This classic pairing, from the kitchens of New Castile, began as a Lenten dish. In time, the combination was rounded out with the addition of salt cod and became an everyday dish, with the faithful sacrificing the salt cod during Lent. Today, the salt cod is sometimes replaced with a ham hock during the cooking of the beans and/or diced cooked ham to the finished dish. (If you opt to include the salt cod, be sure to omit the ham hock.) The stew is enriched with a picada of fried bread and garlic and is fairly thick and substantial. It may even be topped by fried or hard-boiled eggs.
1/2 pound (1 generous cup) dried chickpeas
7 cloves garlic, peeled
1 onion, peeled
1 bay leaf
1 small ham hock (optional) salt
1 1/4 pounds spinach, tough stems removed, rinsed, and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 slice country bread, crust removed
generous pinch saffron
threads, warmed and crushed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
, toasted in a dry pan until fragrant and finely ground
2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
1/2 cup coarsely flaked cooked salt cod (optional)
1/4 cup diced cooked ham if using ham hock or 1/2 cup diced cooked ham if not using ham hock salt
freshly ground black pepper
dash of sherry vinegar, as needed
4 eggs, sunny-side up or 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped (optional)
Pick over the chickpeas, discarding any misshapen peas or grit, rinse well, and soak overnight in water to cover. The next day, drain the chickpeas and put them in a saucepan with water to cover by 2 inches. Tie together 4 of the garlic cloves, the onion, and the bay leaf in a piece of cheesecloth and add the sachet to the pan. Add the optional ham hock only if you will not be adding salt cod later, and then bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered, adding 2 teaspoons salt (less if using the ham hock) after the first 10 minutes of cooking, until the chickpeas are tender, about 1 hour. Remove the pan from the heat, and remove the sachet from the pan. Leave the chickpeas in their cooking liquid. Discard the ham bone. Untie the sachet, discard the bay leaf, and reserve the garlic and onion.
There should be about 10 loosely packed cups or 1 pound of spinach after trimming. Place the spinach in a saucepan with only the rinsing water clinging to its leaves and cook over medium heat, stirring and turning constantly with tongs, until wilted, 5 to 6 minutes. Drain well in a sieve, pressing with the back of a spoon. If the leaves seem stringy or too big, you can chop them a bit more. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the bread and the remaining 3 uncooked garlic cloves and fry, turning as needed, until golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a blender or small processor, add the saffron, and pulse until pulverized. Add the onion and garlic reserved from the chickpeas, the cumin, paprika, and 1 cup of the chickpea cooking liquid and purée until smooth.
Add the purée and the spinach to the cooked chickpeas along with the salt cod or the ham, whichever you are using. Place the mixture over low heat, stir well, and bring to a simmer. If it seems dry, add a little water as needed so the stew is spoonable. Season to taste with salt and lots of pepper. Taste and balance the seasoning with vinegar.
Transfer to a serving dish. If serving wtih the optional eggs, top with the fried eggs and serve hot, or with the hard-boiled eggs and serve warm.