the abundance of winter
Being a vegetable lover in Madrid is not always an easy thing, especially in the Winter. You can get great produce, but there just isn't that much variety. I love onions and leeks as much as the next girl, but when that is all you have eaten in three months, you start dreaming of spring, of green asparagus, peas and fava beans. You might even start seeing them in January, along with the onions and the leeks, but if you are a true vegetable lover, you will resist the temptation and patiently wait until they are truly in season. That means that you will be stuck still stuck with those same four vegetables for a few more weeks.
In most markets each vegetable species consists of only one variety. The carrots are all orange, the cauliflowers are all white and if by any chance you manage to get your hands on a sweet potato or a parsnip, you will likely find it too soft to the touch, a good indication that it has been sadly sitting in the same counter for days, no one even attempting to buy it. And that, I guess, is the problem: if we don't buy it, why would they sell it, let alone grow it? We live in a country with perfect weather for growing a lot of things and we have no problem importing tropical fruits, but we don't seem to get the hang of growing different vegetable varieties.
There has been some progress over the last few years - you can now find fennel (hallelujah) in many shops, and if you are lucky, those sweet potatoes might just be hard enough for you to want to buy them, but we are still a long way away from those beautiful stalls at Union Square Greenmarket in NY that Elena and I visited where, just by looking at all the produce, even the most avid meat eater would turn vegetarian. There were so many varieties of every vegetable imaginable that, no matter the season, you would be inspired to make a hundred different dishes.
Then there is also the herb issue. In a country with such a strong gastronomic tradition, it seems that we find it difficult to stray fromthe parsley, garlic and olive oil combination. Basil is something the italians use and we have accepted that it works well in a tomato salad, mint is for decorating desserts and cilantro is just served in Asian restaurants and to some can taste weird - soap like even.
This dreary (and maybe just a tad exaggerated) landscape changed for me when I met Caroline last year. Caroline (Blue Yellow) is a woman devoted to the herb kingdom. She has arrived in Madrid determined to teach us a bit about herbs, their agriculture and to let us taste herb varieties we have never tasted. The day I met her I was totally blown away by the flavours I had never tasted. I found myself eating leaf after leaf, endlessly debating about what each flavour reminded me of. The biggest surprise came when she told me to try the flowers. They were sweet, spicy, aromatic…anything you could wish for! You could just start dreaming up dishes inspired by a few leaves and flowers.
A few weeks ago the three of us were having precisely this conversation and thinking how people don't often associate vegetables and herbs to winter, how we all think winter is a mourning period in which everything has to die so that it can be born again in spring, when we decided to do a meal inspired by just that: winter vegetables and herbs. We met at an outdoor market which takes place once a month in Matadero and decided to buy everything that looked different to what we usually see in the market. I didn't have any recipe in mind, I just knew that we had to try different things, that I wanted a bag full of vegetable beauties and that the menu would come to me later.
We got purple cauliflower, yellow beets, kumquats, blood oranges, a cabbage (ok, not all that exciting but I don't usually buy a whole cabbage for two, so that was also quite new), sweet potatoes, a root vegetable I don't remember the name of, fennel and probably some other things. A piece of bacon topped it all of . Ok, bacon is not a vegetable, but it sang to me from across the street and I knew that if I was struggling with what to do with one of those new and strange specimens, I needed something to make sure that things would taste great. I like to innovate but I also like to keep bacon on hand, in case I need it.
Caroline went to pick some herbs that had survived the frosts, we got them from her and everything was ready. We had rosemary, bay, thyme, marjoram, spicy oregano, salad burnet, sorrel and celery leaf. I just had to figure out what to make. I told a couple of our friends and Caroline to come over the following day (all girls, obviously - it's a vegetable menu so no man wanted to come.)
I admit that at one point, when I got home and started unloading our bounty, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I was going to enjoy the cooking more than my friends were going to enjoy the eating. I eased my conscience by telling them that this was not going to be a traditional menu with a starter, a main and a dessert, this was just going to be an experiment in which we would try a bit of everything - kind of tapas style. An assurance that a burrata was also on the menu ensured that they would actually come.
In the end, I didn't have a lot of problems coming up with the dishes. When you have such beautiful ingredients, inspiration might come from a book, a flavour combination you know will work or one you hope does, or just by applying a technique you know to the new ingredients. Even though I gave them an altogether uncohesive menu and served a cake for dessert which was more appropriate for tea, they were all happy to participate in the winter vegetable and herb experiment (or so they said).