The menestra uses seasonal vegetabes from the region. | J. AGUIRRE


Many visitors to Spain who are unfamiliar with Spanish cooking, are often puzzled by the apparent lack of vegetables - not at the market stalls or in the supermarket, but in restaurant dishes. They see many meat dishes with potatoes but no other veggie and they wonder what Spanish cooks do with them.

It's true that Spanish cooks don't do meat and potatoes with two or three vegetables because they, like the French and the Italians, prefer to give their vegetables a major role at the table and turn them into separate courses that are usually served as starters. Spaniards eat more vegetables and legumes than the British or the Americans but you'll seldom find them on a plate beside a steak, a chicken joint or other portion of meat.

In Spanish regional cooking there are many dishes in which a vegetable, or a trio or quartet of complementary veggies, are cooked with onions and other flavourings to produce a first course. I looked at two Spanish cookbooks to see what they had in the way of vegetables dishes. A book on the cooking of Navarra had a veggie chapter with 80 dishes, 7 vegetable soups, 14 based on rice and veggies, and 7 done with veggies and beans. A cookbook from Murcia had 19 salads, 10 soups, 34 veggie dishes, 6 rices, 14 with beans and 11 done with eggs. Vegetarians would have no difficulty in planning a wide variety of menus very much to their liking. These vegetable dishes that make splendid starters are sometimes done with smooth sauces and subtle herb flavourings that put them in the haute cuisine class despite their rural origins. On the other hand they can be robust affairs that are meant to take the edge off a farmworker's ravenous appetite after a long morning in the fields.

One of these rustic dishes is called Menestra, a vegetable stew found in many parts of Spain and which usually contains a nice mix of root and green leaf veggies. Some menestras are so substantial they can be served as a mains for lunch, especially when they contain, eggs, meat or charcuterie.

There is no single recipe for a menestra and the dishes that go under this name are more than simple variations on a theme. All of them make use of vegetables in season and some include other ingredients for which a particular area is famous. This means that in some coastal towns clams find their way into a menestra and in some of the colder parts of northern Spain it's not unusual to come across recipes that call for fresh pork, ham or bacon. But menestra usually means a dish of vegetables, so it's ideal for vegetarians.

A menestra in Asturias can be a thick nutmeg-flavoured soup with artichokes, tiny onions, green beans, fresh broad beans, small potatoes and courgettes. And because it can get rather cold there, the vegetables are sautéed in lard and snippets of fatty bacon are added.

Navarra, which is famous for its market garden produce, has two quite different menestras. One, from the Tudela area, makes use of only fresh broad beans and tender baby artichokes, cooked with chopped onions and flavoured with bay leaf and thyme. The dish is finished off with a picada made with garlic, parsley, almonds, fried bread and saffron pounded to a paste in a mortar. Slices of hard-boiled eggs are added to the menestra before serving it. The other menestra from Navarra is completely different. It also contains artichokes but is combined with fresh peas, roasted red peppers and asparagus. The asparagus from Navarra is the best in Spain. Slivers of cured ham are added and everything is sautéed in lard - it also gets cold in Navarra and those extra calories are an essential part of the diet.

If the ingredients in the first menestra from Navarra are thought of as a chamber music ensemble, then those of a menestra in Castile are a full-blown symphony orchestra. It is made with chicken, cured ham, streaky bacon, hard-boiled eggs, artichokes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, courgettes, fresh peas, fresh broad beans, red peppers, potatoes and green beans. The vegetables must be young and tender and salt is the only seasoning.

Santander is on the Cantabrian coast where the shellfish is as good as you can get anywhere, so it's not surprising that their menestra includes big clams on the half shell with potatoes, red peppers, carrots, onions, tomatoes and green beans.

As the menestra is a simple dish its success depends very much on using first class ingredients — and that means young, tender and very fresh. There's not much point in attempting a menestra with veggies that have been lying in the fridge for three days. The menestra is an excellent example of how vegetables that complement each other can be cooked together to make delicious dishes.

