Part 20: Designer Peas
Now that Cheryl and I are past the first flush of youth our social life tends to involve much less going out and far more inviting people round for something to eat and a bit of a drink, of course. The drinks are cheaper and you get far fewer fights.
Both of us like to cook and we also enjoy playing the part of the genial host. And cooking in Spain has helped us to overcome some of the prejudices that we acquired whilst living in the UK: specifically prejudices against products that come in tins and jars. In lots of Spanish bars and
restaurants dishes such as artichokes with serrano ham are a staple feature of the menu. And if you think overworked chefs have got the time to prepare fresh artichokes, it may well be time to think again. They come from a tin. The same can be said of ventresca de atún con pimientos de piquillo or tuna belly with roasted red peppers, in which both main ingredients are almost certainly taken straight from the can or jar, arranged artfully on the plate with the addition of some hard boiled eggs and Bob`s your uncle. A perfect starter with almost no effort. The only thing time-pressed cooks need to bear in mind is that you only get what you pay for and the better the quality, the higher the price, naturally enough.
And have you ever tried cooking chick-peas? Without a pressure cooker, you can forget it. Four hours of slow cooking produces little or no effect on these mini cannonballs. Clever chefs buy them already cooked and just give them an extra few minutes to absorb the flavour of the sauce in which they are cooked. The same goes for lentils and other pulses.
And some of the local ingredients are so good that merely adding a decent quantity to any dish will convince anybody of your cordon bleu capabilities. This is particularly true of the local paprika from the picturesque area of La Vera in the north of Cáceres province. A couple of good tablespoons of this pungent powder turns almost any dish into a main event.
Olive oil too, from the high sierras is unlike any I have ever tasted back in the UK.
Provided you use fresh onions and garlic there is no reason why you cannot provide a real feast using ingredients found solely in the store cupboard. In fact it is my ambition to have some friends round to eat – not in the cannibalistic sense you understand – and to provide them with just such a pre-prepared meal and to see if they can guess what the theme is.
The first course will almost certainly be guisantes con jamón – peas with ham. The liquid from the canned peas (I use a posh French brand) contains starch which helps to thicken the sauce- of white wine, olive oil and garlic. The ham I use in this dish comes in pre-wrapped blocks about the size of a housebrick. Diced into small cubes, it slowly releases its enriching fat into the pan. I have cooked this dish so many times now, that I honestly don´t think that any chef in the land could prepare a better version. The main course could be a hearty stew of canned chickpeas, with a few odds and ends of chorizo or blood pudding thrown in.
I know that there is an old saying among chefs that if you would not be prepared to drink a particular wine, then neither should you cook with it. But I believe this law to be suspended in the case of white wine. It really seems to me that the cheaper the white wine used, the better the end result. And at sixty cents a litre for one of those ugly green cartons, it really doesn´t matter too much if a splash goes into the food and the rest finds its way down the drain. Of course the main rule with red wine, is always, one glass for the pot and two for the chef. So the next time you have people round for a bite to eat, open up your cupboards and offer them a real feast.
Articles in the series:
Introduction to Pete's Tale
Part 1: Village Life
Part 2: Bichos
Part 3: A Two-Bar Town
Part 4: Fruit and Veg
Part 5: Summer
Part 6: Politics
Part 7: Noise
Part 8: Our natural park
Part 9: New Year's Eve
Part 10: Timetables
Part 11: The Land Where the Pig is King
Part 12: How Not to Buy a House
Part 13: That First Winter
Part 14: The Extremeño Spring
Part 15: To be a Pilgrim
Part 16: A Change is Coming
Part 17: Wine Talk
Part 18: Free For All
Part 19: How Do You Spell Asparagus?
Part 20: Designer Peas