Boasting a gastronomic history of some ten centuries, that Meditteranean morsel known as Catalan cuisine is stunningly simple and seasonal. A rich culinary tradition that predates medieval times, the first book of Catalan recipes was the Llibre de Sent Sovi (1324). In its own inimitable fashion, this cuisine has managed to incorporate foods that have arrived through contact with other cultures via trade, conquest or regional cross-pollination. Catalan food can boast of aristocracy and nobility yet remain rustic…where both complexity and modesty are revered.

CATALAN SPINACH

1/4 C raisins

2-3 T olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/4 C pine nuts
1/4 C dried apricots, thinly sliced

2 spinach bunches (about 2 lbs), stemmed, well rinsed and drained
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place raisins in bowl. Cover with hot water and let soak 10 minutes in order to plump, then drain.

Heat olive oil in heavy large Dutch oven or a deep heavy skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until golden, about 4 minutes. Discard garlic. Increase heat to medium high and add pine nuts until they are slightly brown. Then add raisins and apricots and toss to coat well. Add the spinach and sauté very quickly for a couple of minutes until it begins to wilt, stirring occasionally. Remember, the spinach will continue to wilt off the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

God forgives the sin of gluttony.
~Catalan proverb

Catalonia, formerly encompassing areas of what is now northeast Spain and southwest France, is now an “autonomous community” situated in northeast Spain. It has even been conferred this quasi sovereign status by law (the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, first passed in 1979 and later approved by referendum in 2006). Despite uncertain etymology, the word Catalonia is probably derived from “land of castles.”

Catalonia went through the usual Iberian progression: first the Greeks, then the Romans, followed by the Visigoths with a visit by the Moors. Already the makings of a culinary olio. Independent Catalan culture started to develop in the late Middle Ages stemming from a number of fiefdoms organized throughout northern Catalonia which were ruled by Frankish vassals nominated by the king of France. The region gradually became independent from French rule. In the 13th century, the king of France formally relinquished his feudal lordship over Catalonia to James I, king of Aragon (which flanks Catalonia to the west). Centuries later, Northern Catalonia (Catalunya Nord) was ceded by Spain to France through the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees thus creating the triangular wedge that is French Catalonia and recognizable today as the ancient region Roussillon.

The point of this meandering path is that gastronomy is about regions, not nations or countries. So, despite their distinct characters, it is little surprise that Catalonia and Languedoc-Roussillon have shared and borrowed not just cultural traits, but also culinary influences freely. Few deny the nexus between the soulful food of northeast Spain and southwest France.

Escalivar means “to cook slowly in hot ashes.” An apt description for prolonged foreplay. The vegetables in an escalivada can be roasted, but are preferable grilled as it imparts that smoky charcoal flavor which is the essence of the dish. The ending “-ada” denotes a Catalan tradition of a collective meal for many, served family style.

ESCALIVADA CATALANA—GRILLED VEGETABLE MEDLEY

2 medium eggplants, cut in half lengthwise
2 medium yellow onions, sliced thick
2 red bell peppers, cut in half lengthwise
4 large ripe tomatoes, cut in half
Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing

1 T sherry vinegar
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
1 plump, fresh garlic clove, minced
1 T capers, drained
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Prepare charcoal grill to between medium and medium high heat.

Brush the vegetables with olive oil and roast over the grill until soft, turning once. You likely will need to remove the eggplants, peppers and tomatoes before the onions. The skin of the peppers should be blackened. The skins of the vegetables should be loose. When they are cool enough to handle, peel the skin off with your fingers. Stem and seed the peppers, and remove the tops of the eggplants and tomatoes with a knife. Cut or tear the peppers into strips and the tomatoes and eggplants into rough pieces. If necessary, slice the onions a little thinner. Mix the vegetables together with the vinaigrette and then arrange in a colorful fashion on a serving platter. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Place garlic and 1 teaspoon sea salt into a mortar and, using a pestle, pound into a smooth paste. In a small bowl add olive oil, sherry vinegar, garlic paste and capers. Whisk thoroughly.

Hangs well with grilled meats. Serve hot or room temperature.