Jose Garces Giveaway: Get a Free Copy of Latin Evolution.

The Garces giveaway is officially over.  Congratulations to Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars.

Guajillo sauce ingredients

A year ago, I promised I’d cook dishes from Jose Garces’s Latin Evolution, and a year ago I did.  Most of this was written in April of 2010, just before the big bad.  The above flower of guajillo sauce ingredients sits in a blender I no longer use; the camera has been replaced; the store I bought the chiles from no longer carries them. But thanks to my long hiatus and some over-zealous gifting, I now have two copies of Latin Evolution, one to give away to a lucky reader.  If you’re interested, post a response below with a link or address for your favorite Latin recipe.

As noted in my first Garces post, the term “Latin” covers many different culinary traditions, as does the aptly titled Latin Evolution.  It’s not what you’d call authentically Spanish, but a celebration of Latin influences across the globe, principally from Spain, South America and Mexico.  It’s pretty much just like Garces himself.  He may be steeped in the Ecuadorian traditions of his family, and he may have trained with a few Spanish chefs, but he’s also just a guy from Chicago, and to my mind at least, his recipes have more in common with Charlie Trotter than they do with Simon and Inez Ortega.  This is a good thing if you’re eating out, but it’s going to be tough on the interests of the home cook.

Sadly, the contemporary American side of the cookbook means that it has may of the traits I tend to avoid.

  • Architectural” elements. Garces likes to stack food on top of other food.  Recipes are composed out of a lot of little recipes.  Expect to use a lot of those little post-it flag bookmarks.
  • Lots of directions, no reflection.  I’ve made this point many times before.  I’ll follow any instructions, as long as the explanation is sufficient.  You want me to brunoise a shallot while wearing a PVC bondage hood?  Fine, but you damn well better explain how this improves the soup.
  • Foam or Air. I don’t mind foam in my cappuccino, but when foam or air appear in a compound noun, you know it’s time to run.  Foam and air are invariably terms for innovative ways to put bubbles where bubbles don’t belong. Think “lemon air” or “beet juice foam”.

As I struggled through a couple of dishes, however, I realize these concerns don’t really run deep. Yes, in the interest of full disclosure, the cookbook is difficult.  It’s probably best suited for professionals and diehard fans who want to gain a better appreciation of their favorite chefs and restaurants.  Working through recipes helps you to understand the processes and ingredients that go into “restaurant food,” even if it is impractical to make at home.

That said, Garces’s team seems to have worked hard to keep the recipes just this side of possible for home cooking. Yes, Garces uses food additives like soy lecithin, xanthum gum, and agar powder, but only rarely, and I was pleased to find that these ingredients are all baking supplies, available through companies like Bob’s Red Mill.  You don’t need an expensive Ferran Adria chemistry kit to make lemon foam. As such, Latin Evolution saves you the pain and disappointment that comes from someone like Michel Richard, who wanted me to spend more than three hundred dollars on flexipan molds just so I could make faux hard boiled eggs, or that Momofuku-r David Chang, who tantalized me for pages with stories of Frankenmeats before I realized that transglutaminase meat glue (TMG) costs about a hundred dollars a bag.

While the recipes were possible, they certainly stretched the limits of my kitchen and my abilities.

Roast chicken breast with poblano cornbread, charred pineapple and red chile sauce.

Jose Garces cornbread, grilled pineapple, and red chile

Let’s face it, if you work your way through these recipes, you want bragging rights.  So I knew that if I was going to cook out of Latin Evolution, I was going to need discerning dinner guests. Jason and Dee went with us on out first visit to Amada, so I knew they would understand what I was shooting for and why.  I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to be able to recreate some of that?

I let them choose which recipe I should make, because they’re the only people I know who have more dietary restrictions than me. This means we eat a lot of chicken, but when it comes down to it, chickens are surprisingly versatile creatures.  They can be made to do all sorts of tasty things and this recipe was no exception.

Garces assures us that the recipe takes its influences from all over Mexico, from the Yucatan flavors of achiote, orange and garlic, to the “chile spiced cornbread” whose inspiration he attributes to “Zarella Martinez”.  But I think anyone reading the title will know that this familiar gestalt of chicken, cornbread, and chile is probably a tip of the hat to North-of-the-Border Latin. Hell, it may even be North-of-the-Canadian-Border Latin, because I always assume the quantity of sugar in cornbread is directly proportional to how far you travel away from the Mexican border.

The “chile” is a paste made out of guajillos. This is time consuming, but I felt like I was up to the task because I’ve always been a fan of Rick Bayless’s early cookbooks. Bayless calls guajillos his “workhorse” chiles, and speaks of them with considerably more poetry than Garces:

“A puree of roasted, rehydrated guajillo sings with a chorus of bright flavors that combine spiciness, tanginess (like cranberry), a slight smokiness and the warm flavor of ripe, juicy sweet tomato; the flavors go on and on. The puree is a deep, rich, red-orange—the color of good tomato paste”.

I prefer Rick Bayless when it comes to making chile pastes. Even his most uncompromising books, Authentic Mexican and Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, are still more practical than Garces. Both are big on roasting every ingredient, but Bayless uses a cast-iron pan for just about everything.  Garces on the other hand wants you to deep fry the peppers individually. He wants the garlic to be roasted in the oven, with tomatoes, and he calls for the onion to be cooked on a grill.  After it’s all pureed it goes back into the skillet for frying, which, oh wait, hasn’t actually been used yet. There’s no denying that it makes for an amazing rich, red sauce, but in the end, it’s all going to be used for painting a decorative circle on your plate.  How many dishes do I have to clean now, just get this little undercoat of guajillo?

The second “level” of the dish surprised me. The cornbread called for unusual ingredients in unusual quantities: 1 cup of butter + ½ pound of sugar + 4 eggs + 2 cups rice flour.  Who makes cornbread without any cornmeal?  Who weighs the sugar but doesn’t weigh the flour?  Most importantly, who uses that much sugar? Southern cooks sneer at sugar in cornbread in any quantities, protesting that it is an unwelcome Yankee encroachment on their sovereign cuisine.  I had to imagine that Mexico felt similarly—but since neither Rick Bayless nor Diana Kennedy even mention cornbread in their cookbooks, I’m guessing that they are richly and deservedly indifferent.

I double-checked the Garces recipe on-line against other recipes.  I was disturbed to find that “Zarella” is really “Zarela” with one L, a Mexican born cook who currently works in New York.  Her cornbread recipe was quite similar to Garces’s right down to the poblanos, rice flour, and fresh corn, but she only calls for two tablespoons of sugar. On the other hand, I found another Garces recipe on-line for 3 chile cornbread, which called for 8 oz of butter and 8 oz of sugar.  The ratios were the same, so I decided he must really mean it. Yes, it was a much lighter and much sweeter cornbread than I’m accustomed to, but the rice-flour confection, studded with poblanos and fresh-cut corn, ended up tasting surprisingly like, well, cornbread. Served by itself, I would prefer less sugar, but in the end, I think this was deliberate because the sweetness helped as a contrast to the earthy guajillo sauce and the sour-edge of the chicken and grilled pineapple to come.

Jose garces cornbread

The cornbread is the pedestal to show off the achiote marinated chicken. The dish seems to play on our expectations here, because the color of the marinade for the chicken is very similar to the chile paste but with nothing else in common. Achiote comes in bricks, and its primary ingredient is annatto, the seeds of the achiote trees, also called “lipstick trees”.  Annatto has a very mild peppery flavor, but it’s mostly used for the color.  Achiote gets most of its flavor from the orange juice added in making the bricks. Garces ups the acidity with freshly squeezed naval orange.  So the end result is tangy rather than hot.

Garces call for “4 (6 ounce) skin-on chicken breasts”.  This gave me pause, because it was clear from the weight and the quick pan frying of the breasts that they should be deboned. But have you ever noticed that you can’t BUY deboned chicken breasts with the skin still on them?  It didn’t actually instruct readers to debone the chicken, but I decided it was better safe than sorry, and the results were good, perhaps even a revelation. The breasts are just quickly seared in the pan, and the marinade helped to make a well-marked skin. How is it that I never thought of using chicken breasts this way?  Ann said it was the best, most tender chicken breast she’d ever had.

With all this there’s also a side of roasted pineapple.  It’s the simplest part of the dish, and the one I’m most likely to combine with other dishes. All you do is mark the pineapple on a hot grill—about a minute for each side. Chop the pineapple in ½ inch chunks, add olive oil, shallot, and cilantro. Aside from the tenderness of the chicken, it was the only part of the dish to get singled out for comment from my guests. Dee: “I just have to say . . . pineapple and cilantro?  Yum.”

Sous-vide truffled chicken with fried eggs, rosemary fingerling potatoes, and truffled chicken jus.

