I have to admit that I haven’t totally figured out the vegetable situation in Madrid yet. The mercados I shop here — along with the ones I’ve wandered through as we travel around Spain — are absolutely piled high with incredible produce. I’ve seen some of the biggest and most colorful examples of so many different types of fruits and vegetables since we moved here. I just have no idea what happens to those vegetables once they leave the market.
Food in Madrid’s restaurants (at least what I’ve had so far, with only 8 months of residency under my cinturón) tends to be protein-forward. Granted, we’re talking about incredible protein: the world’s most delicious hams, including otherworldly jamón ibérico de bellota; tiny chuletas (chops) of milk-fed lamb; astounding seafood of all types, from briny, hand-harvested Galician percebes (barnacles) to meaty filets of atún (tuna) and perfectly steamed pulpo (octopus); densely flavorful and creamy legumbres (legumes) of all varieties; and huevos with the richest yellow yolks you’ll ever see.
Of course, there are a few salads on almost every menu. The trusty ensalada rusa is everywhere, but since it’s composed of eggs, potatoes, tuna and mayonnaise, it’s not going to scratch your leafy green itch. Luckily, just about every restaurant also serves an ensalada mixta of lettuce, onion, tomato, green olives, hard-cooked eggs and tuna. Vegetarians and vegans, beware: if you see an ensalada verde on the menu, you might ask if this “green” salad also has eggs and tuna in it — those two items seem to fall into the category of greens here.
And when dining out, if your plan is to order a salad along with whatever you’d like to have as your entrée, you’ll need to think again. At least in restaurants, the idea of a “side salad” or “starter salad” doesn’t seem popular here. When you order an ensalada mixta, you’re most likely getting a salad that’s a teeny bit smaller than what Americans think of as an “entrée salad.” And if you order an entrée next, you might get a quizzical look from your camarero, since you basically just ordered two main dishes.
It’s also hard to find an entrée that comes with a side of vegetables. A handful of grilled pimientos de padrón (tiny, mild green peppers from Galicia) — along with patatas fritas — are common accompaniments to roasted cuts of meat, but you’re not going to find a side of roasted root vegetables or sautéed greens anywhere easily. (Though if you do, leave me a comment and tell me where!)
Vegetables, instead, are more often used for flavor and accent, long-simmered in stews and sauces with all this amazing protein. Rather than being the star of the dish — or even a quirky character actor — vegetables function more as a cast of extras, hanging around in the background and blending in while adding depth. Totally delicious, to be sure, but it’s a big change for an American palette. “How do you order vegetables?” is something I’ve heard again and again from perplexed American tourists who’ve been gorging on all kinds of jamón and queso for days, only to emerge desperately needing a few servings of kale or broccoli before they head to the airport.
In fact, I was in a Spanish class a few months ago, and we were practicing how to use the verb gustar to say that we like something. Our teacher had us go around the table, offering up one thing we liked and one thing we didn’t like about living in Madrid. I was at a loss for something I genuinely didn’t like, so when my turn came, I mentioned that I thought it was hard to find vegetables in restaurants. Instantly, the rest of my class — students from Belgium, Germany, Iraq, Ireland and Turkey — were all echoing their agreement. “Oh yeah! It is really hard to get vegetables!” My teacher, a jovial millennial madrileño, looked dumbfounded. He started rattling off the names of all kinds of vegetables he knew we already knew the names of, but one of my classmates cut him off. “Yeah, sure, you can buy those vegetables in the grocery store. But when do the Spanish eat them?” Something was clearly lost in translation.
This is where home cooking comes in, for us veggie-deprived expats and, I suspect, for Spanish home cooks, too, judging by the numbers of them I see buying fresh vegetables at the market on any given day. Because if you make sure to eat plenty of vegetables at home, then there’s no reason to feel guilty when you order a plate of cecina (dry-cured beef) or gambas al ajillo (shrimp sautéed in loads of garlic and olive oil) at one of the thousands of incredible bars and restaurants in Madrid.
One of the easiest ways to eat vegetables is in a simple puréed soup. This is a dish I relied on a lot back home in the States (especially when I had a few pieces of less-than-stellar produce lurking in the fridge that needed to be used up), and the longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve noticed that vegetable soups are really prominent in Madrid’s restaurants. Nearly every menu will have a sopa del dia or crema del dia on it — a soup usually tilted heavily toward vegetables with a bit of meat or beans thrown in for heartiness. And of course, when Madrid’s temperatures soar and tomatoes are at their best, the only thing that seems even remotely appealing to eat (aside from cerveza and helado), is gazpacho or its cousin from Cordoba, salmorejo. But those soups are both for a much warmer time; in the meantime, enjoy this one!
Puré de Verduras
Note: I like to think of this soup as the venerable little black dress of dishes. It changes dramatically depending on how you accessorize it. So get creative with the garnishes! Options include a drizzle of cream; toasted, chopped nuts; sautéed mushrooms; crumbled hard-cooked egg; chopped cured Spanish meats like chorizo, jamón serrano or salchichón; and fresh herbs like cilantro, chervil, chives or parsley.
A splash of sherry vinegar — made from the wines of Spain’s “sherry triangle” region in Andalucía — stirred in at the end brightens everything up, so I’d urge you not to skip it. If you don’t have sherry vinegar (but since it’s the best wine vinegar out there, you should seriously go pick up a bottle), substitute white wine vinegar.
- 1 celery root, peeled and cubed
- 1 pound cubed squash (like butternut, spaghetti or acorn)
- 4 or 5 leeks, trimmed, rinsed and sliced
- 3 or 4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
- 1 bunch Swiss chard leaves, rinsed, trimmed and roughly chopped
- 2 handfuls watercress leaves (optional), rinsed
- 1 tablespoon sea salt, plus more to taste
- 2 tablespoons (or more to taste) sherry vinegar
- Extra-virgin olive oil, preferably made from Spanish olives
- A pinch of pimentón (picante), for serving
- Garnishes, for serving (see note)
- Heat a good glug (3 tablespoons or so?) of extra-virgin olive oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally.
- Once the leeks have softened considerably, add the carrots and continue to cook a few minutes until the carrots become fragrant.
- And the celery root, squash and salt to the pot. Cover the vegetables with water (approximately 8–10 cups) and bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the celery root and squash are quite soft. Add the greens and cook a few minutes more, until they have softened.
- When the celery root and squash pieces are easily pierced with the tip of a knife, carefully remove the pot from the stove. Using an immersion blender (or a standing blender and working in batches), blend the soup until smooth. You may want to add an extra cup of water here, depending on the soup consistency you like.
- Finally, stir in the sherry vinegar and serve the soup, garnishing each bowl however you like.