When I arrived in Barcelona earlier this year for my three-week stay, I hoped to learn a lot about the city, the region of Catalonia and Catalan language and culture. Among my most burning questions was what is Catalan cuisine exactly, and how it is different from the food of the rest of Spain?
Answers soon began to appear. One afternoon at the beginning of my stay, I entered a bookstore in the city’s old town in search of a small spiral notebook. As I browsed, I noticed a shelf of cookbooks, some of them devoted to traditional Catalan food. Aha! And I had just begun wondering how easy it might be to adapt the recipes to plant-based versions when my eyes fell on the cover of Vegana i Catalana, whose title left no room for ambiguity. Santa Eulàlia, the city’s patron saint, was clearly smiling on me. It was my lucky day!
The book is in Catalan, but as a translator who speaks French and (some) Spanish, and furthermore is always up for a linguistic challenge, I didn’t see that as any serious obstacle—Catalan is like a combination of the two. I browsed through the pages, recognizing the names of some dishes I’d already heard of (pa amb tomàquet, crema catalana) and soon forgetting my recent resolution not to buy any more new cookbooks for a while. What’s more, according to the book’s publication date, it had just been released a few weeks earlier. Who was I to question the workings of fate?
In Vegana i Catalana, author Marta Castells, a cooking instructor who focuses on healthy cuisine and a holistic approach to food, has revisited the classics of Catalan cooking for people of the region who would like to shift to a more plant-based diet but still want to enjoy the traditional flavors they know and love.
During my time in Barcelona I also dined at the renowned vegetarian restaurant Teresa Carles. I asked the server to point out only the (vegan) Catalan dishes among the wide variety of items on the menu, and soon settled on a dish called rossejat de fideus.
A pasta dish prepared risotto-style and served in a rustic paella pan, it included mushrooms, seaweed and the chef’s own “cocosepia” blend made with coconut and black garlic (giving the dish a darker color). It was topped with a few spoonfuls of allioli, a garlic sauce (similar to the French aïoli). It was fantastic. I was naturally quite pleased, when I returned to my copy of Vegana i Catalana, to find a very similar dish called fideuada in its pages. There was even a recipe for the garlic sauce.
Back home in Paris, I translated and tried my hand at a few of Castells’s recipes, including the fideuada. At the same time, in a quest to continue learning about traditional dishes, I ordered a used copy of Catalan Cuisine by Colman Andrews, which has recipes but is more like a treatise on the history and food culture of Catalonia. It’s a great resource offering a wealth of information, and although it contains some recipes that call for animal products, others are (accidentally) vegan and, with some creativity, most can be veganized (another challenge that I love).
Andrews informs us that the Moors were the ones who brought pasta to Catalonia, by way of Greece, back in the eighth or ninth century. Called alatria at the time by the Spaniards (from the Greek itria), pasta is mentioned in the Libre de Sent Soví (c. 1324), the first known Catalan cookbook. Today, Catalonia’s most popular native pasta is fideus (the name is thought to derive from the Arabic fada, meaning to overflow): a short, very thin noodle similar to Italian vermicelli but developed independently and prepared in a different way. Rather than being boiled in water and then mixed with a sauce, it is cooked slowly in a broth, like risotto, absorbing flavor along the way.
Marta Castells and her publisher have kindly allowed me to share my English translation of her fideuada recipe, to which I have also made a few small adapations based on what worked best for me. First, not having easy access to real fideus pasta here, I bought Italian vermicelli and needed slightly less broth than the amount in the recipe (in the book it’s 1 cup pasta to 3.5 cups of broth, and in my adaptation it’s 1.5 cups pasta to 3 cups broth—feel free to try the first set of proportions if you’re making this with actual fideus.). I also opted to brown the pasta in a dry pan instead of with oil, and finally added some black olives that were not called for in the original recipe. In the original allioli recipe, the silken tofu is marinated in the garlic, which is later removed, but I opted to incorporate the garlic and skip the marination step.
This dish has already become a new favorite for me, one I expect to make again and again. The pasta is very flavorful, having absorbed the garlicky, paprika-seasoned vegetable broth, and finishing it off under the broiler gives it a nice crispy top. Pan-roasted smoked tofu and olives give the dish robustness and aromatic depth. The garlic sauce, a revisited version of allioli with eggs (allioli amb ous), is simply divine and provides a nice textural contrast to the crispy noodles. While allioli is often described as a mayonnaise, I didn’t want to do that here because this allioli, made with silken tofu, garlic, olive oil, turmeric for color and kala namak salt (another addition of mine), is so creamy and smooth that to call it a mayonnaise, triggering associations with the store-bought kind, would be to do it an injustice.
