When the freezing weather was especially bitter last week, a friend asked me for the recipe of a traditional Spanish dish that helps to keep the cold at bay. He didn’t want an elaborate cocido madrileño or fabada asturiana, both of which are somewhat expensive and should be made for at least six.
He was thinking of something with meat, potatoes and other vegetables but which could be made easily for two. And the overall cost had to be low.
That may sound like a tall order, but it’s not: Spanish regional cooking has dozens of dishes that take in the above specifications — and then some. One of the advantages of these winter warmers is that they are cheap.
My first thought was that with a few chorizos, plus potatoes for bulk, anyone can make satisfying dishes at little cost and with even less effort. Having started off thinking about chorizos and potatoes, I decided to stick with them and give my friend the recipe for a traditional dish called patatas con chorizo. It’s a relatively simple mainland dish and it’s a real winter warmer. Any leftovers can be reheated and the dish will be even better than the first time round.
Chorizos are relatively cheap and there are several varieties to choose from — and in every shop and supermarket you’ll find potatoes at bargain prices. Even some up-market varieties cost less than a euro per kilo.
I made my first patatas con chorizo more than 40 years ago when there wasn’t a great deal of choice in chorizos. When I set out to make this dish, for a group of wine-loving friends, I was hoping to find chorizos from La Rioja, as this dish is mainly associated with that area.
I traipsed round Palma’s three main markets before I found suitable potatoes at the Plaza Pedro Garau. But none of the stalls had chorizos from La Rioja. I had to be satisfied with some from Huesca which was as near as I could get to Logroño, the capital of La Rioja.
The next step was to look for a traditional recipe I hadn’t come across before and I mistakenly thought this would be the easiest part — this dish doesn’t allow for much variation.
However, you often find the simplest of Spanish dishes can vary tremendously from place to place. That was the case with patatas con chorizo. All recipes called for chorizos and potatoes, but the similarities ended there.
Some cooks in La Rioja add lamb ribs and pork tenderloin, as at the Hostal Echaurren in Ezcarey, one of the best restaurants in La Rioja at that time. The Echaurren also used fresh green peppers and dried red peppers. Most cooks use only the dried red one, called pimientos choriceros. Echaurren included onions in their recipe, but in many parts of La Rioja they are left out. Echaurren doesn’t use tomatoes, others do.
I was surprised that every recipe I came across in books and my files (and I looked at more than 30) used what I considered to be small amounts of sweet paprika (pimentón dulce).
This is one of La Rioja’s favourite spices and the scant level teaspoons called for were good deal less than I expected. Some cooks insisted on using freshly made chorizos and others preferred those that had been cured: hung up to dry and become hard.
One difference is that the cured chorizos take about an hour to become tender and fresh chorizos, which are soft and tender to begin with, need only be simmered for about 20 minutes.
Many cooks, including those at Echaurren, include a picada of parsley and garlic when the water is added to the pot. Other cooks never use parsley to flavour this dish. Just about everyone sautés the potatoes in olive oil before adding water. But a top Spanish food writer gave the recipe of a woman in La Rioja who doesn’t sauté her potatoes. He said her patatas con chorizo was the best he had ever tasted. Every ingredient in this woman’s recipe, including the olive oil, is put straight into a pot of water and cooked over a high heat until ready. She adds a sofrito of garlic and parsley 10 minutes before serving it.
One ingredient on which just about everyone agrees is a bay leaf or two. They are added with the water. In La Rioja and surrounding areas, cooks are fond of using hot chillis or cayenne pepper. So some like their patatas con chorizo with a piquant touch…and, of course, others don’t.
Faced with that barrage of conflicting ingredients more than 40 years ago, I went over all the recipes and selected what I considered the best points from each one.
As I was using cured chorizos, I simmered them the night before until they were tender, which took an hour. They gave out a lot of fat and by next morning it had solidified. I carefully scraped it off and used it to sauté the chunks of potato very slowly for about 20 minutes. They soaked up the fat and the spices in it.
I then added water, two bay leaves, minced garlic, some roughly chopped roasted red peppers and the chorizos cut into 3 cms pieces. The contents of the pan were boiled briskly for 10 minutes followed by another 10 minutes at a mere simmer.
The dish was reheated for dinner, and the potatoes were beautifully soft and bursting with flavour. An enologist from La Rioja, who was a guest that night, liked this version of patatas con chorizo so much he asked me for a detailed explanation of how I had made it.
Chorizos frescos from Mercadona and El Corte Inglés work nicely with this version. Although I said fresh chorizos will cook in 20 minutes, if you simmer them for an hour they will be extremely tender and also have a lovely texture.
This is a potato dish, so it’s important to use the right kind of potato. You should use two varieties: those that keep their shape when cooked in a dish like this, plus some floury ones that will disintegrate into a kind of purée and thicken the rich stock, giving it a delicious consistency.