The closest I ever got to Spain was a small mountain village high on the French side of the Pyrenees.
Buying a train ticket to "the end of the line", I found myself, late in the day, in a medieval maze of steep, cobble-stoned alleys and dark stone bridges that crouched over rushing streams.
There was hardly anyone about, but my luck was in: the sole cafe was open. In no time, I was hoeing into a plate of huevos en tomate, a popular Spanish dish that had escaped over the border, along with the cafe's wrinkled patronne.
Ladling a rich, olive-flecked tomato sauce from a large pot into a cazuela (a shallow terracotta dish glazed on the inside), she made two nests in the hot sauce with the back of a spoon and slipped eggs into the hollows.
Less than 10 minutes later, the cazuela emerged from the ancient oven with the whites set and the yolks still soft. Devoured with the help of a basket of bread, this was fast-food heaven.
The diversity of Spanish food reflects the country's geography and dramatic history: think mountains, coasts and plains, Muslim, Jewish and Catholic influences, fierce regional rivalry, and post-Columbus ingredients from the New World.
Enter the tomato. A vital ingredient in sauces, soups and stews, salads and dressings, and pies, tarts and breads, it is also stuffed with meat, fish or rice.
Slow-roasting pretty much doubles the possibilities, as well as the flavour.
Try this simple lunch recipe both ways and you'll see what I mean.
Dice 2 ripe tomatoes (per person) and place in a bowl with half a clove of crushed garlic and salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir and set aside.
Now toast 2 thick slices from a crusty loaf, drizzle them with extra-virgin olive oil and top with the tomatoes. You won't believe how good this is until you eat it.
Halve 2 ripe tomatoes (per person), place them on a baking sheet or in a slice tin and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Just before you go to bed, turn the oven to its lowest heat and slip the sheet or tin on to a centre rack. Next morning you will be greeted with the intense aroma of the roasted tomatoes, now wrinkled and shrunken.
Dice the tomatoes and place them in a bowl with a little crushed garlic, a touch of sugar and salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir and set aside.
Do the crusty-loaf, olive-oil thing, top with the tomatoes and prepare to swoon.
Today's recipe, adapted from Claudia Roden's The Food of Spain, features flavoursome chicken (thanks to the bones) and the onion-pepper-tomato trio so popular in the northeast of Spain. The original calls for raw, dry-cured ham, but streaky bacon is a good substitute. I like to serve it over long-grain rice cooked in real chicken stock.
CHICKEN WITH TOMATOES AND PEPPERS (serves 6)
1 large red onion, chopped
6 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 red and 2 green peppers, sliced lengthways
750g ripe tomatoes, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp sugar
6 large chicken pieces, preferably Maryland, bone in
4 rashers streaky bacon, cut crosswise into strips
150ml white wine
Method: In a large, heavy-based frying pan, fry the onion in half of the olive oil over a medium heat, stirring often, until softened, about 8-10 minutes.
Add garlic and peppers and cook, still stirring, for a further 10 minutes.
Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and sugar, and cook over a medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is much reduced, about 15-20 minutes. Set pan aside.
In a large, heavy-based, cast-iron casserole, brown chicken pieces in remaining oil over a medium heat, seasoning with salt and pepper and turning once.
Do this in two batches, keeping the first batch warm while you brown the second.
Return first batch to casserole, add bacon, stir for 2-3 minutes, then pour in wine.
Cover and cook over a low heat for 25-30 minutes.
Add sauce from the pan and cook for a further 5 minutes or until chicken and sauce are heated through.
- The Southland Times