A menestra from Murcia uses fresh broad beans, peas, artichokes and new potatoes in a dish that is as elegant as it is tasty. You will need: 300grs shelled fresh broad beans, 400grs fresh shelled peas, 250grs trimmed fresh artichokes, 500grs new potatoes, 1 medium-sized onion, 3 spring onions with plenty of green, 400grs fresh tomatoes, 2 garlic cloves, 3tbsps olive oil and 4-6 hard-boiled eggs. Chop the onion and spring onions very finely. Peel tomatoes and chop to a pulp. Mince the garlic cloves. Heat the olive oil in a flattish greixonera, add the onion and spring onion and sauté over a low heat for 10 minutes. Add the finely chopped garlic and cook for another five minutes. Stir in the pulpy tomatoes and sauté everything on a low heat for about 30 minutes, or until the mixture is thick and jam-like. Peel the potatoes and cut them into smallish pieces. Shell the peas and the broad beans. Prepare the artichokes by first stripping off the tough outer leaves and trimming the base. Cut off at least the top half of the leaves and discard. Slice the base into four and scrape out the choke with a small knife. Put them immediately into a bowl of water acidulated with lemon juice. Parboil the potatoes for about five minutes and add them, the broad beans and the peas to the tomato mixture. Stir well and cover with some of the water in which the potatoes were boiled. Simmer for five minutes before stir-ring in the artichoke pieces. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring back to the boil, lower the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender. Five minutes before the dish is ready, peel the hard-boiled eggs, cut in two lengthwise and arrange decoratively, cut side down, on top of the menestra.

The combination of the peas, broad beans, artichokes and potatoes is most successful and the dish is exquisite if the vegetables are young ones. This dish calls for lots of peas and when they are at their sweetest I usually add another 100grs. A Spanish friend prefers to chop the hard-boiled eggs and sprinkle them over the surface just before serving the dish. But I think this turns it into kind of mishmash and detracts from the subtle colours and textures of the four main ingredients. Another friend discards the white of the hard-boiled eggs and mashes the yolks with some of the liquid from the vegetables to make a paste. She then stirs it into the vegetables to thicken the sauce. This is a much more acceptable variation. But another friend makes an abominable change. He adds tiny pieces of cured ham and butifarron (Majorcan black pudding). And that ruins the dish. The subtle balance of the young vegetables is destroyed by the robust flavours from the ham and the black pudding.This dish is superb as it is and one should avoid any temptation to mess about with it.

Spinach is another green leaf vegetable you'll come across in menestras, potajes and dishes of a similar kind. It is a relatively young veggie and neither the ancient Greeks nor the Romans used it. It is a native of Persia where it was valued more for its medicinal properties than its culinary uses. It has been cultivated in Europe since the Middle Ages and the Crusaders took it to England.

Renaissance cooks used it to add colour to pale dishes and considered it more of a herb than a vegetable. English cooks used it to flavour soups and vegetable stews but when these started to go out of fashion in aristocratic homes, it became a vegetable in its own right. In many old Spanish recipes (and some contemporary ones) it was cooked with spices and a touch of sweetness in the form of honey or sugar. The sweetening agent nowadays is more likely to be raisins or pinenuts.

Spinach is especially popular in Catalonia and Majorca. One of the most famous recipes in Spanish regional cooking is espinacs a la catalana, a savoury dish which had its origins in the Middle Ages. Europeans in medieval times adored warm spices and sweetness in savoury food. Sweet soups were an essential part of banquet meals at one time, but as tastes changed and people went over to intense savoury flavours, the sweet soups were dropped from the menu. But some of them simply made their way to the end of the meal where they were served as dessert.

Rice pudding as we know it to-day was originally one of those sweet soups. But espinacs a la catalana is an ancient recipe that has managed to stay the course without undergoing any changes: many people today still like a spot of sweetness in savoury dishes. That's why sweet and sour sauces are popular on chargrilled meats and in Oriental dishes.

Spinach and chard are used in many Majorcan recipes, sometimes cooked in the simplest of ways, as when chopped spinach is sautéed in a little olive oil with garlic and eaten with grilled meats — or on its own topped with a fried egg. Both spinach and chard are essential ingredients in some sopes mallorquines recipes, one of the reasons they are always available at markets. They are also used as a topping for coca de verdura and as a filling for cocarrois, the crescent-shaped pastry that looks like a mini Cornish pasty.

A favourite Majorcan starter is espinacas a la crema, or creamed spinach. It was on every restaurant menu in the old days but I seldom see it now. It is one of the easier dishes and is a good starter. Finely chop the required amount of cooked spinach, sauté in a saucepan with plenty of butter until it wilts completely. Stir in some thick bechamel sauce and add salt, pepper and grated nutmeg to taste. Serve very hot with snippets of fried read. A most comforting starter on cold days.