I first had this wonderful vegetable stew - a northern Spanish equivalent of a spring vegetable minestrone - in a restaurant in Pamplona and dreamed about it for several years before managing to recreate it.
This version comes from winemaker Maria Martinez of Bodegas Montecillo in Rioja who I was interviewing for a feature in Decanter. We bought the ingredients together from the market in Logrono.
Like cassoulet and bouillabaisse, menestra is one of those dishes about which huge arguments rage. Basically it can be made from any seasonal green vegetables, “from two up to twenty” as Maria puts it, but the ideal time of year to prepare it is in the spring when artichokes and spring vegetables such as peas and beans are in season.
There are apparently certain ground rules though. You mustn’t use dried beans or other pulses or peppers (too slimey). Jars of vegetables are permissible but should not be mixed with fresh ones. Spinach is fine if added at the end. Opinions differ as to whether you should use onions, garlic and herbs, whether the vegetables should be cooked separately or together and whether or not hard boiled egg should be added. The consistency should be more that of a stew than a soup though some cooks like to make it more liquid.
10-12 baby artichokes
2 heads of borraja* (borage)
1/2 a large head of chard
250g asparagus, trimmed
250g green beans
3-4 potatoes cut into small dice
125g thickly cut panceta (streaky bacon), diced
A thick slice of dry cured Spanish ham (about 100g)
About 75g chorizo, diced
4-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Olive or corn oil
Salt and pepper
Trim the artichoke bottoms and strip off the outer leaves until you are down to the yellow leaves at the heart. (Handling artichokes can stain your hands black so you may want to use plastic or rubber gloves for this). Trim off the very top of the remaining leaves and cut the artichoke hearts in half and drop them into a pan of acidulated water. (Water with lemon juice added to stop them discolouring).
Cut the top and bottom off each stalk of borraja then peel away the fibrous strips (rather as you would the edge of a runner bean). Remove the green part of the chard leaves saving them for another recipe and chop the white stalks. Trim and chop the asparagus and roughly slice the beans.
Tip all the vegetables into a large pan of boiling, lightly salted water and cook until tender - about 30-40 minutes (Some cooks cook each vegetable separately) Meanwhile fry the cubed potato and cook until tender, then add the panceta. Once the fat starts to run add the diced ham and chorizo and finely chopped garlic. Drain the vegetables and tip the fried potatoes and ham into the pan. Mix well, adjust the seasoning and serve.
What to drink:
Breaking one of the cardinal rules of food and wine matching that red wine and artichokes simply don't go, we drank a 1975 magnum of Montecillo Gran Reserva Especial throughout this meal, including the menestra. As you’d expect for a wine of that age it was quite delicate but still full of seductive damson fruit which we were surprised to find worked perfectly well with the soup. Whether that was due to the long cooking time, the smokey notes provided by the chorizo or the age of the wine we weren't sure but the experiment would be hard to repeat successfully. A more conventional pairing would have been a white Rioja or Rioja rosado.
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