Whenever we feel under the weather or just in search of some comfort, I channel my inner grandmother and cook a traditional Spanish stew: puchero.
This is a traditional “value for money” dish, as it’s easy to cook, relatively cheap, and the leftovers are also used for other dishes. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving ?
A classic on Sundays pretty much all year long (except when it gets hot!).
- Somewhat fatty or bony meat: chicken thighs or carcasses, bones, chewy fatty stew beef, etc
- Optional: other parts such as chicken livers
- Optional: meatballs or similar
- Vegetables: potato, parsnips, green beans, carrots, leek, or whatever ticks your fancy (sweet potato, pumpkin, onion, celeriac, artichokes…) (different regions have their preferences; there’s huge diversity even within the same region).
- Legumes: chickpeas are the traditional option
- Pasta or rice, for the soup
For the stew (using a pressure cooker)
- The day before: soak the chickpeas in water, and leave aside.
- On the day: wash vegetables, peel and cut if necessary (I often don’t bother peeling the potatoes, just give them a good wash and maybe remove any ‘eyes’).
- Drain the chickpea water, add to the pressure cooker.
- Add the meat and vegetables.
- Add water to the pressure cooker; you don’t need to submerge everything under it. Just enough that it covers about 2/3 of the ingredients. Also, watch out that you don’t go past the limit line of your pressure cooker.
- You can add some salt now, but if you’re using any ham bone, do not add any salt (or else it might become too salty). In case of doubt, don’t add any salt; you can always adjust later. If you like, you can also add a tiny pinch of paprika now too.
- Close the lid, set pressure valve to ‘meat’ if your cooker has this setting available, or just set it to ‘pressure’.
- Turn heat up on a strong setting, until the cooker reaches pressure and starts steaming off (this might take 15-20 min).
- Reduce heat now. You want the pressure to be high but not too high that excess steam is emitted (and liquids are lost). Sometimes if the heat is too low, things will go too slow and the food might not be cooked enough.
- Keep on this mode for about 15 to 20 minutes. Pay attention to the cooker. Don’t leave it unattended! If it turns out that the heat is still too high and the steam starts escaping again, you’ll need to reduce it even further.
- When the time is over, turn the heat off and let the pressure cooker cool down. This allows for any residual heat to finish cooking the contents.
- When the cooker has lost its pressure and you can open the lid, it’s time for making the soup!
For the soup
- Pour some broth into a separate pot (as much broth per person as you want to have). It’s OK if you accidentally capture some bits of the stew, like chickpeas, etc. If your stew is very concentrated, add a bit of water.
- Bring to a near boiling temperature.
- Add any pasta or rice you’d like. This is normally either round bomba rice, or any pasta for soup. The ones I like the most are fideos, i.e. thin noodles.
- Optional: add a twig or two of fresh parsley for extra flavour.
- Stirring from time to time, cook until the pasta/rice are cooked to your taste. This is completely up to you, so keep tasting and checking. Very thin fideos will take a few minutes only.
- You might need to adjust the seasoning and add some more salt (especially if you diluted the stock with water in step 1) before serving in deep dishes or bowls.
Once you have the soup, you come back to the big pot and get a serving of the meat and vegetables.
Then you either have a dessert and very strong black coffee, or skip them and go straight to the nap instead ?
Using the leftovers
The best thing about this dish is that nothing goes to waste (OK, perhaps we don’t gnaw on the bones):
The stock can be used for more soup, or for other dishes that require a tasty stock such as arroz al horno. Or you can freeze it if you aren’t going to use it immediately.
Leftover meat and vegetables can be re-heated and eaten, or in warm salads. You can also scrap any bits of meat out of the carcasses and bones, mince if needed and turn them into croquetas (a sort of dumplings) along with the potato and vegetables. Or they can be used as filling for pasta (e.g. cannelloni, like they do in Catalunya on the 26th of December) or go into a chickpea omelette. Lots of applications!
My advice is that you refrigerate or freeze things as soon as possible to avoid them getting rancid.
