The Story

A Family’s Recipe, Saved by Snail Mail

By Lindsay Sterling

My friend’s mother from Spain, Carmen Studley, invited me to learn how to cook her favorite dish from home. She grew up in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a town on the Atlantic coast in Andalusia, about an hour from Seville. Over 45 years ago, many of her cousins were working at the nearby Rota navy base, delivering supplies to the cafeteria. They enjoyed speaking English with U.S. soldiers and often went out with them after work. Carmen fell in love with one of the soldiers. They got married in Spain and came to live in the U.S. where he returned to work at the company that would become Verizon.
Carmen’s daughter, Monica Wright, reminisced about all the great foods she encountered when she visited her mom’s hometown. “There was a snail bar where every item on the menu included land snails. They were really pretty good,” she said, knowing Americans would be skeptical. Even better, “Everything in town was served on French fries. French fries with broiled peppers and sea salt. French fries with stewed tomatoes, bread, and fried egg…” Carmen chimed in, “French fries with lamb shish kabobs, marinated in cumin and a little rosemary.”
Of all her food memories, Carmen chose to cook potaje con acelgas y garbanzos, or chickpea and chard stew.  “It’s a winter family house dish,” she said, “This is the way I grew up.” Carmen had already soaked the dried garbanzo beans over night and was now cooking them in water in a large soup pot on the stove. She trimmed off the ends off the chard stems, cut across the leaves into 2-inch segments, and added them to the pot with the beans.
In a medium sauté pan she fried slivers of garlic in 1/3 cup oil until they turned golden. Then she fried two slices of bread, which soaked up the garlic-flavored oil. In a mortar and pestle she mashed the fried garlic and bread with a small heap of ground cumin, a large heap of Spanish paprika, and a little water until she created a red paste.
“It has to say pimentón dulce,” she insisted, pointing to a rectangular canister of Chiquilin brand paprika from Spain. That’s the mild, sweet kind. The other kinds of paprika in Spain, picante (hot), ahumado (smoked), or (agridulce) bittersweet, are totally different. My non-Spanish paprika at home was bitter and lifeless compared to hers.
When the garbanzos were still a little bit al dente, she strained the beans and chard, covered them with fresh water (saying the chard cooking liquid was bitter), and created the soup broth by adding the red paste and a chicken bouillon cube into the new water. My first reaction after tasting the completed soup was saying, “I want to eat this every day!” It’s a beautiful color red, deeply satisfying, a great way to eat chard, and just plain delicious.  
Carmen’s mother had taught her how to make this soup before she moved to the U.S., but after Carmen arrived, she kept thinking something was missing. “There was no phone in our home in Spain, so I would write a letter to my mother, asking my cooking question.” When Carmen insisted on sending me home with a can of the right paprika, I knew it must have been the missing ingredient. It’s not easy to find here. She told me to keep an eye out for it at HomeGoods and T.J.Maxx. As of this writing, there are 3 canisters available on ebay. Write me if you know of a source!

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2015