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Picada - a non-Ottolenghi extra

"anyone who has tasted a dish before and after its addition will understand that picada 'seems to fill in all the holes, plug in all the gaps in flavor.' Colman Andrews/Food52

As you know I'm a sucker for pretty pictures and here is the one which inspired this post. The dish on display here is Venison (or lamb shoulder) and mushroom stew with chocolate and orange picada from Tom Hunt. I guess the idea of chocolate and orange in a stew was also rather tantalising.

Anyway, having just 'done' Ottolenghi and his extras, I thought it would be interesting to see if he was into picada as well - because it's another 'extra'. It comes from Catalonia which is the region that straddles the southern border of France and Spain. It's not Basque - which is in the north of Spain, spreading over that border with France. Although, of course, some ingredients are shared between the two areas.

Another thought I had when looking at this dish was to wonder whether instead of lamb shoulder as a substitute one could use kangaroo. Now I never cook with kangaroo - or venison either for that matter. Venison is huge in New Zealand. You can't go into any restaurant without there being a venison dish on the menu. But not here. I thought about kangaroo because I noticed it in Coles the other day when I was looking at sausages. So I asked Google, but did't really get a definitive answer in case you are wondering. Give it a go if you are in adventurous mood.

But back to picada and first of all Ottolenghi. Did he have picada in his Extra Good Things book? Well no he didn't. I couldn't quite believe however, that he had totally ignored it in his cooking career - it seemed such an Ottolenghi thing somehow. I also couldn't believe that he had not yet discovered it and indeed I was right. However, the only recipe I could find was Burnt aubergine and red pepper fedeuà with picada in which he uses it as something to sprinkle on top and to serve beside, rather than something to thicken the sauce - which is its more traditional use. Looks pretty good though.

So what is picada? Well thousands of different things it seems to me, depending on who is making it and what they are doing with it. Picada according to some means to 'prick' and to others 'to chop'. The Argentinians use the word to describe things like tapas - nibbles before the meal.

In the end - having looked at all sorts of people's versions of picada it seemed that to be 'authentic' it would have to include at least almonds (or other nuts such as pine nuts - see we are already dithering); bread and some kind of liquid. Now how vague is that? And I have to say that the bread was frequently left out. If it isn't though it is very often toasted, or fried, or very stale. Dry in other words. Added to that base came the individual cook's flavour boosters - mostly things like herbs, chilli and garlic. However, having said it was a basic requirement - 'some sort of liquid' opens up a whole world of possibilities. I mean would you use soy sauce or fish sauce or rice wine? I think not. And even though that chocolate sounds completely exotic and out of the box, it's actually quite common. And just about every chef I found that did use picada seemed to think it was wonderful. Including Robert Carrier who said:

"I must confess now that I like to use it, too, to 'season' meats, fish and poultry before grilling or roasting them."

He was also a little bit more adventurous in his recipe for picada in his Great Dishes of Spain, adding cinnamon, pimenton and saffron to the mix. Olive oil too.

Or the revered Paula Wolfert, according to Colman Andrews of Food52:

"when Paula Wolfert discovered picada while collecting recipes for her book My World of Food, she thought it was the best thing since sliced bread."

I confess I do not have a lot of Spanish cookbooks - fundamentally just the two from Robert Carrier and Claudia Roden and whilst Carrier gives a recipe for picada he only uses it in one recipe in the book for - Zarzuela - the big Spanish fish soup.

So while we are on fish let me say that a large number of the recipes that I found were for fish or seafood - beginning with Claudia Roden and Pepa's fish soup followed by Lobster hotpot. Stephanie Alexander made a tart - Sardine and piquillo pepper tart with caramelised onion and pine nuts in which, like Ottolenghi she just scatters it over the top at the end. Not quite traditional - but nice and the sort of thing I could have a go at.

And whilst we are on fish take a look at these two clam recipes - one from Rick Stein - Clams with a garlic and nut picada and one from Thomasina Miers - Clams with wild garlic, almond and hazelnut picada. Not quite the same ingredients but almost and very similar in appearance. I wonder who copied who here, or is it just a traditional dish?

I almost didn't include all of the above because it's not something I shall be cooking in this house because of David's aversion to shellfish and a little bit to fish too, but that's a bit selfish as I know the rest of the world loves seafood!

However, the Catalans use it in stews too. Claudia Roden has a recipe - I think a traditional one, for a three meat pasta dish. One lady who made it said that it had enough meat for the whole week for her family. It's called Pasta with peas, chicken or rabbit and pork chops (Fideos en cazuela) and there's pork sausages in there too. Alas the recipe is not online just in case you were thinking of making it. Probably not.

There are other meat dishes to try though.

Catalan chicken with picada from Diana Henry whose book Crazy Water Pickled Lemons seems to be a favourite with many bloggers; Duck and figs with picada - a recipe from SBS's sadly defunct Feast Magazine; Beef stew with hazelnut picada from delicious. UK and Pollo en pepitoria from Melbourne's own Spanish guru - Frank Camorra. An expert he may be and Spanish too but he uses very inauthentic hard boiled egg yolks in his picada. So obviously anything goes.

Finally for the vegetarians amongst you - or those who like to eat vegetarian food every now and then there is Smoky lentil soup with almond picada from EmilyC of Food52 and Frank Camorra's Andalusian spinach and chick peas, both of which I have to say look pretty delicious.

So there you go - another 'extra' for your repertoire. I don't think it's the kind of 'extra' that you would make large quantities of and store in the fridge though. Or would you? I suppose it's a bit like a pesto, so I guess there is no reason it would not keep for a while with a layer of oil on top.

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