Beans and Rice: Everyday Wisdom
How many new ideas would you expect to find for beans and rice in Altamiras’s recipes? Few, you might think, given rice’s long-valued place in medieval court cookery and dried beans’ everyday use as a basic of popular kitchens well before the arrival of New World haricots (Phaseolus vulgaris). But Altamiras paid beans unusual gastronomic attention and he knew unusual popular local rice dishes to add to the court repertoire. In the autumn he probably cooked home-grown and certainly new-season pochas, then, later in the winter, dried haricots. Those from the Río Grio, where the friars collected their alms, were famed for their quality thanks to the pure snow-water irrigation of the kitchen-gardens along the river. Either way, he did not soak his beans, simply blanched them first, a technique designed to avoid fermentation during the soaking and so make them more digestible. This method still works well if you use spring or mineral water and you are cooking beans with under a year of dried shelf-life. All the flavourings Altamiras added at the end of cooking time, with plenty of variants for different days of the week and seasons: an onion sofrito with peppermint and saffron, or handfuls of fresh parsley and peppermint with olive oil, or breadcrumbs and grated cheese, in all cases with salt at the end. For rice his new ideas were probably morisco influenced and from the inland growing areas: for example, he fried his grains in olive oil with saffron then added cooking liquid and a little flaked fish and tomatoes to give a dry rice given the legendary picturesque name Arroz a la Caputxina in La Cuynera Catalana (1835). Most intriguingly of all he gave the rice a thin golden grilled crust, almost in the Persian tahchin style, adapted from medieval “gilded” dishes: this he could deliver at no cost thanks to plentiful eggs from the friary hen-house. All these dishes are more than accompaniments, patient and easygoing: they can take first place before other dishes, as in Spanish meals today, or, as on Lenten days in the friaries, they make a whole meal.