Wanderlust is getting the best of me these days. I find myself trolling a variety of travel bargain websites on a daily basis, searching for deals, planning fantasy trips, and ultimately conceding that I can't afford to go anywhere. I love to travel, but I haven't made it more than 30 miles past the Illinois border in the past two years. Two years! That's unacceptable, really, but it appears there's nothing I can do about it at the present time.

Really, all I can do is pretend that I'm somewhere far more exotic than the Midwest, and in keeping with my New Year's resolution of trying more new recipes, I decided to accomplish this act of mental escapism through food. For inspiration, I looked to a cookbook that's been gracing my bookshelf since I was in college and found it on the bargain table at a bookstore -- The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen. At the time that I got it, I poured through the pages, fresh off a trip to Spain and enamored with the food I'd eaten there, and dutifully dog-eared over a dozen recipes to try. However, I only made one of them (the variation on pastilla that I was considering making for Pi Day), before discovering that the techniques in the book were a bit beyond my skill set at the time, and that the ingredients called for in many of the recipes were more difficult to locate than I was willing to deal with.

Now that I'm older, wiser, more skilled, and more tenacious, I found myself ready to revisit The New Spanish Table. Going back and looking though the recipes I marked five years ago was an interesting exercise in how much my tastes have changed since then, and I found several more exciting dishes worth trying when I went through it with fresh eyes. However, the one I settled upon for this weekend was one that I had marked ages ago for a soup that I had never tried at the time, caldo gallego (soup in the style of Galicia, a region in the northwest corner of Spain), but which I thought had promise because it featured chorizo, and my love affair with encased meats goes way back. Recently, Justin and I tried caldo gallego for the first time when it was a special at one of my favorite local sandwich shops, Cafecito, and I thought it would be nice to recreate it at home.

The recipe was definitely more complicated than I usually bother with for soup -- it called for making homemade stock (I always use chicken stock from a box), and soaking dried beans overnight (I always use canned beans for the convenience factor, though every source I've ever read says they pale in comparison to dried beans). Still, I had a quiet weekend on the agenda and hadn't done any serious cooking in weeks aside from baking, so I decided to persevere.

I started the stock Thursday night, and ended up substituting ox tail for the veal shank called for in the recipe, since I couldn't find it at my grocery store but wanted a cut with lots of bones for their flavor and gelatin content. I'd never made stock before, but the aroma wafting from the pot of bones, ham hocks, bacon, and vegetables was so heavenly I felt compelled to mention it on Facebook. My chef friend, Darrell, saw my post, and intervened with some interesting tips that weren't included in the original recipe. Since I'd never tried stock-making without his advice, I have no way of knowing what impact it had on the finished project, but it mostly consisted of chilling the stock in an ice bath after it was done simmering to cool it as quickly as possible, and leaving the fat on top of the stock until I was ready to cook the finished soup. Both of these things are supposed to protect and enhance the flavor of the finished stock.

Thankfully, making the stock was the most labor-intensive part of the recipe. The next day, I dumped the beans I'd sorted the night before into a pot of water when I got home from seeing Grease, and today, I threw the rest of the ingredients in the pot at their appointed times and I was done.

Since Justin had been present when I first tried caldo gallego, it seemed only natural to share my first homemade batch with him. Even if it was a bit heavy for a finally-starting-to-get-warm spring day, we both really enjoyed this hearty soup with its rich broth, filling beans and potatoes, and spicy bits of smoky chorizo. Since it's a dish that's really better suited to the depths of winter, it will be a while before I make it again, but I'd definitely strongly consider it. I wouldn't say that it transported me out of the Midwest, but as a project, it did help distract me from my festering wanderlust.

Plus, it helped me overcome some of my trepidation surrounding homemade stock. There is something kind of magical (albeit kind of icky) about soup that is so full of delicious meat gelatin that it turns into a slice-able jello when it's cold. I'm not ready to eschew stock from a box just yet, since it's so convenient, but I'd certainly be willing to go the extra mile for special occasions.

Caldo Gallego
adapted from The New Spanish Table

1 lb. smoked ham hocks
1 lb. ox tails
6-7 oz. bacon (slab bacon if you can find it)
2 small onions
2 carrots, peeled
1 1/2 c. dried white beans, soaked overnight in cold water
8 oz. Spanish-style chorizo
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 c. shredded spinach

1. Place the ham hocks, oxtails, bacon, onions, and carrots in a large soup pot and add 3 quarts (12 cups) of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, skimming. Reduce heat to low and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pot and simmer until the oxtails are tender, 2-3 hours.
2. Remove the onions and carrots from the broth and discard them. Remove the ham hocks, oxtails and bacon. Fill the sink with ice cubes and water, and place the pot of stock in the ice bath to cool, then put in the fridge overnight. When cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones of the ham hocks and oxtails, and tear into bite-size pieces. Chop the bacon and set it aside with the ham and beef. If you prefer not to use the bacon, simply discard it.
3. The next day, remove the solidified fat from the broth. Add the beans and bring to a boil, skimming. Cover the pot and simmer the soup until the beans are almost tender, about 1 1/4 hours.
4. Add the chorizo and potatoes and cook until the potatoes are almost tender, about 20 minutes. Add the spinach and simmer for 15 minutes more. Add the reserved ham, beef, and bacon, if using, and cook until just heated through. If you want the soup to be a little thicker, spoon out a ladleful of beans and potatoes, mash them, and return them to the pot. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chorizo from the soup, slice it, and return it to the pot. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary before serving.

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