16 January 2015

Berza - comfort food for the winter months

Acelgas (chard): a versatile winter
vegetable. Use the leaves like spinach
and the stems like celery.

If you look up berza in a dictionary it says cabbage, kale or collard greens, but around here it is the name of a hearty winter stew, justifiably popular at this time of year. It is nourishing and tasty, and very economical to make, being based on chickpeas (garbanzos) and dried white beans (alubias blancas) for bulk, plus seasonal vegetables and cheap but tasty meat products like spiced sausage (chorizo) and blood pudding (morcilla).

The locals will often include plants harvested from the countryside, such as the various kinds of edible thistle (tagarninas and cardos). You can buy these at the village shops or from street vendors when they are in season.

The authentic version includes various bones and other items you can get cheap from the butcher, which all help to flavour the stock and add protein, but I just stick to things I recognise and chuck in a stock cube.

Chorizos and morcilla are produced

The stew is thickened at the end of the cooking process by stirring in a majao, a strongly-flavoured paste traditionally made with a pestle and mortar (from the verb majar, to mash or crush).  You can use stale bread, or if you want a gluten-free version, ground almonds work well.  Garlic, salt, cumin and paprika (pimentón) are used to add the flavour.

The meaty bits, known as la pringá, are removed before serving and sliced up on a plate, to be eaten separately  or distributed evenly amongst the bowls of stew.  The verb pringar means (among other things!) to "dunk" or dip your bread in the soup.

Berza with the pringá served separately
Everyone has their own version, and this is mine:

Ingredients (serves 2-3):

200g dried chickpeas (garbanzos), or 1 x 400g can
200g dried white beans (alubias blancas) or 1 x 400 can
A selection of winter vegetables e.g.Swiss chard (acelgas), carrots (zanahorias), turnips (nabos), pumpkin (calabaza), potatoes (papas), celery (apio) or green beans (judias verdes).   The quantity is flexible but aim for at least 500g after they have been cleaned.
1 beefsteak tomato, skinned and with the woody bit cut out.
1 chorizo (the kind suitable for cooking rather than slicing)
1 morcilla (black pudding)
1 slab of tocino (fatty bacon)
1 bayleaf
Pinch of thyme
a handful of chopped parsley, including stalks
1 litre of meat or vegetable stock

For the majado:
2 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp ground cumin (comino molido)
1 tbsp paprika (pimentón dulce)
A hunk of stale bread (use ground almonds if you want it gluten-free)
1 tsp salt


1. Pre-soak the beans and chickpeas overnight, in separate bowls.
2. Cut the vegetables into rough chunks, not too small.  Be sure to remove any stringy bits from the celery and chard.
3. Put everything except the majado into a large saucepan. Leave the chorizo etc whole. Bring to the boil and remove any foam, then cover and simmer until the chickpeas and beans are soft (about an hour). If you are using precooked ones (or a pressure cooker), 30 min should be fine. 
4. Meanwhile soak the bread in some of the stock to soften. Drain it then pound it in a pestle and mortar with the garlic cloves, salt and spices, moistened with some olive oil so you have a thick paste.  As an alternative to bread, you can use ground almonds, or some of the soft chickpeas from the stew.
5. Add the paste to the stew and stir in well. Season to taste.  If it's too watery, simmer a bit more to reduce.
6. Before serving, remove the meat items and cut them up separately. You can then distribute the meat evenly amongst the bowls of stew, or eat them separately with bread.