Above: We have Catalan cookery to thank for Escudella i carn d’olla
I’ve always been a fan of spy thrillers and many years ago remember reading Cold War era stories set in the Eastern Bloc in which the author describes the smell of boiled cabbage permeating the stairwells of bleak apartment blocks. It all sounded so grim and even the food sounded too unappealing to distract from the harsh realities of life during that time.
While I never lived in the Eastern Bloc, I did once visit St Petersburg for a few days.
This isn’t a story of that visit.
However, it is the story of how I learnt to love that boiled cabbage smell.
A years or so before moving to Barcelona I bought “Catalan Cuisine” by Coleman Andrews to learn how to cook a few Catalan dishes and take my mind of the fact that while she was in Catalonia, I certainly wasn’t. I tried out a few recipes when I had the time, and when I finally broke the deadlock of a 3½-year long distance relationship by moving to Barcelona it must have been used rarely as my culinary focus turned to curry. I suppose I had anticipated missing some elements of my life back home, but visiting a good Indian restaurant was one that I hadn’t considered.
However, at some point towards the latter part of the nine years I spent in Barcelona we decided one weekend to cook what my other half simply calls “caldo”. She described how many families would cook it, boiling up meats and veg to serve as a soup and main course from one pot.
It sounded similar to something I’d seen in my Catalan cookbook, and so I found it; escudella i carn d’olla, or just escudella.
One pot cooking
In his book Andrews gives a step-by-step recipe for cooking the dish and, after we bought all the ingredients that we liked (the menu calls for a halved pig’s foot, which we decided to leave out) I found out what those packs of vegetables I’d seen in the supermarket were for.
Most supermarkets in Catalonia have packs containing carrots, leek, celery, turnip and parsnips throughout the year. To the meat and packs of vegetables you add cabbage and chickpeas.
Cooked over a period of hours it turned out well, and great for getting rid of the winter chills, easy to heat up and lasted quite a few days, as well as making some of the best soup I’ve ever tasted.
Following that first attempt we cooked it more or less every year, sometimes more often that others, but it has always been time consuming because of the amount of time you take between adding another ingredient.
Same results but fast and easy
Fast forward to last year, when we got a pressure cooker. We decided to give the caldo a go in the pressure cooker rather than the long drawn out method and were surprised to find the result was just as good and far simpler. This is how it goes:
Fill the pressure cooker about one third full with water and put on a high heat. Skin a couple of chicken legs and place in the water. Take half the pack of veg and peel. Cut coarsely and throw them in the water. Take half a cabbage and cut it in two, then place in the water. Take a piece of beef or pork and add to the pot. Take some ready-made meatballs (you buy them in packs of 24 from Mercadona, saving a lot of effort) and put in the pot. Put the lid on, get to boiling point and turn the head down to low for fifteen minutes. Turn the heat off and allow to cool. Once you can get the lid off drain and wash a jar of chickpeas, add to the pot for long enough to warm through and serve.
That’s it, your caldo will be done in a fraction of the time and over the course of the week the soup well get progressively tastier. Before you get to the end of it, simply add more veg, more meat and meatballs and you can keep it going forever.
Probably not to everyone’s taste, but that is a genuine Catalan home cooked meal that will keep feeding you for days. And if there are more of you either get a bigger pot or cook it in two pots.