Snickering was probably the most common response I got when I told people in Spain that I was vegetarian. It wasn’t the “you’re an offense to the-masculine powers of meat” kind of snickering, but more of a “you poor thing don’t you realize jamón ismagic?” snickering.
I’m a graduate student at Ohio State, and one of my research collaborators lives and works in Madrid. In 2013, I had the opportunity to spend a month and a half working with his lab in Spain, and the following year I was able to spend another month and a half there. Lucky for me, cultural anthropologists agree that spending three months in a city is all it takes to completely understand every facet of its culture. So naturally I’ve written a book about it. More on that in a bit, though.
Spain is the land of the best cured hams, sausages, and seafood (or so I’m told by Spaniards). So there I was, a fresh-faced young fella from Columbus, accustomed to chowing down on Northstar veggie burgers and vegan Pattycake cookies, trying to decode my first Spanish menu.
“Sobrasada means ‘noodle,’ right?” (It does not. It is literally spreadable meat.)
Here’s what they don’t tell you about Spanish food, though: they know their vegetables. On one of my first days in Madrid, I had gazpacho. Simple little gazpacho. It changed everything—everything I knew about gazpacho, and everything I knew about soup. Silky smooth, chilled, fresh-tasting, and more olive oil than I knew could go in a soup. From there, it was one discovery after the next—salmorejo, pisto manchego, berenjenas fritas—each its own unique vegetable celebration.
Although I try to eat vegan most of the time, I relaxed the dairy-free and egg-free aspects of my diet while I was abroad (the Vegan Enforcement Team can’t find you in a Spain—it’s a legal thing). So I dove into the vegetarian culinary culture, and I developed a deep affinity for the tortilla—a Spanish egg-and-potato-and-onion omelet.
When I returned to Columbus from my Spanish culinary Rumspringa, I decided to figure out how to make vegan versions of Spanish staples. I don’t want to call myself a “wiz in the kitchen,” so I’ll just say it in Spanish instead: soy un mago en la cocina. A longtime cooking fanatic, I was up to the task, and soon I was preparing meatless Spanish blood sausage and eggless tortillas that one of my Spanish friends didn’t believe were actually eggless.
So I wrote a cookbook: Vegan Spanish Cooking. Little ol’ me… a cookbook author. I wanted to share these vegan versions of Spanish classics and show how cooks in Spain highlight beautiful and delicious vegetables.
A few things I learned about meatless Spanish cooking…
1. Smoked paprika adds flavor to everything.
2. There’s no such thing as “too much olive oil.”
3. Drink as much Spanish wine as you can because it heals all ailments.
How about I share a recipe or two with you? It’s too cold these days to sit out on a patio enjoying a refreshing gazpacho, but there are plenty of rich, warm Spanish soups that can comfort you on a cold day, and this is one of my favorites. Potaje de garbazos y espinicas (garbanzo bean and spinach stew) is a popular Spanish meal during Lent and dates back to medieval times. Oftentimes during Lent, it is made with codfish (bacalao), and it seems common to include hard-boiled eggs when serving it. Of course, this recipe does away with both elements, but with a soup as rich and warm as this, it doesn’t feel like anything is missing.
Garbanzo Bean and Spinach Stew
Potaje de Garbanzos y Espinacas
Serves six to eight
1 lb. dry garbanzo beans (soaked overnight and drained of the soaking liquid)
1 onion, peeled and diced
2-3 carrots, peeled and chopped in 1-inch circles
3 cups vegan chicken-flavored broth (or any vegetable stock)
3 cups water
2 teaspoons salt (adjust depending on saltiness of broth)
3 tablespoons olive oil, separated
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
14 oz. can diced tomatoes
10 oz. chopped spinach
• Add everything except the salt to a stock pot, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. Let simmer, partially covered, for an hour.
• Add two tablespoons of the olive oil and simmer on low until the beans are tender (about another half hour). Scoop out and reserve two cups of the cooking liquid. You’ll be able to add this back in if you need more liquid, but more importantly, you can use this to add liquid without losing flavor if you reheat this and eat the leftovers on another day.
• During the last half hour of cooking the beans, in a large frying pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and sauté the remaining onion and garlic until translucent (five minutes). Add the smoked paprika and let it bloom in the oil for 30–60 seconds. Add the canned tomatoes and let cook until the liquid in the tomatoes reduces (five to 10 minutes).
• Once the beans are tender, add the onion and tomato mixture along with the chopped spinach to the stock pot. Stir and let everything heat through and allow the spinach to wilt (five to seven minutes). Take a taste and add salt as necessary. Add back some cooking liquid if you find it’s too thick.
Spanish Stewed Lentils
Lentil soup seems to be the stock and trade of any vegan home cook, and this one is my absolute favorite. It’s adapted from a recipe in the classic Spanish cookbook, 1,080 Recetas de Cocina (“1,080 Recipes”).
1 lbs. green/brown lentils
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
6 cups water (feel free to substitute up to 4 cups with
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 inches of a baguette (stale bread is even better), sliced
into four pieces
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
14 oz. can diced tomatoes
2-3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
• Peel the onion and cut it in half. Dice one half of the onion, and put it aside for later. With the other half, cut it in half and put the two onion quarters right into your soup pot. Peel one clove of garlic, smash it, and put the whole smashed clove in the soup pot as well. Rinse the lentils, removing any little stones if you see them, and put the dry lentils in the pot. Cover with six cups of liquid, bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer for about 30–40 minutes or until lentils are tender.
• When the lentils have cooked, keep them warm on low heat. Heat the olive oil in a separate pan and lightly fry the bread slices, flipping once to ensure a nice brown crispiness on each side of the bread. Move the fried bread to a paper towel-covered plate. Add the diced onion to the oil you used to fry the bread, and sauté until golden brown. When the onion becomes fragrant, add the garlic and sauté for another few minutes. Add the smoked paprika for 30 seconds to let its flavor bloom. Add the tomatoes and let the whole mix cook and reduce for about 10 minutes.
• With a mortar and pestle (or an old coffee grinder), grind the fried bread pieces into crumbs. You can also chop the bread to bits on a cutting board.
• Add the onion and tomato mix, the breadcrumbs, and parsley to the cooked pot of lentils. Stir, raise the heat to get everything up to the right temperature, season with salt, and add more liquid if the lentils have absorbed quite a lot.
• Serve warm. Garnish with any remaining chopped parsley.
Creamy Garbanzo Soup
Crema Castellana de Garbanzos
Disarmingly easy to prepare, but I really, really love it. This simple soup, another typical meatless dish that appears in Spain during Lent, serves as a great first course on cold winter day.
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
2–3 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 ½ teaspoons smoked paprika
¼-½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 14.5 oz. cans of garbanzo beans (or the equivalent of
2–3 large carrots, peeled and chopped in large pieces
4 cups vegetable broth
1 teaspoon salt
• Heat the olive in a saucepan and sauté the chopped onion and whole garlic cloves (three to five minutes). Add the tomatoes, paprika, and nutmeg. Stir, cooking for another 3 minutes until the tomatoes reduce and thicken. Finally, add the beans, carrots, and broth. Raise the heat and bring to a boil, and then lower the heat, and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
• Once the vegetables are cooked through, blend the soup into a smooth puree with either an immersion or standing blender. Salt to taste and serve hot, topped with a couple whole garbanzo beans and croutons if you have them.
Andy Luttrell is the author of Vegan Spanish Cooking, available in print and Kindle on Amazon.