January Seafood Stew

Warms Your Cockles

It´s a grey old Saturday in January here, with no particular plans for the day.  I hear a loud “toot, toot” outside and my heart lifts. Fish Man is here.  Although we live in an isolated part of the mountains, we´re not entirely cut off.  In fact, food-wise we could probably survive without ever going shopping.  We have our chickens and the vegetable garden of course.  We have goatherds who sell us a goat for the freezer, or a lamb too come to think of it.  Bread Man stops daily and leaves me a lovely crusty loaf, the grocery man comes at the weekend with all sorts of exciting things, even the man with gas cylinders stops at my door.  But two or three times a week we have the excitement of Fish Man.

The downside is that we´re pretty much the last stop on his route, so he often doesn´t get to us until about 1pm.  Sometimes he´s sold out of most things, but if I ask him for something specific, he saves it for me.  Usually that´s Pulpo (Octopus) or Raya (Skate) which we love.  The upside is that he´s usually keen to get back to Malaga, where he lives, for his own lunch, so prices come down so that he can shift the last few things, or he throws in a few goodies for free.  He gets up early and heads off to Malaga fish market then sets off up the mountains to the villages around where we live.

Weekends in Spain are not about the weekend roast but about Paella, which we all know and love.  In Andalucia, they just call it an Arroz, a “rice” which is just like Paella but often served with more stock.  A soupy Paella, if you like.  Otherwise it´s a Fideua, which is exactly the same but made with short, thick noodles, called Fideos.  This morning I bought half a kilo of small prawns and eight medium sized squid.  I grabbed a small packet of mussels (removed from the shell and frozen) from my freezer and a couple of small fillets of hake which were also in the freezer.  Because it´s a bit of a trek to the supermarket, and of course there are things that can´t be bought our of the back of a passing van, I tend to keep my freezer pretty well stocked with things I can grab in the morning and defrost quickly.

I asked Big Man what he fancied – Paella, Fideua, Seafood Soup, Stew?  A stew, it was decided, so I started to get things ready.  What you need for four people with “normal” appetites, or three “greedy guts”, or two “greedy guts” with enough leftover to turn into a soup that evening with a drop more stock, is:

  • About 2 cups of peeled prawns (keep those shells, we´re going to make stock)
  • About 500 grams of cleaned squid cut into chunks
  • A cup of mussel meat
  • A medium fillet of white fish, cut into chunks
  • Half a red pepper, finely diced
  • A stick of celery, finely diced
  • Half and medium onion, finely diced
  • A third of a courgette, finely diced (optional)
  • Three fat cloves of garlic, crushed
  • Half a tin of chopped tomatoes
  • About a litre of fish stock.  Either cover the prawn shells with water, add a few bat leaves, a chunk of onion and boil for about 8 minutes or use a cube

You can use any fish or shellfish you like really, and if you don´t have a lot of fish, you can thicken the stew up with a few noodles, or serve it as a soup with plenty of stock. Otherwise you could use rice and turn it into a paella – it´s up to you!

So, you start by sweating the peppers, onion, celery, garlic and courgette. Again, if you have other vegetables you want to use, feel free.  Peas or broad beans are good, but best thrown in at the end with the fish as they don´t need much cooking.

Beautifully Chopped!

Add your tomatoes and continue cooking gently for a few minutes.  I usually cook this in my favourite pan – a large, deep, non stick frying pan.

Now add your stock.  It will look rather dull and unappetizing at this point, rather like watery tomato soup.  Fear not.  Now you´re going to boil it, but not too fiercely, for about ten minutes and reduce it by about a third.  Pour yourself a glass of wine if you don´t already have one in your hand.  If not, why not?  If you want to serve this for guests, prepare it to this point, even the day before (but keep it in the fridge) and forget about it.

...with tomatoes
...with stock

When you´re ready to eat, heat the stock to a simmer and put all your fish in.  Start with the squid as it will take about 30 seconds longer than the rest.  Simmer gently for about 3-4 minutes and then serve.

If you think it´s not going to be enough to go round, or you fancy something a little more “robust” add your noodles before the fish and when it is almost cooked through, add the fish.  About a mug full would be good for this quantity leaving you with some soup and some thickness to the finished dish. The temperature has dropped here, and we´ve lit the fire, so we´re going with some Fideos today for a more filling meal.

If you want to make a paella (although the courgette is not very traditional, but hey, it´s your dish, you can do what you like with it), add the rice before the fish and cook for about 20 minutes.  A mug and half would be good – you want it drier than the soup, but keep an eye on it and add a little boiling water if it looks like it might dry out before the rice is cooked.  Add the seafood, stir, lower the heat and cover with a lid and leave to simmer for 3-4 minutes.  Turn the heat off and then leave to “rest” for about 5 minutes.

Action Photo!

