain is tough, we eat at home most of the time, using the produce from the local markets. Old men and women gather every Sunday in a car park down at the port and sell their crops. We have our favourite olive lady, pepper man, spice mama, knife gypsy, Moroccan mint seller etcetc. There are an array of characters and smiles. I love to browse a good market. It is also very cheap, which makes it that touch more satisfying.
The occasion for the ‘El Limonar’ was a visit from Rob and Linda. They are super foodies who we met in a local cafe. These shiny people deserved a treat so I put together this deluxe version of one of my tried and tested simmered chickpea recipes.
The technique is to simmer the chickpeas down until only a little stock remains (chickpea stock is delicious, almost beefy!) then begin to add the ingredients. I find this retains a lot of flavour and gently cooks everything. This stew did have some added roast vegetables, but it was most definitely a special occasion.
The best way to recreate this is in a colder country is to buy as much organic produce as possible. Beautifully ripe tomatoes and a good quality Spanish paprika will give this dish a real taste of the Med!
This is enough for 4 with plenty for lunch the next day (we are bulk cookers at the B.H.K).
5 cups of fat chickpeas (pre-soaked overnight), 1 bay leaf, good veg stock (enough to cover the chickpeas in the pan by 1 inch, maybe 1 litre), one big red onion (all veg chopped into interesting looking chunks), 1 large sweet red pepper, 1 aubergine, 1 courgette, 5 sweet tomatoes, 1 handful of cherry tomatoes, 6 sundried tomatos, 5 cloves of garlic (finely chopped), 2 tbs Coato paprika, 1 big glass of Spanish red wine (for authenticity), 1 sprig of rosemary, 2 teas of thyme, zest and juice of one large unwaxed lemon, 2 smoked dried peppers (if you can get your hands on them), 1 handful of roasted unsalted almonds (soaked overnight), 1 good handful of chopped dried figs, 1 good handful of pitted green olives (preferably manzanilla), chopped mint, coriander and parsley, s + p, olive oil to start and finish.
Most of these steps can be done beforehand and kept in the fridge overnight, the flavours will intensify. Even better, cook everything for a little less time, get the stew together and re-heat it on the day.
Add your pre-soaked chickpeas and one bay leaf to a pan of good veg stock, it should cover them by 1 inch. Bring to a gentle boil then simmer until tender, normally 1 hour. Skim of white froth regularly. If the stock evaporates too quickly, put a lid on it. After cooking the chickpeas should be just poking through the stock.
While they are simmering, chargrill in olive oil your large chunks of aubergine (should be well coloured and gooey inside), pepper, onion and courgette in a frying pan or griddle. Best to do in batches and keep warm in a covered plate. I chargrill my cherry tomatoes quickly to give them a little colour.
Add the paprika to the chickpeas and stir in well, then the tomatoes, rosemary, garlic, lemon zest and thyme, put the heat up and before it reaches a boil, add the rest of the ingredients except the wine, which you add just before the stew is about to boil. Season. Little finesse here, but maximum flavour!
Once the stew has reached a very gentle boil put the heat down to low and leave simmering, covered for one hour letting the flavours infuse nicely. Check that the sauce has thickened and is not too thin, if so, turn the heat up and cook down. Do not boil, this kills flavour.
Just before serving, check seasoning, add a glug of olive oil for shine and richness (or a glug of oil from your jar of sun-dried tomatoes as I did), the lemon juice and most of the chopped mint, coriander and parsley, mix gently in.
I topped it with a splash of olive oil, some of the left over herbs, finely sliced dried fig and a fistful of crushed almonds.
We ate our stew under the stars, over halved roasted butternut squash with brown rice, a spinach salad with a lemon and honey dressing and a cucumber and local spring onion (like wild garlic) yoghurt. I think Rob and Linda were amazed at how much we eat! It’s difficult for me to not get carried away with a kitchen full of amazing produce.
Good old Christopher Columbus got his greedy hands on the pepper plant in South America and like everything else he found of value, brought it back to Spain (I’m not a huge fan of the behavior of these old explorer/conquistador types).
Paprika is made by grinding dried peppers, different paprika uses different peppers and can be sweet, smoked or spicy. Paprika is used extensively in the cooking of Spain and also quite randomly, Hungary. Good Goulash would be lost without it. The name ‘Paprika’ actually comes from the Hungarian word for ‘Pepper’.
Paprika has a high sugar content which must be considered when cooking with it. It burns easily.
By weight, Paprika contains more Vitamin C than lemon juice.
I haven’t had the chance to write about wine in a while. Thank you Spain for giving me the excuse!
This is best with a wine from the south of Spain. The stew incorporates many of the flavours of this evocative land, therefore the local wines compliment it perfectly. We went for a young ‘Casa De La Ermita’ Organic Monastrell from Jumilla (a local wine region), with ripe fruits, lovely vanilla scented oak and dark violet colour. Monastrell is generally a concentrated wine with good structure and this one held its own with this blockbuster stew.
Casa De La Ermita is a wondeful winery and you can buy the wine in the U.K., I think I even saw it in Tescos. The Crianza is a very stylish example of the quality of wine now produced in Jumilla, formerly a very ‘rustic’ wine growing region. They also make a great white and an interesting Petit Verdot.
Here’s their site: