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I am not a shepherd. Unlike Daniel, I have never tended to a flock of over 200 sheep in the Italian countryside. In fact, other than a six-month stint cooking at a seasonal farm-to-table restaurant in Maine, I've always lived in cities. I may not know the first thing about shearing wool, but when it comes to cobbling together weeknight meals, I rely heavily on dishes commonly associated with the profession. They share the principle of making the most out of a few ingredients. Instead of a knapsack, I fit what provisions I can in a New York studio minifridge. Whether it's whipping up a batch of cacio e pepe or picking up a half dozen tacos al pastor on my way home from work, I'm all about that shepherd cuisine.
One of my favorite dishes from this tradition is Spanish migas. Migas, which translates literally to "crumbs," is a tapa found all over Spain, with ingredients that change based on geography. In most of the country, the crumbs are made by cooking pieces of stale bread that have been lightly moistened with water in olive oil, constantly stirring and breaking them up with a metal spatula until they are golden brown and crisp. In the southern regions of Andalusia and Murcia, you can find migas de harina, for which the crumbs are made by slowly cooking, and constantly stirring, water and flour in a cast iron pan over a wood fire. (I highly recommend reading Matt Goulding's beautiful account of this process in Grape, Olive, Pig.)
Garlic, chorizo, lightly salted panceta (pork belly), and peppers—ingredients that shepherds could easily carry—often make it into the mix, lending richness and spice to the migas. In the Aragonese city of Teruel, a serving of migas is often garnished with a handful of fresh grapes. It's a dish that has dozens of permutations, and like its Tex-Mex, Mexican, and Portuguese counterparts, Spanish migas is built around transforming an ingredient on the downside of its lifespan (stale bread, day-old tortillas) into a satisfying meal, using staple ingredients that a cook has on hand. I love this kind of food.
The recipe that follows isn't an attempt at faithfully recreating an authentic, micro-regional version of migas from Extremadura or Teruel or Granada. That's usually a losing proposition when you don't intimately know a regional cuisine, and even if you do, you can't easily source the necessary ingredients for a dish (something I was rightfully called out for by New Orleans natives when I tried my hand at seafood po' boys. Can you ever forgive me for using rémoulade instead of mayo?). I get it; I feel the same way when people put cream and peas in their "carbonara" (quotation marks necessary because that's not carbonara). This isn't a migas facsimile; it's about paying respect to the use-what-you-have ethos of the dish. This is Tuesday night, clear-out-the-tiny-fridge, city migas, that should be made while listening to Migos. Here's how to go about it.
How to Make Spanish Migas: Walk It Flock It
I start by combing through my pantry and fridge to gather the migas ingredients. I almost always have half a loaf of semi-stale bread kicking around. Cut away and discard the crust, which will get too dark and hard during the cooking process, and cut the bread into crouton-sized pieces. If you don't have stale bread at the ready, you can always use our preferred Thanksgiving stuffing method to oven-dry some fresh stuff. At this point, you can either sprinkle the bread with a quarter cup of water to lightly moisten it or add the water later on when the bread goes into the skillet to cook. It's important to hit the right level of crunchiness with migas; the crumbs should be crisp but still have a little give to them when you bite into the larger pieces. The water helps keep the crumbs from turning into tooth-shattering pebbles of fried bread.
For the pork, I use a combination of fresh pork belly and dry-cured Spanish chorizo. I prefer to use fresh pork belly instead of American-style slab bacon or salt pork for this application; the sweetness and heavy smokiness of American bacon can quickly overtake and drown out the subtle smokiness of the smoked Spanish paprika in the dish, and salt pork doesn't have the same depth of pork flavor that fresh belly has. Try to find a chorizo that isn't fresh sausage but is still on the younger, tender side and not the harder, more aged Spanish chorizo you would eat on its own with cheese and bread. The chorizo will be cooked in olive oil to crisp it up and render some of its fat. It will only get firmer as it cooks, so a well-aged chorizo can quickly become unpleasantly hard. That said, you can still use the aged stuff, just be careful and cook it less.
The vegetables for this migas can be easily tailored to use up what you have kicking around in your crisper drawer, but I like to use fresh peppers—in this case a bell pepper as well as an Anaheim pepper— hearty lacinato kale, and parsley, which I always seem to have an annoying amount left over from a previous cooking project. The parsley and kale certainly aren't traditional to Spanish migas, but again, this is about using what you have to make dinner happen. A few cloves of smashed, unpeeled garlic round out the produce side of the dish.
The only other important ingredients are olive oil and pimentón de la Vera—smoked Spanish paprika that, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, is a product with a Protected Designation of Origin status in the EU. It is most commonly available in sweet (dulce) and hot (picante) varieties; you can use either one, but I prefer the sweet stuff here.
You will need a large cast iron pan for this recipe. Start by rendering the fresh pork belly in a healthy amount of olive oil with the smashed cloves of garlic. The garlic is there to infuse its flavor into the oil and will be discarded later on in the process. Keeping the skins on the cloves makes for not only slightly easier prep, but it also protects the cloves from burning while the pork cooks. Once the belly has rendered most of its fat and started to crisp, I toss in the chorizo. As you can see in the photos above, I was only able to find the harder dry-aged stuff, so I just cooked it for a minute or two, until it was lightly browned and the fat in the skillet had taken on a deep-orange hue from the paprika in the sausage. The pork and garlic come out of the skillet, and the vegetables go in.
To cook the peppers, I crank the heat up, so that their skins quickly blister in the hot oil, much like a good serving of Padrón peppers. You want this to happen fast, so that the peppers retain some texture and aren't turned to mush. Next goes in the kale; take the skillet briefly off the heat when you add the greens to the skillet, because it will spatter and spit a little. Cook the kale until it just begins to wilt—you want it to still have some texture as well—and then get the veg out of the pan. It's time for the main event: the bread.
Arrange the bread pieces in a single layer in the skillet, and if you haven't already sprinkled the pieces with water, do that now. You will want to have a hefty metal spatula for this part of the process in order to constantly stir and break up the bread pieces, while also occasionally scraping the bottom of the skillet to free bread that sticks to the pan. The key is to let the bread begin to stick to the pan, so that it crisps and takes on color, but scrape it up and move it to a cooler spot in the skillet before it has a chance to burn.
Season and taste the crumbs as they cook. You are looking for them to be golden and crisp, while still maintaining the slightest bit of give and chew. If they are getting too crunchy, too quickly, simply drip a little more water over the migas in the pan.
Spice it Up
Once the bread is at the perfect level of crispy chewiness, sprinkle in the pimentón, and toss it with the migas until it's all well-coated with paprika. I then add the pork and vegetables back to the skillet, mix everything together, and heat it all through. At this point, you can either call it a day or go one step further and hook up a few crispy fried eggs, or Quavo's huevos as I like to call them, to top off your migas and Migos meal.
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