Paella is a very simple dish that Valencian peasants would cook using cheap, fresh and widely available ingredients. Yet despite its innate simplicity, people repeatedly misunderstand and complicate it, causing us Valencians a great deal of stress in the process, because we know it could be so much better and yet people keep insisting on bastardising our national dish in every possible way! 😭
Also if you, like me, do not live in Valencia and hence do not have access to some of the “niche” local ingredients, I will also provide acceptable replacements that follow the original spirit. I live in the UK, so my suggestions will reflect what I can find in local markets and supermarkets. If it’s not in my list, it quite probably is not acceptable, so don’t add it 😜
I was in Spain for a few days last week. On the way in I flew with hand baggage only. But the way back involved checking in my previously almost empty bag (I pack very lightly), as it had been loaded with a (figurative) ton of local-ish produce:
sobrasada! and four different cheeses from various parts in Spain
spelt based spaghetti with spirulina and other sea weeds (I love trying out new things)
Organic Spanish Marcona almonds
three bottles of Antoñita La Moderna, a locally brewed beer which I had just tried and liked, so my beerofiliac spouse can try it
a bottle of herbero – a drink made out of a sweet aniseed digestive base with added local herbs from the Serra de Mariola mountains
sweet chamomile, elder, mate (to brew)
And since this is the season of colds: locally sourced thyme (to brew) and eucalyptus (to inhale)
I couldn’t stop thinking this was quite a funny bag, and also hoping the bottles would not be smashed despite my best packing efforts. I normally don’t take liquids with me so I don’t have to check them in, because then I’m all worried they’re going to be smashed when loaded/unloaded. Stupid airport security procedures… 🙄
Since I came back we’ve been enjoying all manners of unusual culinary combinations; let’s call them fusion cuisine:
And some not-so-weird: thyme infusion, or thyme tree – perfect to soothe sore throats, or just to enjoy its fragrant smells:
We also tried the elder infusion; I had never had that one before. I fell like a baby afterwards, not sure if it’s related or not, but there you go!
This is a very traditional winter stew from the Serra de Mariola area—a crossroads of mountain ranges on the edge between Valencia and Alicante provinces.
Not even a century ago, this area was not very well communicated: picture uphill and downhill winding roads perched on the deep cut carved by a seasonal river over centuries, or a really strenuous hike uphill to then downhill and uphill and downhill again, a few times (if you didn’t like the other road, per chance).
So the natives of this particular corner of Spain developed very unique and distinctive signature dishes. It’s quite unusual for many of them to be featured in restaurants outside of their birthplace, let alone international restaurants which are more keen on popular dishes such as paella or tapas.
But they are so tasty, comforting… and cheap!
This recipe is adapted from the recipe in the “La cuina de la serra de Mariola” book (by Mila Valls and Ana Valls), which is a fantastic collection of local recipes and anecdotes.
Ingredients (for two people)
Four cloves of garlic
A medium sized potato
A red pepper (or dry pepper if you can find it)
~100 gr of fresh cod
A good bunch of Swiss chard (or spinach, up to your preferences and availability-the traditional is Spinach)
This dish is very easy to make: we will slice and chop ingredients, add them to a deep pot. Then we will add water and bring it to a boil. But let’s not anticipate…
Chop the onion somewhat finely:
And same for the pepper. Actually, the tradition is to use dried red pepper, of the sort you would use to preserve the summer harvest so you could use it when the cold weather came, but funnily I haven’t been able to find them yet in London (I have a hunch they might sell them in Spanish deli shops). Maybe ‘sweet chilli’ could work, but I haven’t chanced the risk of making my borreta taste Mexican! So I’m just using sweet red pepper.
Then peel the garlic cloves. I didn’t slice them because I wanted their flavour in the stew, but I didn’t want to eat them. So the idea is to remove them once cooked, but before serving (except if you forget like me and end up serving your spouse a bowl with three garlic cloves 😅).
Peel the potato and dice it. Not too big not too thin either… somehow like cubes, so they don’t break too much when cooking.
Wash the chard—wash it a lot! They often have so much soil on it!
The best way I have found to clean the chard well is to submerge it in water in a bowl and let it dissolve the soil and etc, then give it a good shake, drain, and wash again (maybe a few times, until you see no soil or sand come off).
Then wash and add a tiny little bit of cod to the pot. This is a 100g fillet:
This fillet came with skin (on the other side, which is why you can’t see it). I tried removing it before cooking but it’s impossible–it’s just too attached. The solution is to cook it with the skin, and remove it with something sort of blunt, like a spoon, when it starts to come off. Then it might break down further, giving the soup a great ‘fishy’ taste.
Once all the above ingredients are in the pot, add enough water to cover all of them and then a bit more, depending on how much you like soups. This is meant to be a soupy stew. Add a dash of olive oil. Cover with a lid, and bring to a boil.
When it starts boiling, reduce heat and simmer for about 20-30 minutes. Sometime around 15 minutes is a good time to check if the fish skin is coming off, as described above.
When things are pretty cooked: potato pieces are breaking down nicely, the fish is visually hard to spot, etc, it’s time to do two more things:
check for salt, correcting if needed, and the…
add the eggs!
Crack one egg per person, and carefully place it over the stew. Perhaps bring the heat up to boil them faster! Here they are right after being placed on the stew:
And here they are after cooking and setting. The food is ready!
To serve, use deep bowls. Take the eggs first, then “top up” with as much stew as you want.
Borreta means ‘fluff’. I want to think it is because of the fish being dissolved and adding some ‘fluff’ to the dish.
Each time I ask for fillets like this at the fishmongers they ask me something along the lines of “is this ALL you wanted?” or “this is just A SMALL FILLET, you know?”. Yes, yes, I know. I just want a tiny bit of flavour on my dish, thank you very much, judgmental fishmonger 🙄
The original recipe calls for dry salted cod, which I have, again, been unable to find in London. I haven’t really tried very hard, to be honest. Possibly a Portuguese deli would set me up pretty quickly, but for now, I’m happy with the fresh cod! If you use dry salted cod you need to de-salt it first by rehydrating it in water, and changing the water a few times. It’s a bit tricky in that way…
Shops selling dry fish and other dried goods used to be a very common sight in my town about 30 years ago. They were named “salazones” (“salted goods”) or “ultramarinos” (“from overseas”, because they also sold exotic products from far away… like big fish!). I really dreaded walking past one of them, as the smell was SO ABSOLUTELY INTENSE I could barely withstand it. Often I’d devise plans such as holding the breath, or sticking my nose inside my clothes, or covering my nose with my hands… and nothing would work as the smell was just unbeatable.