05 February 2011

Vegetable matters

I love my vegetables.  I love buying them, cooking them and eating them.  I used to love growing them too, but I'm restricted to herbs in pots these days as we don´t have a garden.  I did attempt some green peppers and tomatoes our first year here, but quite honestly it wasn't worth the effort of watering them twice a day.  In the UK we grew our own veg because they tasted better; that just doesn't apply here.

People in Spain eat more fresh vegetables than in most other European countries (220 kg per person per year), and they cost less here too, especially if you buy them from local suppliers or street markets.  There are at least thirty shops in Alcalá (pop. 5,600) selling fresh vegetables, as well as a twice-weekly street market, and lots of people grow their own in huertos or parcelas, plots of land squeezed in between the buildings or perched precariously on the steep slopes around the edge of the town.  

Vertical vegetable plot, Alcalá style
Vegetables in Spain tend to be incorporated into soups and casseroles, rather than boiled and served separately alongside the meat, or else served as a first-course dish on their own.  They are also used extensively for tapas dishes, such as patatas bravas (spicy potatoes), pimientos del piquillo (stuffed red peppers) or champiñones al ajillo (garlic mushrooms).   Meat or meat stock is often used for flavouring, however, and the concept of vegetarianism is not widely understood here especially amongst older people.  
More nice veggie recipes here

One of the first things you notice when you move here is that some vegetables behave differently.  Onions (cebollas), for example, are not usually hung to dry for several months like they are in the UK, and so contain a lot more water. Cucumbers (pepinos), on the other hand, are much firmer; when a recipe calls for grated cucumber, you can actually grate them without just ending up with a puddle of flavoured water.  They are shorter and stubbier than the English (or more usually Dutch) ones.

Acelgas (Swiss chard)
Spring onions (cebollas frescas) have large round bulbs rather than straight stems and can be red or white.  I use them  in place of shallots, which I haven't seen locally.   Leeks (pueros) are firmer and tastier than their British counterparts.  Swiss chard (acelgas) is extremely popular here; the stems are fairly meaty and can even be stuffed and fried, while the leaves can be used like spinach (excellent stir-fried with onion and fenugreek).  Celery (apio) is used in stews rather than eaten raw.  Broccoli (brócoli) is seen occasionally but is a bit exotic for Alcalá.   Parsnips, swedes and Brussels sprouts just don´t happen here.

Lots of other vegetables taste and cook the same, but are much larger.  Cauliflowers (coliflores), lettuces (lechugas) and cabbages (coles or berzas) reach gargantuan proportions. Giant turnips (nabos), radishes (rábanos),  pumpkins and squashes (calabazas) all fight  for space on the counter alongside the oranges during the winter months. 

Alcachofas (artichokes)
Potatoes (patatas), carrots (zanahorias), courgettes (tapines), cultivated mushrooms (champiñones), red and green peppers (pimientos rojos or verdes) and aubergines (berenjenas) are available all year round.  Broad beans (habas), string beans (judias verdes), cultivated asparagus (espárragos) and globe artichokes (alcachofas) are only available in season, but the season is  long because of the mild Andalusian climate.  Wild mushrooms (setas) and other foods harvested from the countryside, like wild asparagus, artichokes and edible thistles, are of course strictly seasonal.

It is this seasonality, even more so with fruit, that marks one of the biggest differences between shopping in Alcalá and shopping in the big supermarkets.  There is no point craving baby broad beans in November.  If the supermarkets have them in stock at that time, it is because they have been flown in from another hemisphere, which of course is very, very bad for the planet.  Another difference is that vegetables come in all  shapes, colours and sizes, as they don´t have to meet the supermarket requirements for regularity and standardization.

A common complaint from expats is that stuff goes off quickly.  This is quite true.  But when you buy "fresh" produce in supermarkets it has usually been artificially prevented from ripening, using refrigeration and/or ethylene-suppressant gases and acres of plastic packaging.  Icky!  The way round this is not to stockpile, but do what the Spanish do and just buy what you need every two or three days.  Your local shopkeeper will happily sell you one tomato, or four mushrooms.

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