Garces Sous-Vide Chicken

Given the range of recipes in Latin Evolution, I wanted to try at least one other recipe before passing judgment. The recipe appealed to me because it basically followed the spirit of Sous-vide cooking without actually requiring a cryovac or an immersion circulator. Sous-vide is French for “causes food poisoning” and it sometimes compared to boil-in-a-bag, but I find this can be a bit confusing because it doesn’t really get at why people are so interested in risking life and limb to produce good food.  If you make boil-in-a-bag rice, you’re not cooking; you’re just warming up precooked food at a high temperature. In Sous-vide you’re actually cooking the food, and you’re doing so by choosing the target temperature that you want, usually one which is well below the simmering point, so the temperature needs to be carefully monitored. In Garces’s recipe, you seal boneless chicken breasts in plastic with cream, and then cook them in a water bath at 155 degrees.  That’s a low temperature for chicken, but you’re cooking it for two hours, so the chicken is not only reaching that temperature all the way through, but hanging there for a while.  This does apparently, guarantee the death of microbes, but only just barely.

Why do you do this?  Sealing the meat in means that it will cook only in its own juice, or in this case, cream.  Cooking at 155 is important, because as soon as you hit 158, proteins start to contract, and juices get squeezed out.  Really, I think no one should recommend Sous-vide cooking at home under any circumstances.  Even if you have a Foodsaver device for sealing food into packets, and a candy thermometer to measure the temperature, you’re still taking chances.  And when someone like me discovers that his Foodsaver machine is broken, and decides to continue on with the cooking anyway, that’s just stupid. I ended up using a standard zip lock bag, which I dangled in the water with twine and an alligator clip to keep the mouth of the bag just out of the water. This had the added advantage of keeping the bag off the bottom of the pot, so I could regulate the temperature a little more evenly.

The downside of course is that the meat doesn’t brown, but it’s easy enough to remedy that after the fact.  Since you dutifully leave the skin on, and the chicken has absorbed some of that cream, a few moments in the pan makes for an amazing sear. The final product was tender and very, very rich.

Otherwise, the recipe is fairly conventional, but it is layered much like the last dish. You start with a Jus on the plate, then the fingerling potatoes, and then the chicken.  It’s all topped off with an egg yolk.  It’s just a regular fried egg, though most of the white is cut off with a three-inch ring mold, or, if you’re me, a slender water glass.  The dish as a whole still seemed to be missing something on the vegetable front, so I threw in some broiled white asparagus on the side.

Even with the extra improvising, I was pleased with the end results.  I always worry that recipes like this will require inordinate time and effort and still leave me with something that looks like Juan Miro threw up on a plate.  But the dishes came through as advertised. Admittedly, I will probably not make these dishes again.  I may only harvest ideas like the grilled pineapple or those tidy egg yolks for other applications, but going through the recipes was worth it. What I hope to get out of a cookbook like this is simply a better sense of how a chef’s mind works and a greater appreciation for the foods I can order in their restaurants, even if, in the end, I feel like the restaurant is where they should stay.  Most of what Garces does well is not about the parts, but about the whole palette he comes up with—and nowhere is that more evident than in the tasting menus at Amada or Tinto.  Imagine, if you have to do all this just to make chicken, what would it be like to put together twelve dishes for a tasting menu?  To cook for a full house?

While fandom requires that I own an autographed copy of Latin Evolution, however, I do not need two. So I’m more than happy to give one away.  I’ll choose randomly among people who respond to my questions in last week’s post or this one. For this post, interested readers should include a link to their favorite Latin recipe on-line.  For last week, interested readers should name their favorite examples of food writing.  I’ll announce the final winner in the next post.


Spain III: A Meal of Appetizers. Pintxos by Gerald Hirigoyen

I love tapas. They’re like appetizers for a meal that never comes. – Marge Simpson

Spain left me aching to recreate Basque and Catalan dishes at home, but tapas were far from my mind. I don’t think we had any tapas in Spain, and if we did, they were probably just called “snacks”.  In Spain, tapas are for the most part, bar food, sometimes served free with drinks.  They aren’t really the stuff of meals.  According to at least one history, “La Tapa so as to be meaningful has to be eaten between main meals as food that allows the body to survive until lunch or dinnertime.”   While there are plenty of tapas cookbooks, most of them seemed to rely heavily on imported ingredients like Ventresca tuna rather than on preparation.  That to me seems more like creative shopping than cooking. Tapas are also social food.  They involve multiple dishes served to guests simultaneously.  I don’t have milling guests.  I have Ann and two cats.  And it’s hard to get the energy to make several complicated little dishes just for second breakfasts, elevenses, or a pre-dinner snack.

