I spent a year in Spain as a student, have I mentioned that before? I must have. I usually describe it as a year “studying”, with heavy air quotes, as it took place between my second and third year of college and sufficed to turn my plain old BA degree into a much more high-falutin’ BA (Int.). They hadn’t quite ironed out the process of the Erasmus year at my home university, though, and told us frankly before we left that though we were quite entitled to take the end-of-year exams in Spain and count them towards our final degree, we’d in all probability do better at home (where our Spanish-literature courses were taken through English, for one thing).
How they thought this would entice us to actually attend classes all year I don’t know. I was the most studious of the four from our University, and even I only attended everything I was meant to in the first term, about half my classes after Christmas (the 9.30am modern-literature class was first to go), and nothing at all by summer term. When some members of our department came out to see how we were getting on, at Easter, only one of us was even in town* – and she was the one who’d barely gone to a class at all. She was running a lucrative and enterprising English-language teaching business, but had to employ her considerable acting talents and bullshitting skills to convince the visitors that we were all going to class every day. She may have been rumbled by the end of the night, but at least she got a fancy dinner out of it. (*One had a green card and had gone back to America “early” for the summer, I was sightseeing in Lisbon with some friends, and the third was also in Portugal, busking with an American mate and two guitars.)
Anyway. What I did learn that year, apart from a lot about beer, was to cook for myself. It was the first time I’d lived away from home, and once I stopped going to the university cafeteria, a few of us used to make dinner together every afternoon. We’d make an outing of it and vote on our choice, which almost always came down to creamy pasta or tomatoey pasta. Gradually, however, under the tutelage of someone’s Spanish housemates, our repertoire broadened and we learned to make arroz a la cubana, tortilla de patatas, and lentejas (that’s lentils). As well as calimocho. (That’s cheap red wine mixed with cola.)
Towards the end of the year, when the other foreign students were studing for exams, my fellow Dubliners and I (except the one who’d gone to San Francisco in February) were finding new and delightfully empty bars. One was a little tapas bar called El Cielo (Heaven) where on a Monday night we’d be the only patrons, and the barman (Jesús, of course) would give us a little lesson on how to suck our red wine through the slice of chorizo already in our mouth, to marry the two flavours in the most intense way possible. (We never paid for real tapas, because we had no money to spare. So the free stuff at the bar was all we got, and since this was the centre of Spain rather than the south, a few slices of chorizo and some bread was as much as there was to pick at. If Jesús was feeling generous, he’d even let us have some shavings of jamón serrano and maybe a black olive or two while he polished all the glasses for the second time that day.)
Spanish chorizo is hard to find in the US, especially when people often take chorizo to mean the spicy Mexican sort of uncooked sausage. Spanish chorizo is a type of salami, garlicky and paprika-y, cured and dried and ready to eat – though of course you can fry it up to release some of that delicious fat and make it even tastier. I hadn’t cooked with it for an age, but I came across some in our local supermarket last week and decided to invest a few dollars in some memories. It has worked out very well.
|Egg and chorizo scramble
First, I fried up a little as a background accent to a pasta and kale dinner. Next I used a little with a scrambled egg and some spinach leaves in a pita pocket for a two-minute lunch. And tonight I used a bit more with chicken and all the spanish flavours I could think of, and the aromas as it simmered transported me back to Valladolid and apparently inspired all that remeniscence you just waded through. So I decided to share it with you, in all its glorious inauthenticity.
About an inch and a half of Spanish chorizo, diced
1 sweet onion, chopped
2 large cloves of garlic (or more), finely chopped
1 chicken breast
3 tablespoons of flour
About half a teaspoon of paprika
1 red bell pepper, chopped
Red wine, about half a glass, perhaps, if you can spare it
1 can of white beans, drained and rinsed
1 can of fire-roasted tomatoes
Good shake of dried oregano
Salt and pepper
First I fried the diced chorizo in a dry pan. Then I stirred in the onion and garlic and let it all soften in the chorizo fat. I put that much in a bowl to one side and added a bit of olive oil to the pan. I mixed the flour and paprika on a plate and tossed the chicken in it before browning it in the pan, and then threw the onion and chorizo back in, along with the red bell pepper. Once all that was hot again, I sloshed in some red wine and inhaled the memories as the alcohol bubbled off. Finally, I added the beans and tomatoes, and some water – about half the capacity of the tomato tin, to pick up the leftovers in there. I sprinkled over a good shake of oregano, some black pepper and about a 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and some red pepper flakes for a little heat. Then I let it all simmer for 20 minutes until the liquid had thickened into a delicious sauce.
You could have it on rice or even with mash, but we just ate it with crusty bread as we had some left over and it works well to mop up the sauce. You could use pork instead of chicken, but you’d probably want to simmer it all for longer, depending on the cut. I won’t say it’s authentic Spanish food, but it tasted good. I served it on top of some baby spinach leaves, just for extra vitamins and some green.
Of course, if you’re not trying to stretch one chicken breast into a healthy dinner for four**, you could just fry the chorizo with the garlic and skip straight to the bread part and put all the wine in your glass, and experiment with sucking the wine through the chorizo in your mouth, and that would be transcendentally glorious too.
** No, of course my children didn’t eat this. Even if they didn’t have stomach viruses, there’s no way on earth they would eat this. So in our house, that’s dinner for the grown ups for two nights.