Quite possibly the most filling dish a human has attempted to eat, cocido madrileño is a rich, fragrant stew especially identified with Spain’s capital city, Madrid. The nationally celebrated meal dates back to at least the Middle Ages and makes thorough use of the bounty of the vast agricultural plateau that surrounds Madrid. At its most basic, cocido (stew) consists of vegetables, meats, and legumes, all cooked in a savory broth. “Every country has its own pot-au-feu, a big pot where you put everything in and let it boil,” says Madrid-based chef Gabriela Llamas. “Cocido is Spain’s pot-au-feu.”

Like many culinary historians, Llamas believes cocido is derived from adafina, the long-cooking dish of chickpeas, garlic, meats, and seasoned stock prepared by Spain’s Sephardic Jews. In advance of Sabbath, Jewish cooks placed their ingredients in an iron pot nestled amid warm ashes and sealed the pot with bread dough. (Adafina comes from the Arabic word for “hidden” or “covered.”) The contents cooked slowly in the ashes and stayed warm until the end of morning prayers on Saturday. The earliest known record of adafina dates back to the 14th century, says David Gitlitz, coauthor of A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews. But, Gitlitz suggests, it surely has a longer history. “As long as there has been a Sabbath injunction against work, Jewish housewives must have been making one-pot meals on Friday to keep warm until the next day.”

After the onset of the Inquisition in 1478, conversos (Jews who converted to Catholicism) proved their conversions were complete by adding non-kosher products such as ham, bacon, and blood sausage to adafinas. By the late 15th and early 16th centuries, according to Gitlitz, such stews were called, interchangeably, adafina, hamin (Hebrew), and trasnochado (Spanish). The name cocido, he adds, was commonly used by the late 1500s, if not earlier.

For generations, cocido was strictly a home-cooked meal, but modern-day madrileños increasingly seek it out at restaurants. Cocido is time-consuming to prepare, and fewer women stay home all day to cook. Typically, the dish arrives at the table in three courses, known as tres vuelcos. The Spanish have an expression, “sota, caballo, y rey” (knave, horse, and king), derived from a deck of cards. According to Miguel Ullibarri—a former madrileño who lives in Cádiz and offers culinary tours, cooking classes, and food and wine seminars—the phrase describes something predictable, “a situation in which one knows exactly what will happen.” Similarly, diners anticipate the time-honored progression of cocido courses: The broth with noodles precedes the legumes and vegetables, which in turn set the stage for the meat.

In Madrid, you can find cocido in a range of settings, from bars that offer it on their menús del día (set menus) every Thursday, to upscale hotel restaurants that give the stew a gourmet spin. Ullibarri suggests scouring such less-touristed districts as Salamanca, Opera, Argüelles, and Universidad. In La Latina, a working-class neighborhood that on Sundays hosts the immense El Rastro flea market, try Malacatín (Calle de la Ruda, 5; 34/91-365-5241), established in 1895 as a wine bar. Llamas recommends La Gran Tasca (Calle de Santa Engracia, 161; 34/91-534-4634) for a modestly priced cocido in a bright, homey setting on the north side of Madrid. She also singles out the hearty version served at Taberna la Bola (Calle de la Bola, 5; 34/91-547-6930), an affordable spot near the Palacio Real where the Verdasco family has been cooking cocido madrileño since 1870. A

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Cocido Madrileño
(SERVES 4)
Adapted from the Taberna la Bola recipe

INGREDIENTS

28 ounces chickpeas, dried
6 ounces pork soup bones
1 pound pork knuckle meat
6 ounces slab bacon
1 whole stewing chicken, in pieces
6 ounces chorizo
4 small potatoes, peeled and cut into 11⁄2-inch pieces
Salt, to taste
1⁄2 head cabbage, chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
4 whole cloves garlic
31⁄2 ounces fideos (These are thin Spanish noodles; angel hair pasta, broken into 3-inch pieces, makes a fine substitute.)

MAKE IT

1. Cover the chickpeas with water and soak overnight.
2. Drain the chickpeas. In an earthenware pot* or Dutch oven, combine the chickpeas with the pork bones, pork knuckle meat, slab bacon (uncut), chicken, and 5 ounces of chorizo.
3. Add enough water to cover the ingredients, and simmer over a low flame for three hours. Refresh the pot continually with water so that the stock does not boil off.
4. Add the potatoes and salt. Cook for an additional hour.
5. In a sauté pan, lightly fry the cabbage with olive oil and garlic.
6. In a medium pot, cook the fideos according to package instructions with water and the remaining chorizo. When cooked, drain the fideos and chorizo and set aside.
7. Remove the chicken and separate the meat from the bones. Discard the bones and return the meat to the pot. Slice the bacon. Remove and discard the pork bones.
8. Present the meal in three courses, beginning with the noodles in broth from the big pot, followed by the chickpeas and cabbage, and, finally, the meats.
9. Accompaniments can include bread, olive oil, green olives, pickled guindilla peppers, sliced onions, and tomato sofrito.

*You can find traditional earthenware pots, such specialty items as fideos, and a variety of Spanish chorizos at tienda.com and spanishtable.com. Other sources for Spanish meats include laespanolameats.com and despanabrandfoods.com. The latter accepts only phone orders: (888) 779-8617.

Photos by Francisco Guerrero. This story appeared in the September/October 2010 issue.