Serve in large, deep bowls with plenty of fresh lemon to squeeze over and a sprinkle of chopped parsley.  Crusty bread and a salad are all that you need to go with this.  Delicious.  The Mediterranean in a bowl.

Swimming Pools and Prickly Pears

The morning dawned bright and sunny.  Nothing new there then.  Paco’s head popped up over the fence with a cheery Hola and a Buenos Dias to me.  Dressed in his customary straw hat, adorned with the Festival of San Isidro ribbon he told me that he had been out since quite early that morning collecting things.  However, he was a little concerned as I had been up very late last night but very quiet.  Was everything all right?  Yes, of course it was, I had just been watching a TV programme I had become addicted to.  Oh, of course, he said, the Spanish dancing.  Erm, no, it was an American series, which had been dubbed very badly into Spanish.

          Prickly Little Critters

“But don’t worry,” I told him, it had been the final episode of the series the night before (although I was still none the wiser with regard to the plot) therefore I was unlikely to have any more late nights which did not involve me either being outside on my patio, and therefore where he could be sure I was alright, or out dancing at a Fiesta.  Good, all ok then with regard to my health and well being.

“So, what have you been collecting then?”

  The answer involved much gesticulating and waving of a long prodded instrument, rather like a pair of giant tweezers, and a sturdy pair of gloves. 

Churros,” I said “are you sure?” 

“No, not churros, but chumbos.” 

Please note the first is a deep fried doughnut, which does not grow in abundance around here on trees, the second is a prickly pear.  Aha!  I was enlightened.  Now of course I had to go next door with a tub – not a plate or a bowl, but something sturdy please, made of plastic – for the peeling and collecting of the chumbos.  I decided that a bikini and a sarong was probably not appropriate attire for the task and put some clothes on.

Two rickety chairs had been set out, to make the whole experience more comfortable I was told, and we sat under a fig tree.  “Crikey, how long is this going to take?” I wondered as I looked into the giant chumbo bucket.  There was a procedure to be followed, and no messing around as chumbos can be deadly things if anyone inexperienced tries to tackle them.  They had apparently been picked very early that morning.  Well, 7.30 which is very early around here.  It would seem, I was soon told, that the spines which cover them are less “aggressive” at this time.  This task can also, I was additionally informed, be carried out when the heat of the day has died down.  I was on no account to attempt the dangerous picking of the chumbos on my own as no good would come to me.  Ok, I had been warned.

Next, the tasting of the first chumbo, which was pronounced by Paco to be perfect and off we went.  Paco was in charge of peeling and I was responsible for lifting them off the skin into the plastic tubs.  Delicate, ladies work. In between we talked about country things like animals and crops.  As you can imagine, I had little of interest to add to the conversation but Paco seemed most pleased with our chat.  I learned that figs are called Brevas before the feast of San Juan (which is I think around 23rd June) and Higos after this date (didn’t I know anything?!).  I was advised too that the pomegranates would be ripe after the feast of Santa Teresa (October some time?).  Note to self, check my mother’s calendar of the Saints.

After this gentle activity Paco decided that it was time for pool cleaning.  The word for clean here is Limpio, the verb is Limpiar.  There is an awful lot of limpiar-ing going on generally much of the time. Mostly it involves waving a hose around and “refreshing” things such as the patio or your own feet.  Anyway, pool limpiar-ing is a much more serious business so I decided to switch back to the bikini and sarong.  Paco seemed to think this was a good idea too.

The first stage in the procedure is to scoop off any dead flies, wasps, olive leaves etc which have landed in the pool overnight.  Easy.  Paco got the big boy’s net and I got the little one which looked as though I was about to go winkling round Morecambe Bay.

Paco then got onto his stomach and started trapping the poor suckers who had succumbed to a watery end in the deep end of the pool.  As my net had broken in half the week before – I pleaded Not Guilty – I could not even reach the bottom of the shallow end so jumped in and wandered around for 15 minutes or so fishing out spiders. I have to confess that I dragged this out for a bit as it was extremely hot and I was keeping cool.

Next came the fixing of the hose to the attachment, the letting in of air to the pipes and the starting of the motor.  Easy, yes, seen this done before.  No, there was to be no sitting around for me whilst Paco “hoovered” the pool.  I was sent to collect the special plastic broom (don’t even ask) and as I was the only one out of the two of us who could swim, I was sent down to the deep end to sweep.  Yes, you heard it right.  The next half hour was spent with me trying not to fall out of my top – as you can imagine, the Lycra has to work pretty hard for its living – and stay at the bottom of the pool whilst manoeuvring a plastic broom.  Being a particularly buoyant girl this was no easy task but Paco seemed to find it all very entertaining.

Finally, the pool cleaning session was over. Paco took to his sofa for the next five hours or so. I collapsed onto a sun lounger wondering if I could make a new career as a Cabana girl.