counting chickpeas in seville
When traveling, I always have mixed feelings about relying on guidebooks for restaurant and bar suggestions. On the one hand, when you’re in a strange city and have no idea where to go, you might not want to spend limited funds taking a chance on a place that could be a dud. On the other hand, you might miss out on the opportunity to discover something wonderful that you wouldn’t have come upon if you were blindly following a book’s suggestions. Not to mention that guidebook-endorsed restaurants are often full of all the other tourists who bought the same book!
In Seville, as it happens, we came upon a microscopic bar (you can see pretty much the whole place in the top photo!) that we later learned was listed in our Lonely Planet. Happily, its charm was in no way diminished as a result of its having been recognized in print, and it ended up being one of our favorite bars of the entire trip. Bar Àlvaro, in the Calle Mateos Gago, is a quirky family-owned bar open since 1904 (as was conveyed to us in chalk; see photo). Its current owner is Àlvaro Peregil (translation: Oliver Parsley, hehe), who is hands down the most enthusiastic bartender I have ever seen on either side of the Atlantic. He presides over his domain with an infectious energy that makes you feel as if you’re privy to an impromptu celebration for no other reason than that it’s great to be alive. Tall for a Spaniard, he dominates the postage-stamp-sized space with his booming voice and animated gestures, taking orders one minute and grabbing a rhythm stick the next to demonstrate his percussive prowess. We knew instantly that this was our kind of place, and settled in for some drinks and tapas.
The specialty of the house was vino de naranjas (orange wine, pictured above right), which Àlvaro poured us to taste as soon as we expressed our curiosity. Strong and sweet, it packed a punch that had us slowing down our pace, seeing as how it was still fairly early in the day. As we sipped, we tried to make a little conversation in broken Spanish. When I mentioned we were on our honeymoon, I may as well have told him he had won the lottery- he erupted into a series of loud proclamations (accompanied by some rather lewd hand gestures), running outside to make sure the people on the patio had heard the news. Then, in slow and deliberate Spanish so that we could (sort of) understand, he told us a proverb:
“The first year of your marriage, every time you make love, put a garbanzo bean into a jar. At the end of the year, count the garbanzos- that’s how many more times you’ll make love the rest of your life.”
This proverb exists in English as well, with pennies sometimes standing in for the beans. Some versions are even less optimistic, finishing the proverb thus: “After the first year, every time you make love, take a penny out of the jar… You’ll never empty the jar.” To demonstrate his own good fortune, Àlvaro punctuated his story by disappearing into the kitchen and returning with a 10-lb sack of dried garbanzos over his shoulder, grinning and proclaiming “These are from my first year!” to everyone in earshot.
Despite Alvaro’s surfeit of chickpeas, we didn’t sample any at his establishment. However, on menus across Andalusia, the chickpea makes an appearance in a ubiquitous tapa, espinacas con garbanzos (spinach and chickpeas). Back at home, I wanted to throw together a little Spanish meal for my friend Amanda, so I made this dish and some gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic), which we had eaten next door to Àlvaro’s at Bar Tomate, another worthwhile Lonely Planet-endorsed establishment (my next post will include a recipe for these). Both dishes are fairly quick to make; this was an impromptu weeknight meal. If you don’t have any bread on hand, make a little rice to serve alongside. This simple vegetable dish is brought to life with the rather Moorish combination of spices, which are subtle but exotic.
All photos of Bar Àlvaro taken by Marvin Shaouni; food photos are my own.
Cooking time: 25 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6 as a side dish
The Spaniards are only slightly less obsessed with olive oil than they are with bread. Consequently, this dish is often served with olive-oil-fried bread (see instructions below); I opted to go a slightly healthier route and serve it with white rice. Either way, it’s tasty.
2 10-ounce bags spinach (if buying unbagged, get about 1 ½ lbs to account for removing the stems)
3 Tbs olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp dried oregano
¾ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
a few grinds of nutmeg
small pinch ground cinnamon
4 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 15-oz can chickpeas, drained (see note)
about 5 strands of saffron, crumbled and soaked in 2 Tbs very hot water
1 small pinch of sugar
coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbs red wine vinegar
optional: 6 slices baguette, about ¼-inch thick
olive oil for frying
Note: The original recipe calls for including the canned chickpea liquid, but I preferred not to. If the dish looks at all dry at any time, you can add 2-3 Tbs water.
Rinse the spinach in a colander, allowing some water to cling to the leaves. Place the spinach in a large, wide skillet over medium heat and cover. Cook until wilted, stirring occasionally. Return the spinach to the colander and squeeze out the excess liquid with the back of a spoon (don’t worry about getting it totally dry). When cool enough to handle, chop the spinach medium-fine.
Heat the olive oil in a 10″ cast iron skillet (or earthenware cazuela, if you have one) over medium low heat. Add half of the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the paprika, oregano, cumin, red pepper flakes, nutmeg, and cinnamon; stir in the tomatoes. Cook until thickened and slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Add the spinach and chickpeas and bring to a simmer. Add the saffron, sugar, and salt & pepper to taste. Cook until the spinach is very tender and the flavors have melded, about 8 minutes.
While the spinach is cooking, place the remaining garlic in a mortar and crush it to a paste. Add the vinegar to the garlic and scrape the mixture into the spinach. Cook an additional 2-3 minutes. Taste and do a final adjustment of seasonings (salt, pepper, sugar and vinegar can all be tweaked; I found myself adding a little more vinegar). Let the spinach cool slightly before serving.
If desired, fry the bread: Pour olive oil to a depth of about ½ inch into a small skillet. Fry the bread in two batches until golden and crisp, about 45 seconds per side. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Drain on paper towels and arrange the bread around the spinach.