This is as Catalan as it gets. Escudella i Carn d’Olla, which can be roughly translated as soup and poached meats served over two courses, is the Catalan ur-dish. This is the taste of home, of hearth; the kind of peasant food that makes locals go all misty eyed and start talking about about their grandmothers and about Christmases past. No other dish is as likely to send Catalan food writers reaching for their thesauruses to unleash a paean as heavily heaped with superlatives as their plate is with meat.
From the outside looking in, of course, it’s just another cocido, pot-au-feu or bollito misto, the one-pot-two-course meal that exists in different forms across much of Europe. But try telling that to the Catalans; for them it is uniquely their own and reigns unchallenged as the belly-bursting king of their traditional cuisine.
Anyone interested enough to be reading this should certainly pick up a copy of Colman Andrews’s book, Catalan Cuisine: Europe’s Last Great Culinary Secret. Rachel McCormack (check out her excellent blog: http://www.rmccormack.com/) correctly commented on Twitter that the book is dated and rather irrelevant as a guide to modern Catalan food. This is true but for the timeless classics, the unchanging and long-proven foundations, it remains an essential reference.
In his entry on escudella, Andrews looks at its possible roots in adafina, a dish of Spain’s Sephardic Jews. Regardless of its provenance, there’s no escaping the fact that this is a seriously beloved dish and one whose deep flavours do live up to the historical hype.
Escudella is something to be eaten with friends. It’s big, robust food for winter and it can’t be made in small quantities. An occasion to invite people round was presented to me when my friend and fellow blogger http://thedoughball.blogspot.com/ decided to return to Texas. Combining a farewell meal for her with a non-specific early feast for Christmas and my birthday seemed the perfect excuse to break out the stockpot.
As with so much home cooking, the secret of success is in the shopping. Good free-range chicken (de pages), ibérico pork and quality embutits will transform the humble into the holy.
1 large pollastre de pages, free-range chicken. Buy one whole, if you can, with feet and gizzards and either joint it yourself or have your butcher do it. Do what I do and put any pieces of neck, spine, wing-tip or feet that you’re not using into the freezer, ready to make stock later in the week. Keep the liver to use later in this recipe.
500g beef suitable for slow cooking — skirt or shin
150-200g minced beef
300g minced ibérico pork. I bought lomo which is a bit extravagant but it’s all I could get.
1 large botifarra negre, blood sausage. Ibérico for preference.
500g beef shin bone, cut into large chunks
500g bone from a cured ibérico ham
1 pig’s trotter, cut in half
200g, or three thick slices, pancetta
250g dried chickpeas
Several carrots, sticks of celery and turnips
1 cabbage, quartered
Large pasta shells — galets
First, soak your chick peas overnight. I have had slow-to-cook chickpeas ruin the timing of several meals and consequently harbour a deep suspicion of the damn things, so I add a bit of sodium bicarbonate to the soaking water to be on the safe side. More harmonious cooks may not need to resort to such chemical warfare.
The next day, escudella day, should be a relaxed affair. Start early Don’t try to rush this; it’s not that kind of food.
Rinse your chickpeas and put them into the biggest stock pot you can find. I use this beast, pictured next to a bottle of sherry which I was forced to open for the purposes of taking this photo. Oh, the sacrifices I make for this blog…
Add the pig’s foot, ham and beef bones and about 6 or 7 litres of water. Bring to a simmer and start skimming. You’ll be skimming a lot today. No, I mean it: a LOT. Those ham bones will give an incredible depth to this food but they’ll also give out all sorts of sticky ickiness that you’ll need to remove. Keep your scumbucket handy.
At this point I had a migdiada, or nap, but that’s not a strictly necessary part of the process. Regardless, give the bones a couple of hours to release their flavoursome bounty then add the beef and pancetta.
At this stage you must assemble the component of escudella that separates it from its foreign cousins: la pilota
Take the minced pork and beef and combine in a bowl with the liver from the chicken, very finely chopped. Add a couple of tablespoons of breadcrumbs, a pinch of cinnamon, some chopped parsley (and fresh sage, if you like; it goes well but isn’t traditional), a finely chopped clove of garlic and plenty of ground black pepper.
Bind with a couple of beaten eggs then form your proto-sausages into two cylinders. Dust with flour and leave while you get on with the next stage.
After another hour or so you can add the chicken and vegetables. After another 45-60 minutes and perhaps a few more glasses of something to keep you entertained, you can add the pilotas. It’s customary to add some potatoes at this stage too but in my opinion there’s enough death by complex carbohydrate going on already with the chick peas, turnip and accompanying bread.
A word on salt: be careful here. While you’re skimming away and tasting, you need to check the salinity because those ham bones can impart quite a lot but it’s impossible to predict exactly how much. I always worry while the chicken is first in the pot because I don’t want to taste water that has raw chicken in it so I’m cooking blind at this stage. If there’s not enough salt it’s easily fixed but if you find yourself with an over-salty stock then add those potatoes but discard them before serving: they’ll remove any excess.
Once your pilotas have had half an hour, add the botifarra negre cut into as many pieces as you have guests. After another half an hour or so, it should all be finished.
Drain 3/4 of the liquid into another pan and cook the pasta shells in it. Leave the rest off the heat to relax.
And so to serve. Your guests should at this stage be around the table. Sadly, my fellow blogger had to cancel her attendance because of feeling unwell but the others looked hungry enough to compensate . I had, somewhat unwisely, left them with some organic bread from http://barcelonareykjavik.com/ I was looking forward to trying the nut loaf but the bar of butter missing from the fridge should have warned me of what was to come; the nut bread was, inevitably, all gone by the time I got there. I’m told it was very good…
This first course, the broth with pasta shells, was for me the high point of the meal. It’s one of the best things you’ll ever taste; incredibly deep and balanced with endless layers of flavour. It’s a revelation: who knew stock could taste this good?
The second course, the poached meat, may be one of Catalonia’s favourite dishes but it’s a photographer’s nightmare. There is simply no way to make this look pretty. It would require patience and food stylists to even make it look tidy. So onto the plates it was plopped, in great, meltingly tender, unctuous mounds of meaty goodness. You see? I can’t even describe it without it sounding like a dog’s dinner. Put that aside and just take my word for it that this is seriously good stuff, a triumph of the simple, of the alchemy and magic of slow cooking.
As much as I love modern Catalan cuisine, with its inventive concepts and clever presentations, old classics like this remain extremely relevant. They are vehicles for hospitality and the sharing of good times with family and friends; they represent generosity in spirit as much as in serving size. Escudella i carn d’olla may not be creative in any way but its goodness transcends fashion and food trends. This will still be served, in the same way, in 100 years and there’s something hugely comforting about knowing that.
After a hastily improvised dessert, there was nothing left to do but load the dishwasher and pour the grappa and bourbon generously brought by my friends. And raise a toast: to great big plates of meat.