On a recent visit to Las Casas de Hualdo, a magnificent olive oil estate in the rolling plains of La Mancha between Toledo and Talavera in central Spain, I was served at lunch a substantial cocido madrileño, a noble dish to restore flagging bodies and spirits during the hard work of the olive harvest. By mid-November, it was getting toward the end of the harvest, workers were wrapping up an extensive grove planted to Picual, that most difficult (but rewarding) Spanish cultivar, and the intense fragrance of that oil seemed to permeate every corner of the vast estate. A litte of the fresh Picual oil, dribbled over the top of the cocido at lunchtime, added to the pleasure of the dish.
This is Don Quixote country—rounding the top of a rise, you can almost see, looming on the next hilltop, the good knight astride Rocinante with his faithful Sancho Panza by his side. In fact, Sancho may have been the first literary figure to mention this dish, though he called it, as most people did at the time, olla podrida: “That big dish that is smoking farther off,” Sancho said, “seems to me to be an olla podrida, and out of the diversity of things in such ollas, I can’t fail to light upon something tasty and good for me.”
Diversity indeed! Most cooks agree that a fine substantial olla (or cocido, or caldo, or puchero, or potaje, depending on where you are in Spain) requires a diversity of things—something hammy (at the very least a ham bone from one of those fine country jamones the Spanish sre so gifted at producing), something beany (chickpeas for the most part, although in the north large white beans take their place), and potatoes—clearly, Sancho and his master would not have known that last. Also a good quantity of meat, both cured and fresh. Carrots and onions, of course, as in any country stew right around the Mediterranean, east to west and top to bottom.
The cocido that Angelines Herrera, the lovely chef at Las Casas de Hualdo, prepared for us had all of that and more, including my all-time favorite Spanish sausage, morcillas—dark, rich, mahogany colored blood sausages speckled with white dabs of rice added to the sausage mix. The photo shows the tray of meats served with the cocido—those dark circular things in the foreground are slices of morcilla. Above them are pieces of tocino, lightly cured pork belly, followed by more meats, fresh pork ribs, chicken, and then slices of chorizo, the all-purpose sausage that’s a star of the Spanish kitchen. Angelines served the tasty broth first, loaded with chickpeas or garbanzos; the tray of meats that had been cooked in the broth were served as a second course.
Janet Mandel moved to Spain in 1966, the same year I did. The difference is that Janet stayed. And stayed. And became a leading expert on all the multiple cuisines of that vast peninsula, that anchor between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. She says that, contrary to popular belief, the national dish of Spain is not paella, which is actually quite specific to the rice-growing district around Valencia, but cocido. “It’s a family meal,” she writes in My Kitchen in Spain, “perfect for a Sunday midday dinner. though a simpler version is daily fare in village homes.”
This is not Janet’s recipe nor is it Angelines’s. It is mine, but it’s based on theirs and on the many cocidos I enjoyed over the years as I came and went through many parts of Spain. El cocido is, like so many Mediterranean dishes, deeply authentic, deeply tied to a place and a time, and also deeply individual. Each cook, each family, each village has its own cocido—and very often will swear to the researcher that it is the only genuine cocido in existence.
Be aware that this is not a dish for cooks in a hurry. In fact, it is all the better for being made over two days or more. The dried chickpeas must be soaked overnight or at least for several hours. While the chickpeas are soaking, you can make the broth. Then, once the broth is done, extract the meats and set them aside. Set the strained broth in the fridge for several hours or overnight until the fat has congealed on top, then scrape the fat off—but don’t discard it. It is full of flavor and will keep in the fridge, covered, for ten days or so. It makes a wonderful fat for frying potatoes or any other kind of root vegetables, fried eggs too.
If you’re making this in the US, you probably won’t be able to find many of the meats that are traditionally used in Spain. Just make sure you have a good supply, at least 4 pounds, and variety—pork (both fresh and cured), beef, and chicken. And marrow bones from your friendly butcher too.
- 1 cup dried chickpeas (garbanzos, ceci)
- About 3 to 4 pounds mixed meats, including plenty of bones (I used beef short ribs, boney pork chops, smoked pork hocks, about ½ pound Canadian style lean bacon, and some chicken backs), plus several large marrow bones
- 1 tablespoon salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 large carrot, halved and cut in big pieces
- 1 large yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly flattened
- 1 or 2 celery ribs, dark green if possible
- About ½ pound smoked chorizo
- 1 pound chicken breast, bone included
- 1 pound potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1 pound carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
Put the chickpeas to soak overnight or for several hours in water to cover to a depth of 2 inches.
Combine all the meats, including the bones, in a stock pot. (Do not include the chorizo and chicken breast, which will be added later.) Cover completely with 12 to 16 cups of cold water and set over low heat to very slowly come to a simmer. As the meats begin to cook, a lot of scummy foam will rise to the surface. Skim off and discard as much of this as possible. This will help make a clear stock.
Once the foam has been cleared, add the salt, pepper, bayleaves, the carrot, onion, garlic, and celery. Continue cooking the stock for about 1 ½ hours, adding a half-cup or so of cold water from time to time as it cooks down. After 1 ½ hours, add the chorizo and chicken breast and continue cooking gently for another half hour or until the chorizo and chicken are cooked through.
Remove from the heat and strain out and discard all the vegetables. Remove the meats from the stock and set aside in a bowl to cool.
Strain the stock through a sieve to remove any remaining bits and pieces, then set the stock in the refrigerator to cool. By the next morning, the fat will have risen to the surface and coagulated, making it easy to remove. (Don’t discard the fat though because it’s very flavorful, good for sauteing potatoes or frying eggs.)
When you’re ready to continue making the cocido, add the defatted stock to a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer before adding the drained chickpeas. Cover the pot and cook until the legumes are tender—it’s hard to determine how long but count on an hour or more. Add the cubed potatoes and sliced carrots toward the end of the cooking time, giving them 20 minutes to become tender.
Meanwhile, set the oven on 350º. Pick over all the meats left from making the stock. Slice the chicken and the chorizo. Chop the pieces of pork and bacon. Pull off the meaty bits from the pork hocks and the beef short-ribs. Arrange all of these meats on an oven-proof platter and spoon a little of the simmering stock over the top. Cover with foil and set in the oven to warm.
There are two ways to serve this:
- Serve the chickpeas in their broth as a soup to start the meal; then follow with the warmed meats, and the potatoes and carrots; or
- Serve everything at once and encourage diners to help themselves to the meats and add them to wide bowls, then spoon the soup over, with the chickpeas and vegetables.
However you decide to serve the cocido, be sure to provide extra-virgin olive oil, preferably fresh from this season’s harvest, to add to the top. A sprinkle of flakey sea salt, a couple of grinds of black pepper, and that’s all you need for something heartening, filling, and warming on the chilliest day of winter.