Can I use a normal pot instead of the pressure cooker?
Yes! It’s totally possible to cook it in a normal pot, but you need to allocate a longer cooking time (especially for bits like the chickpeas and the potatoes).
Use a deep pot preferably (the stew will rise when boiling, and this avoids spillages).
Start by cooking the chickpeas and meat: put them both, with water, on the pot, and bring it to a boil over a really high heat. Then leave to boil for about 10 minutes, lidded, watching carefully as the foam will regularly make appearances (some people remove the foam so they get a very clear stock later, but I don’t mind that).
Add the potatoes, diced in ~2 cm cubes (you don’t need to dice them when pressure cooking as the pressure takes care of everything).
Boil for a further 10 more minutes.
Once that initial boiling time is over, add the rest of vegetables and leave to simmer for about 1:30-2h. I check it regularly, by using a 15 minutes timer, and go and verify that things are cooking nicely, and maybe give it a gentle stir to move vegetables around. At that point it’s rare to have foam bursts.
An advantage of this method is that you can adjust very precisely how soft you want the vegetables to be, whereas you might end up with a bit of ‘mushiness’ when using the pressure cooker.
So if you have time in your hands, by all means, cook this on a normal pot ?
Where can I find fideos in the UK?
My confession: I normally buy them when I visit Spain, as they are cheaper and also I could not find them in the UK for the longest time ?
A friend and me were perusing Honey & Spice once and we noticed that they sold them there, because apparently (what a non-surprise!) this type of soup is also very popular in Jewish culture. My friend couldn’t but buy a packet, because she was desperate to cook some stew and hadn’t been able to find these in the UK yet.
Funnily, once I saw them there, now I’m seeing them everywhere. Many supermarkets seem to be selling a version made of rice flour for gluten intolerant people, although I haven’t tried them myself.
Sometimes you can also find fideos in the Jewish section of the supermarket. It’s always worth perusing the aisles of foods you’re not familiar with—you might be surprised by what you find!
In terms of specialised Spanish food importers, Brindisa stock Catalan artisanal brand San Marti Fideu pasta 250g for £2.95. And the very classic Spanish grocery shop R. Garcia in Portobello stock a wider selection of formats, including my favourite fideo nº000 (the thinnest one), Gallo 250g for a more affordable £1.75 (although it’s not ‘artisanal’, if that’s something you seek).
Are there other types of soup ‘toppings’ I can use?
Absolutely! I already suggested you can use rice instead of pasta, or you can even dispose of the pasta and rice entirely and have croutons and a diced hard boiled egg on for extra protein instead (a classic restorative meal when you’ve been ill). Or just have the stock on its own!
There’s a huge variety of shapes in the shops, and they can greatly influence how the soup tastes. Some examples:
I tend to prefer smaller shapes (my favourite is the lluvia, which is very similar to couscous), as I find the bigger ones taste somewhat diluted and I think they’re more suitable for more consistent stock or sauces.
Some shapes are associated with celebrations in specific regions, such as for example the big shells called galets that are cooked on the 25th of December as Sopa de galets in Catalunya (here’s a recipe). The leftovers are used for cannelloni the day after, as filling.
Sometimes, they even place sculpture-sized galets in the Rambla and other boulevards in Barcelona, to give it a festive touch, like this:
The first time I saw those big shells, lit from within, it seemed to me as if they were some sort of alien offspring landed in Earth ✨???
In popular culture
When I was writing this, I remembered about Doña Filomena, the grandmother of La familia Ulises, a popular cartoon from the 40s-60s published in the TBO magazine (which happened to also give the name ‘tebeo’ to comic books in Spain). She always prided herself on the quality of her stews (and other herbal concoctions and remedies).
I browsed my TBO compilation volume and it didn’t take me long to find this very representative frame, in which she presents a stew made with hen, chorizo, a ham bone, ham hock, and herbs:
I leave you with images of other pucheros I cooked, so you can see they always change and adapt to whatever ingredients you have handy (or prefer):