October 28, 2011

Cocido: A foundation of Spanish cuisine

Typical plate of cocido meat and vegetables.
If you're new to Spain and regularly do grocery shopping at a supermarket, you might have wondered about those packaged trays ("bandejas") of assorted vegetables or the "pelota [para] caldo" ("meatball [for] stock") in the meat section. Well, mystery solved! They are ingredients for cooking "cocido," which is a foundation of Spanish cuisine. Cocido is a stew of meats and vegetables in a large boiling pot, which is then broken down into a variety of traditional dishes.

Bandejas of vegetables and meat specially prepared for cocido,
purchased at the local Mercadona supermarket.
And fall has arrived so it's cocido season! Cocido is a seasonal dish in the sense that people only really make it in the fall and winter, in part because it's used to generate hot soups and stews or heavy meats, and in part because you have to boil it for 1-3 hours which nobody here would want to do on a hot summer day. When fall started on September 23rd this year, cocido was one of the things people listed among the things that they were looking forward to on the national news report about the changing of the season. (In our house, we were also eagerly looking forward to it!)

Sopa de fideos, a nice warm soup to cure you of the cold.
Probably the most famous cocido, the one you're most likely to encounter in restaurants, is the "cocido madrileño," which is served in stages: a "sopa de fideos" (a soup from stock with a small thin pasta added), the boiled vegetables, and finally the boiled meats. But cocido has many names in different places. In my hometown, Valencia, it is known as "puchero." In Catalunya there is "l'escudella," in Burgos the "olla podrida," in Cadiz and Jeréz, "la berza gitana," and in Galicia a local cocido, "pote gallego, is a variation on the (in)famous "caldo gallego" (complete with pig's ear). For that matter, you can probably find similar dishes all throughout Europe, since the basic principal of cocido—boil together all the food you have available to make stews, soups, porridges, etc.—is quite economical and tasty. The Romanian dish, rasol, is pretty similar to the Spanish cocido, and one should not forget the French pot-au-feu, which French chefs acclaim as the "quintessence of French family cuisine."

Before one starts slipping into classic foodie wars about who invented what, it should be noted that cocido is traced to a well documented earlier dish, "olla podrida" (namesake for the Burgos dish), made famous by Cervantes in one of the short stories from Don Quijote (circa 1610s). In the scene the faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, mistaken for a nobleman, is frustrated by a doctor who is declaring all the delicious plates before him at a banquet to be unhealthy for his noble blood. Sancho, upon seeing the olla podrida declares:
"Aquel platonazo que está más adelante vahando me parece que es olla podrida, que, por la diversidad de cosas que en las tales ollas podridas hay, no podré dejar de topar con alguna que me sea de gusto y de provecho." [Translation: "That giant plate passing by me appears to be olla podrida, which, by the diversity of ingredients to be found in this dish, surely I will manage to find some that I that would be to my taste and to my benefit."]
Sancho Panza prevented from eating by a meddling
doctor, painting by Charles Robert Leslie.
Unfortunately for him, the doctor disagreed, declaring olla podrida to be the worst possible thing for a nobleman (more suitable to priests, school masters, and peasant weddings). 

The earlier roots of this dish, however, are disputed. But several food historians claim that it originated from a traditional Jewish dish, what is today called "adafina," which was made by placing ingredients in a pot and setting it to a low-flame bowl, providing them food "without the aid of human hand" during the Sabbath. Legend has it that Spanish Jews forced to convert during the Inquisition (after they were officially purged in 1492), were encouraged to add pork to this dish so as to prove their entrance into Christendom. Again, I'm inclined to put all these different precedents and culinary cousins together under the broader category, to use Penelope Casas's words, of "meals-in-a-pot" for which there must have been numerous independent and overlapping origins all throughout Europe.

Here is a recipe which my wife uses to make puchero (serves 4 people):

• 1-2 pelotas of ground meat
• a cut of chorizo (I prefer the "picante" or spicy ones)
• [Optional: You can really add most other kinds of stewing meats, such as stewing cuts of beef, or chicken, or morcilla, but we tend to make it lighter on the meats for our personal taste.]
• 2 bandejas of vegetables for cocido. Each package contains approx.:
    – 4-6 "zanahorias" (carrots),
    – 2 "nabos" (turnips),
    – 2 "chirivías" (parsnips),
    – 1 "napicol" (a local Valencian tubor, possibly a Kohlrabi or German turnip),
    – 1 "puerro" (leek),
    – 1 stock of "apio" (celery)
• 1 (big) potato
• [Optional: 1-2 handfulls ("puñados") of "bachoquetas" or in Spanish "judías verdes [planas]" (a thick flat green bean local to Valencia)]
• [Optional: a handfull of dry garbanzos (a.k.a. chickpeas)]

Typical cocido vegetables found in a store-bought bandeja (left to right):
napicol, zanahorias, chirivías, puerro, apio, and nabos.

