Sometimes you just want to get away from it all. But when you actually do it, it can feel like a big, sprawling mistake. That's how I felt at first when my husband and I decided to spend a month in Spain with our two children. Along with his brothers and sisters, we'd bought my husband's grandfather's house there a couple of years ago, and the idea was to do some work on it (it's been abandoned since 1989), brush up on our Spanish, and breathe in some good mountain air.
One major problem is that I don't speak Spanish -- at all. My husband's Spanish is good, but where we were, on the border of Galicia and Asturias in northern Spain, most of the locals speak a dialect called Gallego that's more like Gaelic-inflected Portuguese than Spanish. Of course, everyone speaks Spanish too, but most seemed to have an annoying habit of sliding into Gallego and then back out again without warning, from sentence to sentence or even word to word.
It made grocery shopping difficult, and the long Spanish family meals, some lasting four or five hours, interminable. Add in the factor that my children would eat very little except for bread and chorizo, and suddenly I realized that all the Spaniards around me (many of them my husband's relatives) were treating me as if I were a bit mentally challenged. Nice enough for an American, but a little slow.
And then my youngest daughter met her first jam¢n and saved us all. Jam¢n is a dry-cured Spanish ham that is a little like prosciutto and a little like Smithfield ham, but (in my opinion) a lot more flavorful. My husband's 80-year-old cousin had raised the pig (under her house!), slaughtered it and cured the ham herself, and when she offered a piece to my daughter, I mentally braced myself. No one in Spain takes no for an answer when they're offering food, and the little old ladies are particularly persistent.
The ham didn't look that appetizing, either, looming ominously in the corner of the kitchen with its somewhat moldy-looking gray fat. I don't know if it was the porky aroma or just extreme hunger that drove her to do it, but my daughter unexpectedly reached out for a piece, ate it and proceeded to eat the next five or six slices offered to her. And in an instant, we were transformed from not-so-bright foreign visitors to members of the family.
Here's the Arias family version of a standard dish from northern Spain, caldo Gallego.
Arias Caldo Gallego
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 quarts water
1 15-ounce can Great Northern beans,
drained and rinsed
« pound serrano jam¢n or smoked ham, cubed
« pound chorizo, left whole
1 pound fresh turnip greens, well-washed, de-stemmed and coarsely chopped, or 1 10-ounce package frozen turnip greens, defrosted, with the water squeezed out
2 red potatoes, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons coarse salt
Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven, and sauté onion until soft. Add water and the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 45-60 minutes. Remove chorizo and slice, then return it to the pot. Serves six on a chilly night in the mountains.