Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. An occasional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays…
Thus begins the tale of the errant knight Don Quixote, first published in 1605 by Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra (translated here by Edith Grossman). No disrespect to Cervantes, but I’d like to propose a slight alteration of the famous lines.
I’d say: Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, they make a really great cheese. Queso Manchego is one of my current favorites. If you’ve never tried it, it has a nice tang with a buttery finish and a semi-firm consistency that melts on the tongue.
This delightful cheese begins its life as the whole milk of the Manchega sheep that graze in the arid plateaus of the region. After a process of curdling, heating, shaping, and pressing, it is placed in a controlled space where the temperature and air humidity remain constant. Manchego cheese can age for anywhere between 60 days and 2 years. The longer it ages, the sharper and harder it becomes. With a great aged Manchego, the tang carries all the way through the bite, from the the tip to the back of the tongue.
Manchego is widely available in American supermarkets, holding its own in the imported cheese section next to the cardboard rounds of French brie, bricks of Irish cheddar, and the imported Italian mozzarella that bob up and down like corks in their water-filled containers. You have to seek out the upscale grocery chains like Whole Foods, or even better, visit a local, independent gourmet cheese shop like Shubie’s in Marblehead, to find a wider variety of Spanish cheese like a mahon or garroxta. And, in my humble opinion, the independent stores carry a much higher quality of product!
This cheese stands alone. No fancy preparation necessary. Manchego is at its best eaten with a good piece of bread, a nice slice of cured ham or maybe a fried egg, and a few green Spanish olives. I’m no sommelier, but I have a feeling that you can’t go wrong if you follow each excellent bite with a sip of rioja. I recently tried a garnatxa negra from southeastern Catalonia, which made an excellent pairing.
For a second course, take your cue from Cervantes and make a Spanish-inspired stew. Sopa de ajo is a delicious comfort food from this same region. The bits of broth drenched bread bring to mind a French onion soup, but the creamy poached eggs add a layer of rich warmth. I’ve never had too much luck poaching eggs, but thanks to the crowded pot of veggies and bread, the eggs tend to stay in one place and intact.
Here’s my not-so-traditional take on Sopa de Ajo
Give yourself about 30 minutes to prepare. It serves 4, or 2 if you have seconds! Since it doesn’t really store or reheat well, it is best to eat it all!
5 cups stock (veggie or beef)
2 toasted slices of French-style bread
3 cloves garlic (minced)
2 tablespoons olive oil
a couple handfuls of veggies (chopped carrots and cauliflower are good, but feel free to experiment)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 jalapeno pepper (or other type of hot pepper)
2-3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
optional: 1 slice of cured ham (jamon serrano or prosciutto – chopped into very small pieces)
Preparation: Chop and steam your veggies (like yummy cauliflower and carrots) to desired tenderness. Set aside. Sauté the garlic and bread in a frying pan with a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Remove from pan. In same pan, sauté the jalapeno pepper. Then add tomato paste and 1 cup of stock. Bring to a boil and stir until paste has dissolved. Return the bread and garlic to the pan and add the veggies. Pour the remaining stock in the pan, and bring to a boil. Once the broth is boiling, crack each egg into the pan and allow the eggs to cook. Once the eggs are cooked, serve immediately. Sprinkle the top of each bowl with bits of ham and parsley before serving.