Olla Gitana (Gypsy Pot)
There's a piece of long-held wisdom in the culinary world that the true test of a cook's abilities is not how well they can execute the most complex dish in their repertoire, but rather how well they can do the most basic one. When Gordon Ramsay, for instance, hosted a television series a while back in which he helped struggling restaurants to get back on their feet, the first thing he often did upon entering the kitchen was order the chef to make him a simple, no-frills egg and butter omelette. In typical Ramsay style the vast majority of them ended up going straight from his mouth to the trash (accompanied, of course, by a copious shower of expletives), but his point was more profound: if you can't do the simple stuff well, you probably won't be able to do anything well, and before any cook thinks of moving on to foie gras and caviar, that omelette needs to be perfect. While I certainly wouldn't dream of arguing the principle (especially not with Gordon), when it comes to the specifics, I will admit to a slightly different view. Ramsay and his cronies can slave over all the perfectly crafted omelettes they want - from my perspective nothing cuts to the chase of kitchen competence like a bowl of plain old vegetable soup.
Having spent the better part of a decade as a vegetarian, I can safely say that I know vegetable soup pretty well. In fact, there were times in which I had little else to sustain me. One of these was during my first year in college, when like all other freshman students, I was under obligation to live in university housing and eat on their meal plan. The dining hall there was catered by a well-known national firm that lumped our service into their hierarchy of quality at grade F, otherwise known as 'food for those in no position to complain, a.k.a. prisons and colleges'. Every day, along with the flabby, grey meat in one form or another and deep-fried fish or chicken patties, there would be a single vegetarian dish, most often a variation on some kind of vegetable soup. Next to this there was a selection of two or three boiled vegetables that rotated daily: peas, carrots, potatoes, lima beans, corn, green beans, broccoli. The interesting thing was that the daily soup special had mysterious correlations with what had been gracing the vegetable chafing dishes the day before: if peas and carrots had been on the menu, we could count on a watery tomato broth with peas, carrots and maybe a handful of pasta. Some days we could even trace the vegetable lineage back two or three days, with those peas and carrots sharing space with some very dilapidated lima beans or corn. I suppose they served vegetable soup because it seemed like a safe bet, not only cheap but ostensibly nutritious, and because it functioned as a catch-all for nearly every dietarily-challenged group that might pass through the dining hall doors: vegetarians, vegans, diabetics, dieters, wheat-, dairy- and just-about-everything-else-allergics. And while none of it could be mistaken for a highlight of my culinary existence, the experience did leave me with one valuable thing: a particularly keen eye for a GOOD bowl of vegetable soup.
Vegetable soup, unfortunately, is often seen either as a dumping ground for what is too old or tasteless to consume in any other form, or as a form of punishment from the school of 'if it's healthy, it must taste accordingly!' philosophy. This couldn't be further from the truth, however, and even without the addition of truffles, foie gras, or copious amounts of cream and cheese, a little care lavished on a pot of top-quality vegetables can turn out something extraordinarily delicious. Case in point: this delightfully-named concoction I stumbled across in Anya von Bremzen's The New Spanish Table, a wonderful compendium of recipes that illustrate how Spanish cuisine is evolving at breakneck speed to become one of the freshest and most exciting in the world. The gypsy pot (or stew, as it's more commonly translated) stems from the region of Murcia in southeastern Spain, and owes its name to two things: its notable lack of meat which links it with poverty, and its seemingly anarchic list of ingredients: pumpkin, pears, chickpeas, almonds, tomatoes, mint and saffron (and from this you get a good sense of what the Spanish think of gypsies). Ollas are, in fact, common fare throughout Spain, but most draw the line at a few vegetables, some beans and a chunk of meat or two for flavor - I've certainly never been served one that incorporated anything this daring.
I was, then, surprised to discover that this is no avant-garde reinterpretation of a traditional peasant stew - on the contrary, this bizarre and intriguing assortment of ingredients is as traditional as it gets for Murcian stew-makers, though naturally the precise recipe varies. What surprised me most, however, was how delicious it was. Rich, earthy, with the slightly sweet note imparted by the pears marrying perfectly with the dusky saffron and the unexpected clarity of mint, it somehow tastes even more delicious knowing you can go back for as many guilt-free bowlfuls as you like. And trust me, you'll want to.
Not to mention that armed with this recipe, in any contest of cooking ability I'm now sure I would blow away the competition. That is, unless they'd want me to demonstrate my omelette-making skills as well—which are, I'm afraid, seriously in need of some work.
Olla Gitana (Gypsy Pot)
Source: slightly adapted from The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen
2 14-oz (400g) cans chickpeas, drained
1 fat carrot, peeled and thickly sliced
8 cups (2 l) rich chicken or vegetable stock
1 lb. (450g) pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) chunks
10 oz. (280g) green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) lengths
2 medium slightly underripe pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) chunks
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
a handful of blanched almonds
1 medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon sweet paprika (not smoked)
2 medium ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
1 pinch saffron threads, crumbled
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
2 tablespoons slivered fresh mint
Combine the chickpeas, carrots and enough stock to come about 1 1/2 inches above the top in a large heavy pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the pumpkin, green beans and pears and season with salt to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the vegetables have softened, about 15-20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the almonds and garlic and cook, stirring, until golden, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl, leaving behind as much oil as possible, and set aside. Add the onion to the skillet and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the paprika and stir for a few seconds, add the tomatoes and a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid and cook until the tomatoes soften and reduce, about 7 minutes. Gently stir the tomato mixture and the saffron into the pot with the chickpeas.
Continue cooking until all the vegetables are very soft and the pumpkin is almost falling apart, 5-7 minutes longer, adding more broth if the stew seems too thick. Meanwhile place the fried garlic and almonds in a food processor or coffee grinder and grind until finely ground (you can also use a mortar and pestle). Stir in the vinegar, and add this to the pot with the chickpeas. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper and/or vinegar if necessary. Let the stew cool for about 10 minutes. Garnish with the mint and serve with lots of crusty bread.