So here, at last, is the fideuada or, as it can also be called, Catalan pasta paella!
Creamy garlic sauce (allioli)
Makes 1/3 cup sauce, enough to top two servings of Catalan pasta paella
- 4.2 oz (120 g) silken tofu (about 1/3 cup)
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- pinch kala namak (Indian “black” salt), or regular salt
- dash ground turmeric
Equipment needed: small food processor or blender
Finely mince the clove of garlic, or crush using a garlic press. Place the silken tofu, garlic and olive oil in a mini food processor. Add a dash of turmeric (for color—only a tiny amount is needed), and pinch of kala namak (its sulfurous flavor recreates an egg-like taste but if you cannot find this salt, regular salt is fine). Process, scraping down the inside of the bowl occasionally, until you have a homogeneous, creamy sauce. Taste and add more salt if desired. Transfer to a small bowl and chill until needed.
This sauce can also be used as a base for a creamy salad dressing or tartar sauce.
Catalan pasta paella (fideuada)
- 1.5 cups (125 g) egg-free vermicelli pasta
- 4.2 oz. (120 g) firm tofu, preferably smoked
- 3 cups (700 ml) vegetable broth
- half a fresh tomato or 1/4 cup canned stewed tomato
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon ground paprika
- 1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1/3 cup salty black olives (optional)
- 1/3 cup creamy garlic sauce (recipe above)
- fresh basil leaves or other herbs, for garnish
Equipment needed: large skillet or paella-type pan, small skillet, mortar and pestle (optional), oven (optional).
Begin by chopping the tofu into bite-sized cubes. Place 1 teaspoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce in a small skillet over medium heat.
Once the pan is hot, add the tofu and sauté, stirring occasionally, until browned on both sides. Transfer to a plate covered with paper towel and set aside.
Next, prepare the garlic, paprika and tomato mixture, which you will incorporate into the vegetable broth. Finely mince the garlic and place in a mortar with the 1/2 teaspoon ground paprika and crush. If you don’t have a mortar, you can skip this step, but in that case be especially sure that the garlic is finely minced. Finely dice the half-tomato.
Add 1 teaspoon olive oil to a non-stick pan over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, transfer the garlic-paprika mixture to it and add the diced tomatoes. Sauté, stirring frequently. When the tomato has broken down and the garlic is smelling nice (7 or 8 minutes), remove from heat. It will resemble the mixture in the photo above.
Scrape this mixture into a bowl containing the 3 cups of (warm) broth and whisk to combine. If making your broth from bouillon cubes, err on the side of less bouillon since the black olives (if using) are quite salty. You can always adjust the saltiness later with more tamari or soy sauce.
Then, place a large non-stick or seasoned skillet or paella pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the vermicelli (no oil is needed, but if you want to use it, add 2 teaspoons). You will soon see the color of the pasta on the bottom begin to turn golden pretty soon. Pay close attention and stir frequently to ensure even browning.
Continue browning the vermicelli, stirring frequently, until it reaches the shade you’re aiming for. If you do a Google images search for fideus, you’ll see that the pasta is sometimes a lighter color (with a milder taste), and sometimes darker. The level of darkness is up to you.
Not long after the pasta reached this color (about 13 minutes), I stopped the browning by beginning to add the broth.
Add the broth in stages, about a half-cup (120 ml) at a time, stirring as you go. Wait until the pasta absorbs the broth before adding more. When you have added about half of the broth, incorporate the tofu and optional olives. Continue all the broth has been added to the pasta. Taste occasionally and check for doneness; if the pasta is completely cooked but you still have a bit of broth left over, you don’t have to add it. Adjust the seasonings if desired, adding a splash or two of tamari if you want it to be saltier.
This step took me about 20 minutes (after the browning), so this dish definitely counts as slow food! But it’s well worth it.
Preheat your oven, on broiler mode, to 450°F (about 230°C) and place the skillet under the broiler for 5 minutes to finish the dish. This will make the top crispy, but is not an essential step so can be skipped if you are ovenless.
The dish is now ready to be served! Transfer the pasta to two shallow bowls or plates, distributing the tofu and olives evenly, and top with a generous dollop of the garlic sauce. Garnish with fresh basil, parsley or other herbs. Serve with the remaining sauce on the side so people can add more.
- Instead of tofu, use lightly pre-cooked (still firm) slices of sweet potato, pumpkin, zucchini, artichoke, broccoli florets or any other vegetables that strike your fancy.
- Consider mixing in some additional large chunks of fresh tomato at the middle of the broth-absorption step (so they’re warm and softened but not broken down into sauce).
- Create a “seafood” version using vegan shrimp, or a mix-and-match paella by also adding slices of vegan chorizo (a Spanish sausage).