(Skip to March 31, 2011 post for a possible free copy of Latin Evolution)
The people have spoken, and the people say Spain. No surprise there. In Philadelphia, Jose Garces has given Spain and its colonial stepchildren much deserved praise through his ever-expanding fleet of restaurants. I ate at Amada, with Ann and friends a few years back. It was the first time I ever shelled out the money for a full tasting menu, and I made an oath then and there to try the tasting menu at every restaurant Garces opens. It’s been hard keeping up though. In spite of a recession closing doors on many local restaurants, Garces has opened five since 2005. Amada is the Andalusian flagship, a tapas restaurant with its own charcuterie bar. I hope this becomes a trend in other restaurants, and maybe even home kitchens. Who wouldn’t want to come home to a haunch of Jamon Iberica hanging over the kitchen counter? Tinto is the Basque version of Amada, a dark cellar of wall to wine-rack, decorated in Spanish Inquisition style. Distrito, just a few blocks from my place of work is dedicated to Mexico City. It looks like a pink 50s diner decorated with wrestling masks and a marquee advertising today’s tacos and tequilas. All three have wonderful tasting menus. I’ve yet to try Chifa, named after the Chinese population in Peru or Village Whisky named after, well . . . whisky, but I hope to soon. The only real obstacle will be Marcat ala Planxa, a Catalan restaurant in Chicago. I made the trip to Chicago for Rick Bayless, though, so I’m sure I can make another round for Garces. Obsessive? You bet. My facebook word cloud shows that I’ve posted the name “Garces” more than I’ve posted the name “Ann” in the last year. This is mostly because I rooted for him through every episode of America’s Next Iron Chef while everyone else was bemoaning the Eagles performance in the playoffs.
Then Garces did the unforgiveable.
Now he’s trendy. He has a line of ingredients with his face on it, like Bobby Flay. Now, how can I take friends to his restaurants and pretend that they are a well-kept secret? I can’t pretend it’s cool to own an autographed copy of Latin Evolution. I just look like some sort of trend-following lap-dog. Worse yet, Iron Chef really seems to have jumped the shark this season. Jeffrey Steingarten—one of my favorite curmudgeonly food writers—has disappeared, and every episode seems to have some special gimmick, like “battle twins” judged by the actresses from “Sister, Sister”.
But no, I can put aside my pride and say I’m happy for his success. I think this, like Rick Bayless winning Top Chef Masters, is a good thing so long as it brings more attention to Spanish food, often hidden in the shadows of its neighbors France and Italy. Growing up, I too frequently associated Spanish food with desultory, bland rice dishes. It was Mexican food without the spice or the wrappers. My school cafeteria sold glutinous “Spanish Rice” and “Arroz con Pollo,” leaving me thinking that Spanish food came in two flavors, red and yellow. True, saffron is one of Spain’s big exports, and I’ve never been that fond of saffron. Saffron is made from the female reproductive organ of crocus flowers, which seems like a lot of work—and frustration for the crocuses—just to turn food yellow. True too, if you try and make Spanish recipes with nothing but the Goya section of your local supermarket to line your larder, you’re not going to be easily impressed. But you shouldn’t judge Spanish food by these offerings, any more than you’d want Spain judging American food based on what’s available at McDonalds. Life is elsewhere.
A brief trip to Spain a few years ago convinced me that even the most traditional Spanish dishes could be wonderful if prepared properly. It’s often fairly simple fare, but when you’re in the Northern mountains of Spain, the food is usually right from the farm and perfectly fresh. (Yes, those are Spanish chickens above). There’s also a highly experimental side of Spanish cooking, which includes Ferran Adria’s El Bulli. (See here for Anthony Bourdain’s visit). For Adria, cooking is an experimental art; he closed up shop at El Bulli each year for months at a time in order to turn his kitchen into a laboratory in search of new flavors and techniques. He’s now closing the restaurant all together and replacing it with a school for advanced culinary study. And why not? Given how much of the flavor industry is currently governed by chemical corporations, why not have someone out there who is tampering with cooking on a scientific level who is actually one of the world’s best chefs? (Raffi Khatchadourian on the food additive industry).
