As I was growing up, food was a central part of my experience of my Spanish heritage. My father was from the north of Spain, near San Sebastian, which is Basque country; if you don't know much about the region, suffice to say they have their own language and customs ... in many ways, the mountains define the Basque people as different from Castilians, closer to Portuguese, a little more rustic and less refined, a little more "salt of the earth," somehow. Though my son has never known his grandfather, I talk about him, and I memorialize him in food, because I think it's important for my son to know where he comes from, beyond our little corner of the Northeastern U.S. I've written before about the black bean soup and plantains of Union City, but as I got older, I also remember going to the ironbound district of Newark, where the Portuguese and Basque restaurants are.
One my favorite dishes from these restaurants is caldo gallego, essentially "Galician Stew." (As Ana points out below, it's not Basque, but then again, I never claimed it was!) It's often served automatically at the beginning of the meal, to everyone at the table. I always loved the salty, comforting aroma and taste; it conjures up smiling black-haired waiters and crusty bread and white tablecloths, on the one hand, and my Tia Rosin's kitchen in Spain, on the other. There are a number of variations on this, but most of them involve white beans, kale or collards, and some kind of smoked meat (ham, chorizo, etc.). The great news, for me, about caldo gallego is that it uses about a pound of greens. While my original recipe calls for cabbage and kale, I used collard greens and chard (see? I knew I'd be sorry I was so forgiving of the chard ... we got practically a pound of it this week!).
Vegetarian caldo gallego is sort of an oxymoron in Spain, but if you're vegetarian, you might want to throw in some vegetarian bacon or andouille style sausage, to get the smoky, salty flavor ... or use a flavorful vegetable broth in place of the water. If it gets too chunky for you, feel free to water it down; the flavor doesn't seem to suffer from a bit of thinning.
Tell me: what are the tastes of your childhood?
1/4 c. onion, diced
4 c. water
1 ham hock or smoked turkey leg
1 lb. ham, diced (or as much as you want, really ... I went light this time)
1 small chorizo (optional; if you can't find authentic ones, don't bother)
1 15 oz. can white beans (I prefer the small ones)
1/2 t. salt (optional; I find that the ham hock makes it plenty salty)
1/4 t. pepper
1/4 lb. kale or collards, chopped
3/4 lb. cabbage, chopped
1/2 lb. potato, peeled and chopped
Put the onion, water, ham hock, ham, chorizo and beans in a large pot and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for two hours.
Add the kale, cabbage, and potato; bring to a boil again and simmer over low for 1/2 hour, partially covered.
Take out the ham hock and remove any meat. Return the meat to the pot and discard the ham hock. Slice the chorizo and return it to the pot. Simmer for another 1/2 hour, partially covered. Add more liquid if necessary.