Behind the Recipes

Southern Spain’s Best-Kept Secret

Andalusian espinacas con garbanzos—a merger of meltingly soft chickpeas, fruity olive oil, and garlic with tender spinach and spices—is the finest example of culinary fusion.

Published Feb. 2, 2021.

Seville’s favorite vegetable-based dish is visually unassuming: a mound of butter-soft chickpeas interspersed with plenty of well‑cooked spinach and perhaps a few crispy bits of fried bread sticking out of it like sails. But its enticing aroma will stop you in your tracks. The smokiness of the paprika hits first, followed by earthy cumin, hints of musky-sweet saffron, and subtle hot-pepper heat, all of which are underpinned by garlic and fruity olive oil. Pile a forkful onto a piece of crusty bread and take a bite: Some of the slightly thickened juices seep into the crumb, but the rest are hidden away in the tiny folds of the spinach, so the mixture bursts with flavorful liquid as you chew.

This is espinacas con garbanzos, a hyper‑regional dish with strong Moorish influence that’s substantive and full of flavor. Most often, it’s a shared bar plate—a ración—that you’d find in any Sevillian taberna, where friends scoop up the stew-like mixture from a common cazuela (a shallow earthenware dish). But it can also be a quick, casual supper, the way it always has been for Seville native Marcos Lopez, who often cooks espinacas con garbanzos for his family in Brookline, Massachusetts.

“I make a meal out of it,” Lopez told me. “A regular-sized plate. And then I cook two fried eggs and put it on top, and mix it in with the spinach . . . That’s from my mom, that’s how I grew up eating it.”

That versatility is part of its appeal and also reflects that each iteration is personal. Most recipes start with dried chickpeas that must be soaked and simmered, but some opt for canned. Many also call for seasoning and thickening the dish with a picada, which can take several forms. Tomato (fresh or canned) may or may not be included, and while pimentón de la Vera (Spanish smoked paprika) and cumin are almost always in the mix, cinnamon, saffron, and hot pepper appear only occasionally. Even the ratios of the two namesake ingredients range widely; in fact, there are versions in which the order of the words is flipped (“garbanzos” first, then “espinacas”) to reflect that the dish is more chickpea-dominant.

Tapa versus Ración

Espinacas con garbanzos is sometimes referred to as a tapa, but it’s actually a ración. The difference mostly boils down to size: “A tapa is your own bite,” says Deborah Hansen, chef/owner of Taberna de Haro in Brookline, Massachusetts, and it’s often served with (and included in the price of) your drink at a Spanish bar. “A ración”—a dish you pay for separately—“is a medium-size plate of food that goes into the middle of the table and everyone takes what they want,” Hansen says. “It’s suited to a larger group.”


The only way to know how I wanted my own version to taste would be to zero in on each component. I started with the chickpeas—but, to be honest, I already had my doubts about using dried beans. They require a lengthy soak and simmer to turn tender, and we’ve found that good-quality canned chickpeas boast the two qualities we look for in beans: uniform tenderness and full-bodied, well-seasoned cooking liquid.

Still, I double-checked myself by pitting dried chickpeas (soaked overnight and simmered until tender with some onion, carrot, and bay leaves) versus canned in a recipe that I patched together from my research. First, I made a picada by browning whole garlic cloves and pieces of crusty bread in plenty of olive oil, removing them from the skillet and letting them cool, and then smashing them to a paste. Then I toasted pimentón, cumin, saffron, and cayenne in the hot oil; added the chickpeas, quite a lot of fresh spinach (even a mountain of it cooks down to practically nothing), and some sherry vinegar; and cooked it until the spinach wilted, at which point I stirred in the picada so that the bread dispersed and swelled and thickened the juices. I transferred the mixture to a heavy, shallow serving dish (my makeshift cazuela) and drizzled on more olive oil.

The two batches tasted virtually identical, but the dried beans were softer and a touch more flavorful thanks to the aromatics they’d cooked with. I thought I could get at that tenderness and depth by briefly simmering the canned beans in their liquid and some extra water along with the same aromatics, but they turned to mush before picking up much flavor. I did, however, have great success when I swapped the water for chicken broth. It gave the dish a savory backbone to support the picada’s more assertive seasonings.

