Spanish Comfort

Galicia's hearty caldo gallego warms both body and soul.

Caldo gallego is tailor-made for the dark days of winter. Although I grew up eating this main-course meat and vegetable soup in New York City, it was in fact born of the damp, bone-chilling winters of Galicia, the mountainous region in the northwestern corner of Spain, where both of my parents were raised.

In the village of Niñodaguia, my mother helped her mama peel potatoes and trim grelos (a variety of broccoli rabe that gives the dish its signature green hue), and she watched as the flames from the wood fire licked the bottom of the large iron pot, set atop a tripod in the hearth. The dish was a favorite not just for its robust flavor but for the excuse it gave her to huddle in the warm kitchen.

In decades past, caldo gallego (the name means Galician soup) offered the people of this traditionally poor region a way to stretch their winter larder. Like their neighbors, my mother's family raised pigs for their own consumption (the animals were fed many of the same things that went into seasonal versions of the dish, such as turnip greens, kale, and cabbage). In January, two or three pigs were slaughtered, and their meat was salt-cured or smoked; that was the only meat available to my grandparents and their four children, and it was expected to last the year. The family also grew their own potatoes and beans, as well as grelos, which were at their peak around the same time as the matanza (slaughter), and everything went into the pot along with the pork.

After Mom arrived in the United States, where she met my father and, a little later, gave birth to me, she did her best to replicate caldo gallego; once she even found a butcher who sold unto, a Galician variety of salted, smoked pork commonly used to season the dish. Through trial and error, she adapted the recipe, substituting broccoli rabe for grelos. She also added chicken and other kinds of meat, since scarcity was no longer an issue.

Even though my childhood was nothing like my mom's, I derived just as much pleasure from helping her make the soup as she had helping her own mother. For Mom, who first came to New York alone, leaving behind all that was familiar, cooking caldo gallego made the big city seem less cold and foreign, and it warmed us all in a different way.