As the weather gets colder, we start to crave soups and stews, dishes where pride of place is generally given to legumes, a family of plants whose name, according to Isidore of Seville, comes from the Latin "legere" (to pick or gather), most likely a reference to the system of picking crops by hand.
Chickpeas, lentils and beans (such as green beans and broad beans) have always been three pillars of healthy eating. In fact, in the fourth century AD, Columella (born in Gades, modern-day Cádiz) said: "There are several types of legumes, those considered to be the most agreeable and most useful to man are the bean, the lentil, the pea, the chickpea and the lupin".
Splendid chickpea dishes
Chickpeas, with their characteristic ram's head shape, are a very popular crop in Spain, especially in the regions of Castile-La Mancha, Castile-León, Andalusia and Extremadura. From a nutritional standpoint, they are rich in proteins, iron and calcium. They are always eaten cooked after having been soaked and can be served as a side dish as well as in stews, soups and purées. There are myriad varieties in Spain, such as castellano, Fuentesaúco, maragato, Pico Pardal, venoso andaluz, Pedrosillano and blanco lechoso. In addition to fasting soup (potaje de vigilia), other very popular Spanish recipes that would be impossible without chickpeas are Madrid-style cocido, Maragato-style cocido, Galician-style tripe with chickpeas, and Catalan-style chickpeas.
One of the best places for chickpea-based dishes is at CASA MARAGATA (www.casamaragata.com), in Astorga (León), a great restaurant to try the unique Maragato-style cocido, which is served in three parts like Madrid-style cocido, but in the opposite order.
The most emblematic place to sample Madrid-style cocido is at century-old restaurant TABERNA LA BOLA (www.labola.es), owned by the Verdasco family since 1870. The cocido is served in three parts in individual clay pots.
Lentils: a seven thousand year-old crop
Some scientists believe lentils were first grown seven thousand years ago. The Old Testament tells the story of how Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a dish of lentils. During its lengthy history, lentils have secured a prime spot on the food scene, appearing at the most extravagant feasts and at dinner tables in the humblest of households. A variety of lentils are available in Spain, such as La Armuña, Tierra de Campos pardina, rubia castellana and verdina. In current-day cooking, traditional Spanish recipes mix seamlessly with new and surprising concoctions.
A good example comes from one of Spain's most popular chefs at the moment, Susi Díaz, who hails from Spain's east coast and runs LA FINCA, in Elche (www.lafinca.es). Among her outstanding Mediterranean dishes, she offers lentils with mushrooms and shrimp.
Beans in Spain have very different names, often depending on the region: habichuelas, fabes, mongetes, fagocas, caparrones, etc. Originally from America, they first appeared in Europe in the 16th century, possibly brought to Spain by the conquistadores. Prime examples include La Bañeza haricot beans, El Barco and La Granja runner beans, Ibeas red beans, caparrones (red kidney beans) from La Rioja, mongetes (haricot beans) from Ganxet, garrofó (lima beans) from Valencia, and fabes (white kidney beans) and verdinas (flageolet beans) from Asturias. They play a very important role in Spanish gastronomy in dishes such as Asturian fabada, mongetes with Catalan sausage, Basque-style red Tolosa beans, and La Granja runner beans with chorizo, among others. In general, green beans are generally served with potatoes and they make a wonderful side dish to accompany meat.
You can discover Tolosa beans' countless possibilities at FRONTÓN restaurant (www.restaurantefronton.com), in Tolosa, where Gipuzkoa native Roberto Ruiz has expertly made them into the star dish.
CASA MARAGATA. Húsar Tiburcio, 2. Tel, 987 618 880. Astorga, León
LA BOLA. Bola, 5. Tel.91 547 69 30 Madrid
LA FINCA. Polígono 1, Partida de Perleta, 7. Tel. 965 456 007. Elche, Alicante
FRONTON. San Francisco, 4. Tel. 943 652 941. Tolosa. Gipuzkoa