Tell us about migas, a clever dish Spaniards make with leftover bread.
I spent a summer in Extremadura and learned from the shepherds how to make migas de pastor, shepherd’s breadcrumbs. It’s usually eaten in the morning for breakfast or at lunchtime with chorizo. One needs to have stale bread, sliced very thinly. You drizzle it with a little water and salt, and cover it with a damp kitchen cloth. In the morning, you fry the bread with a slotted spoon for half an hour at least, working the crumbs until they get golden and crunchy. Then you dip them into your café con leche.
Americans rarely go to Asturias, in northern Spain, but the region has some notable food specialties, doesn’t it?
The area is well known in Spain for arroz con leche, rice pudding slowly cooked for hours, then topped with caramelized sugar. But what is more unique are the fabas, big white beans that are very buttery. They are hard to get outside of Spain. They are combined with smoked blood sausage, spicy chorizos and smoked pork shoulder to make fabada Asturiana. Or the beans are used in fabas con almejas, beans with clams in green sauce.
Another distinctive product from Asturias is the cider. It’s one of the few areas in Spain that doesn’t drink wine. There is no local wine, just apple cider. You see apple trees all over. They have bars called chigres where everybody gathers and eats chorizo cooked in cider and drinks fresh cider splashed into the glass from on high.
Cabrales cheese, an intense and piquant blue, comes from the area. We eat it alone with cider, or we mix it with a little cider to make it milder. Another Asturian specialty is sirloin steak with cabrales sauce. The beef is sauteed briefly, then set aside; you melt the cheese in the oil and juices in the pan, add a little heavy cream and pour it over the steak. It’s delicious.
The Spanish are big fans of chick peas. Do you have any favorite recipes?
I think everyone loves cocido madrileño, and every cuisine in the world has a similar dish. It’s a stew of chickpeas cooked with potatoes, cabbage, chorizo, blood sausage, and beef shank, all served with tomato sauce. We start with the meat broth with angel hair pasta. Then we have the chick peas, vegetables and meats. For the cocido maragato, from the province of León, they eat the dish in reverse. They start with the meats, then the chickpeas and vegetables, with the soup at the end. Apparently the custom dates from the 19th century, when soldiers often had to run and defend the villages at lunchtime. It was a shame to leave the good meat on the table, so they ate that first.
Where would you send an American chef who had only a week or two to spend in Spain?
In the Basque Country, you have the highest concentration of highly starred Michelin chefs: Arzak, Martín Berasategui, Akelare, Mugaritz (all in or near San Sebastian.). That’s for absolute fine dining. But I can assure you that you can go to any country house on the back roads and find wonderful bean stews, and fishing villages with fantastic fish. I’ve never eaten better tomatoes than the ones you get in the Basque Country, and we have an indigenous white wine, the txakoli.
The Basques are crazy about cheese, so crazy that there is a contest every September for idiazàbal, a lightly smoked sheep’s milk cheese. I was once a judge. We tried over 70 different wheels. The winner is auctioned after the contest, and people will pay $10,000 for the winning cheese. Every single TV station, radio, and newspaper is there, so if you own a supermarket or restaurant and want to make yourself noticed, what better way?