Fill a large boiling pot about halfway with water, and turn on the stove to high heat. Put the meat (except the morcilla) in the water while it's still cold. (Remember to remove the skin from the chorizo.) Clean the vegetables (wash and remove skin) and place in the water as it starts to heat up, going in order of hardest (roots) to softest (celery and leeks) vegetable. At the end you can add the potato, the chickpeas (preferably placed in a porous sachet, so that you don't have to scoop them out individually afterwards), and a spoonful of salt.

Let everything boil for half an hour at medium to full heat uncovered. Then skim off the foam that has formed on the top of the pot, and lower to low heat. Let it boil, this time with the pot covered, for another hour at low heat.

Out of this you get 2 batches of stock ("caldo") for use in making sopa de fideos or arroz al horno, and a bunch of boiled vegetables, beans, and meats, which you can either eat as such for a main course, or blend into a tasty "crema" (cream soup) to use as a starter in a meal, or put to use in a variety of other ways. (For a number of recipes on dishes you can make out of these products of puchero, check out this Spanish culinary blog.)

Setting aside the caldo or broth for a future soup or rice dish.

Again, this is an incredibly economical meal. One cocido, which may only cost you around a total of five euros in ingredients, can provide you the foundation for 2-3 meals for two people. Maybe this is why for many in Spain cocido is synonymous with "la comida casera" (a homecooked meal).


Anonymous said...

Cocido is yummy-- definitely comida casera. It kind of reminds me of chicken soup sometimes! Great for cold winter days.

An Expat in Spain said...

Much agreed, spanishsabores. I put cocido alongside tortilla de patatas among those Spanish dishes which, though really simple to make, are incredibly tasty. A double virtue of this dish.

Nieves said...

I love cocidos, it is one of my favourite dishes in winter and it is so nutritive, I was thinking of posting about it, but you have overtook me jejeje and you have written a great post explaining the whole of it! Hugs and best wishes, and Happy Halloween!

An Expat in Spain said...

Hi Nieves! Glad to see you checking in on the blog. I don't think it is possible to have too many posts out there in the blogosphere on such a tasty dish. So don't let my entry on cocido keep you from contributing your own.

And have a wonderful Día de Todos los Santos! I see you've posted a great entry on it, complete with the tradition of enacting Don Juan Tenorio: http://bit.ly/vLAgnH. Nice!

Tumbit said...

As much as I love pretty much all Spanish food, I have to confess that every once in a while I have a yearning for eating a vegetable that has some kind of texture other than mush.

An Expat in Spain said...

But Mr. Grumpy, complaining about mushy vegetables was always a part of my stock comic routine on British cuisine. Oh, wait. Maybe I don't want to get into a dry wit war about national cuisines with a Brit. I suspect I'm outgunned.

I do have the feeling that overcooking cooked vegetables is a tendency here in Spain. But I'm guessing you're not counting salad as a vegetable, because then I think you'd have to agree that the Valencia region has plenty to offer in the way of non-mush plant comestibles. (A suggestion for that menu you were translating a while back: ensalada = non-mushy plant comestible.)

Mr Grumpy said...

As a Yorkshireman, the only salad I would ever dare admit to eating would be either from inside my Donner Kebab or Garnish alongside my Onion Bhajis

An Expat in Spain said...

Ah, yes. Those typical British classics, the Doner Kebab and Onion Bhaji. I make sure to get them on every visit to the UK, though I am impressed with how quickly they seem to becoming the local Alicantan fare, too:


Keefieboy said...

I love cocido madrileño, and I do cook a pretty fab one myself (obviously as a Brit, it would be sacrilege for me to say it's the best, but y'know, some people do say that). Most restaurants in Madrid disappoint me with their cocidos because you get all the liquid as soup for the primero, and the segundo is completely dry and therefore pretty hard to eat. One exception I've found in Madrid is El Rey Fernando on Calle Prim in Chueca. Here they bring you your noodles in a bowl and the cocido in an earthenware jug, so you can consume the liquid as and when you like. It's fabulous, and I think they only do it on Thursdays. Hmm, now I'm hungry!

Keefieboy said...

And if they remember, they'll also bring you a small bowl of cabbage that has been boiled for 3 or 4 hours. I've never actually seen anyone eat it.

An Expat in Spain said...

Hi Keefieboy! I've actually never tried cocido out at a restaurant. My exposure to the dish has always been very "casero", that is homemade. So I appreciate your posting the recommendation. El Rey Fernando sounds nice! I'll have to check it out next time I pass through Madrid. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

So at what point do you add the MORCILLA? (Lorna, Valencia).

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