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Picada is the Catalan-Style Pesto You Can Use on Everything

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It’s a rite of fall: I’ve started my list of “must make” seasonal dishes. I’ve saved recipes in my Food52 collections; clipped sections of magazines and newspapers; bookmarked cookbooks stacked high on my bedside table. Chances are good that most of us have similar lists, even if the recipes in them are not identical: soups and stews, sheet pan dinners that promise to streamline our weeknights, long-and-slow braises for lazy afternoons, and all manner of roasted meats and vegetables to turn to in between.

I’d like to suggest something to add to your list. It’s picada, and it will single handedly make your fall cooking more interesting, exciting, and complex.

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That's picada on the left, over a lentil soup for the books/belly.
That's picada on the left, over a lentil soup for the books/belly. Photo by Julia Gartland

Picada is a dense, pounded paste of fried bread, nuts, garlic, olive oil, and other aromatics. It originated in the Catalonia region of Spain, most likely in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, as a way to thicken and flavor stews and braises. With this history comes recipes as varied as the cooks themselves. Almonds are traditional, but some picadas call for hazelnuts, pine nuts, or walnuts—sometimes individually, sometimes in combination. Aromatics like saffron, cinnamon, white wine, dark chocolate, as well as chicken and game livers, are not out of place here.

Picada is usually stirred into a stew or braise during the final minutes of cooking time. As Colman Andrews writes in Catalan Cuisine: Vivid Flavors from Spain’s Mediterranean Coast, 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.”

Andrews devotes several pages to picada in Catalan Cuisine, referring to it as a “glorified roux,” one that “doesn’t swell up as dramatically or thicken as relentlessly as roux,” and “adds more heart than heft.” He explains that no other European cuisine has anything like picada. Its closest relative is Italy’s pesto, also a pounded mix of garlic, nuts, and herbs, but one that’s unmistakably a sauce; and gremolata, the herb and garlic mixture classically added as a final flourish to osso buco. But no other blends, Andrews writes, come close to picada’s versatility and range.

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He recounts that 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.

In fact, open a Paula Wolfert cookbook and you’re likely to find recipes that call for picada. In Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking, Wolfert notes that picada gives “a deeper and lustier taste than butter or cream,” and includes a recipe for Mussel Soup with Toasted Almond-Cinnamon Picada. In The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, she offers Fall-Apart Lamb Shanks with Almond-Chocolate Picada. This recipe is on the top of my own “to-cook” list.

In The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden’s recipes for Pepa’s Fish Soup and Lobster Hotpot call for a final thickening and flavoring from picada, her version forgoing bread for a mix of almonds, garlic, olive oil, and parsley.

I first learned about picada from Diana Henry’s early cookbook, Crazy Water Pickled Lemons: Enchanting Dishes from the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa, where she writes that picada is “a miraculous thing.” In her recipe for Catalan Chicken with Picada, she pounds a sweet tea biscuit along with fresh bread, pine nuts, white wine, and olive oil, a playful take on the traditional.

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In The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, Judy Rodgers describes her Crumbly Hazelnut Picada, which is chopped, not pounded into a smooth paste, as “an affectionate appropriation of the Catalan formula.” She recommends it as a condiment to enliven non-Catalan dishes, sprinkled on top of everything from grilled fish and ribeye steaks, to warm frisee salads and pastas.

My own picada is a mish-mash of all the fine recipes I’ve encountered. It’s crumbly (like Rodgers’ version) and combines bread, garlic, and almonds—all fried in olive oil until golden—and enough parsley to keep it light and bright. I use my food processor versus the traditional mortar and pestle, because it’s simple, and because even Judy Rodgers and Paula Wolfert endorse this modern method.

To get you on your way with picada, I’m including my recipe for smoky lentil soup, one that tips its hat to Catalonia. My soup starts with a base of sofrito, the Spanish building blocks of onion, garlic, and tomatoes (though I’ve added carrot, as well, because I like the way its sweetness pairs with earthy lentils), and ends with picada. Piquillo peppers and Spanish smoked paprika lend a smoky complexity, and sherry vinegar lifts up all of the flavors. The soup is delicious on its own, but it’s heightened by picada, added during the final minutes of cooking to thicken, and then brought to the table as a garnish. I’ve made the soup several times already this season. I can attest that the picada adds all of the magic and wonder noted by these cookbook luminaries who have discovered its secrets.

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Smoky Lentil Soup with Almond Picada

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Serves 4

Lentil Soup

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups diced yellow onion (from 1 large onion)
  • 1 cup diced carrot (from 1 large or 2 small carrots)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes, crushed lightly
  • 5 roasted piquillo peppers (jarred or freshly roasted), roughly chopped (about 1/2-cup), or 2 roasted red peppers
  • 1 tablespoon thyme, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons Spanish smoked paprika, or more to taste
  • 2 cups French lentils or Spanish pardina lentils, rinsed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock, plus water, as needed, to thin the soup
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, or more to taste
  • 1-3 tablespoons picada, if using, to taste

Almond Picada

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 slice day-old peasant-style bread (about 1/2-inch thick), crusts removed
  • 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup skinless (blanched) almonds (whole, slivered or sliced)
  • 1/4 cup parsley
  • Kosher salt, to taste
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Have you tried or made picada? Will you now? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: catalan, pesto