The Spice Is Right

About the picada: I considered it carefully after speaking with Deborah Hansen, chef/owner of Taberna de Haro in Brookline, who pointed out that the fried bread–garlic paste is a purely Spanish component in a dish largely rooted in Moorish cooking. “If this dish were just Moorish,” Hansen explained, “they wouldn’t have fried bread and fried garlic pureed and added into it . . . That’s a classic way to thicken sauces in Spain.” (Moorish-influenced dishes are more likely to be thickened with ground nuts than bread.)

To her point, at least a few of the recipes and chefs I consulted don’t include a picada. But I appreciated the viscosity it provided the dish and the way it helped some of the sauce stay put within the spinach, giving it the “juiciness” I wanted. It also emphasized that espinacas con garbanzos is culinary fusion—in the best sense. (For more information on the Moorish impact on Andalusian cooking, see “Andalusian Culinary Fusion.”)

The only changes I made were to use the liquid from just one can of beans (too much starch, otherwise) and to grind the bread before frying it.

Then came the spices—perhaps the most obvious point of Moorish influence, save for the pimentón (peppers didn’t arrive in Spain until after the Moors left). When toasted along with the garlic, they were heady with smoke, earthy sweetness, and bare heat—but missing a note that Hansen helped me realize: the delicate warmth of cinnamon, another classically Moorish component. Hanson and chef Kate Smith, who has lived in Spain and cooked at Toro, a tapas restaurant in Boston, also convinced me to try adding a little tomato (shredded fresh) for fruity brightness.

“I like it with a little bit of tomato . . . so it’s not a tomato-based dish, but it has just a hint,” Smith said, noting that tomato is a controversial component that some cooks leave out. I gave it a whirl and agreed wholeheartedly with its inclusion.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

On to the spinach, which isn’t the barely cooked vegetable you aim for when sautéing the leaves, or even the brilliant green tendrils that you might see if you do an image search for espinacas con garbanzos. (Sorry, but those photos are misrepresentations.) The goal here is well-cooked spinach: lush, silky greens that wilt completely and disperse evenly—color be damned!

Frozen Spinach Is More Than Just Convenient

Frozen chopped spinach is an asset in this dish for the same reason that you might usually avoid it: It’s naturally soft and limp, and it turns downright silky when it’s cooked. That texture is the result of the freeze‑thaw process, which significantly damages the leaves’ cells, causing water to leak out so that the leaves collapse even before they’re cooked. And that ultrasoft texture is exactly what gives frozen spinach a leg up on fresh in this dish: It disperses easily instead of clumping, melds seamlessly with the softened chickpeas, and readily captures all the flavorful juices that surround it. Frozen spinach also comes with some bonus perks: It’s less expensive and more compact and can be stored for much longer than fresh spinach.

Interestingly, though, that was hard to achieve with fresh spinach, which tended to clump up even when I prechopped it and always seemed a bit chewy. So I was delighted to discover a recipe by Alexandra Raij, chef/owner of three Spanish restaurants in New York City, that calls for thawed frozen chopped spinach. Lopez confirmed that he uses it in his version as well, and really, it’s so smart: Freezing tenderizes the vegetable, so it’s soft even as it goes into the pot (for more information, see “Frozen Spinach Is More Than Just Convenient”).

I stirred 10 ounces into the pan along with the picada and simmered the mixture until it was thick and stew-like. Then I poured in more olive oil—lots more. “The way the Spaniards like their vegetables,” Hansen told me, is “glistening with olive oil.”

So I kept drizzling until the dish was almost creamy—because the final result should be, as Hansen described, “almost a spinach–olive oil emulsion.”

Briefly simmering the chickpeas in a mixture of chicken broth and their canning liquid softens them and infuses them with subtly savory flavor.

Espinacas con Garbanzos (Andalusian Spinach and Chickpeas)

Andalusian espinacas con garbanzos—a merger of meltingly soft chickpeas, fruity olive oil, and garlic with tender spinach and spices—is the finest example of culinary fusion.
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