Garces, who is from Ecuador, lies somewhere in between the traditional and experimental. While his recipes don’t require any of the custom made hardware and expensive additives that put Adria’s recipes forever out of my reach, they are similarly composite recipes—built up on a variety of smaller, but still difficult ones. They are brutally complicated, modern in their use of ingredients like lecithin to make foams, and exotic in the reach for Spanish imports. While each dish is inspired by a particular region or Latin influence, none of them are really “authentic”. For Garces, the experimental side is all about permutations that come about when culinary influences collide.
As every child learns in history class, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs and portions of what is now Mexico for Spain in 1519. What those history classes don’t always teach: Cortes conquered a people, but not their cuisine. Before the conquest, the Aztec diet was rich in corn, beans, chiles, and complex sauces, made from seeds. In the 1520s, under Spanish Rule, the same crops grew in abundance—and they still do. The Spaniards struggled to tame the land and the palate, growing wheat wherever possible throughout Mexico and Central America and raising grazing animals once foreign to this part of the world. They brought the cow and the pig—the beef, the pork, the lard—but they couldn’t impose their tastes or recreate the Spanish diet in this new world. Instead, the Aztec appetite adapted to this Spanish influence, incorporating these newly available foods into an already rich cuisine. Throughout the 16th century that story repeated itself throughout the New World—in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rica.
The same might be said about the British Empire’s influence on countries along the spice trail, but keep this in mind: Spain had a relatively well-established and tasty tradition of cookery prior to setting out to conquer the world. Britain had roast beef and soggy vegetables. Whatever we may say about the evils of colonization, we should be thankful for the culinary cross-pollination that has taken place. It has kept things lively, and, like the poetry of Lorca, just a little bit strange.
My hope is that Garces’s recent success will not only help people to see that Spain’s influence is equal to that of French or Italy, but more importantly, that there’s a market for Spanish ingredients in the U.S. Because let’s face it, it’s effing difficult to find authentic ingredients. Until fairly recently, Jamon Iberico, a cured ham from Spain was illegal to import to the U.S. because Spanish slaughterhouses hadn’t been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Spanish cheeses like Manchego and Idiazabal weren’t regularly available until the 90s. But there are still many Spanish imports that are only available on websites like La Tienda, and I can’t find Choricero peppers anywhere. Hirigoyen’s book Pinxtos asks for them regularly, but Barrenechea’s The Basque Table says that they are simply unavailable in the U.S. Adriana’s Spice Caravan in Ardmore claimed to have every pepper in the world, but when I asked them for Guindillas or Choricero they looked at me like I had grown a second head. They insisted that I was just mispronouncing Guajillos. Now that they’ve closed up shop, I’m sorry I spent so many years calling Adriana the “Spice Nazi,” after the affable villain of the Seinfeld series. They did have piquillos, Piment D’Espellett, and L’Estornell sherry vinegar, which I love. Piquillo peppers look a lot like regular red bell peppers with a “little beak” at the bottom, hence the name. They taste like most jarred roasted peppers, but have a smokier flavor that goes well not only with Spanish food but just about every sandwich or salad I can think of. I was glad to see that Thomas Keller makes liberal use of them in Ad Hoc at Home as well. Recently, Trader Joe’s has started carrying them. Their piquillos aren’t as good as Adriana’s or La Tienda’s, but they’re so cheap they’re hard to pass up.
Fortunately, Garces’s most recent Philly offering is the Garces Trading Company, a market at 1111 Locust street. (Click for Madame Fromage’s review). Perhaps this will give me the ingredients I need to make even one recipe in Latin Evolution. But even with the right ingredients, this book looks to be ruthlessly difficult. Even a tapas style flatbread snack involves four sub-recipes, “Cocas with marinated duck, cabrales béchamel, and cherry-fig marmalade.” In addition to having to make all that, the recipe calls for foie gras mousse, a “basic” ingredient, which turns out to have its own recipe listed in the back of the book. Good luck making this snack during half time.
That said, the people have spoken, and the people say Spain. So I will in the coming month make an effort to make at least one authentic Garces recipe from this slender volume. It will probably be humiliating. So stay tuned. Humiliation is fun.