Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The great and the grelos

I'm going to put my neck on the line here, with a bit of a bold statement; I think it's fairly safe to say that Spring is finally here. Even in this drizzly, meteorologically-blighted part of the world, it feels as though we've taken a step towards summer, or at least, shuffled away from winter a little bit. With spring comes an abundance of produce from the garden, and in the last week or so, I've yanked radishes from the veg patches, picked field lettuce from the gardens, and grinned from ear to ear as plates of freshly cut asparagus have been placed on the dinner table.

For the Galician gardener this variety comes as something of a relief, as up until now the fresh crop has been limited to some cauliflowers, the odd chard if you're lucky, and a never-ending supply of grelos. I suppose it is for this reason, that grelos are such a bona fide Galician staple. No garden is complete without a patch of their straggly stems, shooting skyward in the hope of finding some sunshine amidst all the rain. They're also the traditional accompaniment to any hearty Galician meal. All the meat in a cocido means nothing without them, you'll inevitably find a few bobbing about in a caldo, and a plate of pink, juicy lacon is naked if deprived of their accompaniment. If it's early spring, and a Galego is doing the cooking, there's a strong chance they'll make their way onto the dinner table somehow, amongst all the potato and pig fat.

Despite sounding like the inhabitants of an alien planet in Star Wars, grelos, along with their relatives, the nabos, are actually part of the turnip family. Both are hardy enough to withstand the frosts of Galicia's raw winters, and eager enough to sprout that they pop up before most other greens have come out of hibernation. As is the case with the turnip, generally only the root of a nabo is eaten. With grelos, the root is discarded and fed to the cows, whilst the humans get the leafy green tops, and turn them into a slimy, over-cooked mush.

If truth be told, spring marks the end of grelo season. As soon as they start to flower, they're past they're best – it's time to chop their heads off and start again for next year. And that sort of makes this post obsolete; like telling you how to roast your turkey on the 6th of January. Anyway, I've started, so I'll finish...

They're barely grown anywhere outside of Galica, certainly not in any great quantity. Even in neighbouring Austurias, which shares similar geography and climate, they are far less of a fixture in both agriculture and diet. Bizarrely, they've never really made it beyond the mountains, which is far less than can be said for the many Galegos who've traded this rainy little corner of Spain for more exotic lands. In fact, so many people left Galicia for South America, that the slang term for a Spanish immigrant there is a Galego, no matter which province they come from.

Another little sociological aside is the curiously Galego trait of morriña, a kind of nostalgic for what they no longer have. For all those who've left the province for pastures new, this means a constant feeling of acute, rose-tinted home-sickness. I've heard stories of ex-pat Galegos welling up at the very mention of their homeland, stopping to clear the lump in their throats before they've even finished telling you about the bad weather. This may explain the huge export market for grelos, which are tinned and shipped to ex-Spanish colonies the world over. Those misty-eyed ex-pats need a taste of home.

Whilst we're on the subject of second-hand trivia, I have it on good authority that morriña is not actually a socio-psychological condition, but a chemical one. Apparently the granite bed rock in Galicia contains abnormally high levels of plutonium. So it's not home sickness those émigrés are suffering from, it's withdrawal symptoms. Xago's Grelos, now with added radioactivity – you can almost see the slogan now...

What was the point of all this again? I think the plutonium must have gone to my head.

Two ways with grelos

Whilst grelos may not be the most glamourous of vegetables, they are certainly ubiquitous. At the Reitoral de Chandrexa, we had so many we ended up feeding the stems to the pigs (for some reason only cows will eat the bulb), whilst at Tanquian, I spent a whole day picking them, and managed to fill twelve carrier bags full. I spent much of that time day dreaming up recipes to use them...

Grelos con salsa de hollandaisa

A variation on the classic asparagus with hollandaise sauce. You could also substitute the grelos for purple sprouting broccoli.

Serves at least four

a bunch of grelos, say 20-30 stems (or a bunch of asparagus / purple sprouting broccoli stems)

two egg yolks

125g unsalted butter

lemon juice

a pinch of salt

Put the egg yolks and butter in a heat proof bowl, and place over a pan of simmering water, as you if you were melting chocolate. Gently whisk as the butter melts, so the two mix together. Keep whisking as you heat, and after a few minutes, the sauce will begin to thicken. Add a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice to taste, and remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, steam or boil your greens so they are just tender, and remove to a serving plate. Drizzle the sauce over the top, or use it as a dip.

Lasagne de grelos y castañas

Chestnuts are common as muck in Galicia, but if you can't find them, hazelnuts or walnuts would work just as well. Spinach or broccoli would both make ample substitutes for the grelos.

Serves at least four

one big bunch of grelos (or one large bag of spinach / head of broccoli)

one packet lasagne (or some fresh, home-made stuff if you have the time and the paraphernalia)

a large onion, finely sliced

a couple of cloves of garlic, finely chopped

a large tub of ricotta cheese


a few handfuls of chestnuts (or other unsalted nuts), shelled

salt and pepper


Lightly toast the nuts in a dry frying pan, over a medium heat. Keep an eye on them, and give the pan the occasional shake, as they do have a tendency to burn. After a few minutes, they will have a bit of colour, and you'll smell the warm, nutty, aroma. Add a little olive oil to the pan, followed by the onions and garlic. Sauté until the onions are soft and slightly golden. Remove from the heat. Blanch your greens in lightly-salted boiling water for a few minutes. Remove and mix with the onions. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Lightly grease a suitable oven-proof dish, and put a layer of lasagne on the bottom. Put a layer of the vegetable / nut mixture on top, followed by some generous splodges of ricotta, and a grating of nutmeg. Repeat the layers until you've used up the mixture. Put another layer of lasagne on the top, plus some smaller splodges of ricotta, and a good covering of parmesan. Sprinkle a few more nuts on top, and bake in the oven for half an hour so if using dried pasta, 15 minutes or less if using fresh.

Serve with salad and crusty bread.

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