After the doctors told me that I needed to focus on smaller and more frequent meals, however, I started giving Tapas serious consideration.  I also tried to revive the Anglo-Australian tradition of Afternoon Tea, but I was afraid people might think I was starting a political movement and camp out on our lawn.  So Tapas it was.  Turns out, tapas may well have started as a curative in its own right.  As one history suggests:

Some authors assert that the tapa was born when, due to an illness, the Spanish king Alfonso the 10th, the Wise, had to take small bites of food with some wine between meals. Once recovered from the disease, the wise king decreed that no wine was to be served in any of the inns in the land of Castile, unless accompanied by something to eat. This was a wise precaution to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on those people who, through lack of money to buy a nourishing meal, drank alcohol on an empty stomach.

True, other accounts suggest that Alphonse El Sabio was just looking to keep sand or flies out of his drink, including Gerald Hirigoyen’s: “Tapa means ‘lid’ and is derived from the word tapar, ‘to cover,’ so the commonsense theory is that tavern owners would drape a slice of ham or cheese or place a small plate of olives or almonds on top of a glass to create a barrier against bugs.” But I prefer the first story, because in addition to being a good buffer against alcohol, it turns out that smaller more frequent meals makes good dietary sense.  So I gave tapas a second look.

The book I was first attracted to was Gerald Hirigoyen’s Pintxos (The first 40 pages are available on google books).   Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas.  Tapas have always seemed a bit too trendy to me.  The romance has been thoroughly washed away by the fern and wine-bar set. But calling these little dishes “pintxos” returns some of the mystery, if only because they’re harder to pronounce.  It has to be spelled pintxos rather than pinchos, too.  All the duende is in the X.  Perhaps though, we should all resign ourselves to the fact that tapas in the U.S. have pretty much become what they are in Spain.  Snacks served with wine.  Not an expression of emotion and authenticity.  Not a romantic evening full of flamenco and tener duende.  Bar food.

Although Hirigoyen lives in California, runs two restaurants in San Francisco, and has written his cookbook for American audiences, he uses more uniquely Spanish ingredients in his 168 recipes than in all of Simon and Inez Ortega’s 1080 Recipes combined. I haven’t managed to find a Spanish specialty store in Philadelphia that makes one stop shopping for Spain possible.  Even the new Jose Garces Trading Co. mostly focuses on cheese, charcuterie and wine—not raw ingredients for cooking.  But I have managed to cobble together some ingredients from different locations.

Trader Joe’s: Piquillo Peppers, Guindilla Peppers, and Saffron.  Not great quality, but about a third or even a quarter of the price of ingredients at La  Harvested from the stigma of crocus flowers, Saffron is the most expensive spice by weight available on the market–so any little bit helps.  Tapas are casual food, so they shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Delis: Spanish cheeses, olives and Boquerones.  Boquerones are white anchovies, usually available in a tub. True, anchovies remind me of the days I spent working at Round Table Pizza.  They were oily, sticky things that people only ordered on the side so that they could take them into the parking lot and throw at cars. But Ann is crazy for anchovies, and these critters are far more palatable. Our farmer’s market deli also has a discount on Manchego when bought by the pound, and it has become a regular fridge staple.  Makes great grilled cheese sandwiches.

H-mart:  Really? Yes, H-mart is a Korean chain that carries all things Chinese, Japanese, South-East Asian, but they also carry Hispanic produce and ingredients, too. Someone will have to tell me how H-Mart managed to corner this market.

Web-sites: If you absolutely must, you can resort to La or The Spanish Table.  I’ve only seen choricero peppers and ventresca tuna there, but the cost soon undermines the possibility of making tapas regular, casual fare.

Pintxos means “spike,” but Hirigoyen only offers a handful of recipes with toothpicks or skewers.  The rest are fairly elaborate tapas, or even raciones–larger dishes that you actually can serve as a meal for two.  Like Jose Garces, Hirigoyen seems to approach cooking with the attitude that Spanish food is about colonial conquest. Unsurprisingly, his time living abroad has informed his dishes.  His training in France is evident in “Duck Breast with Oranges and Green Olives” and his work in the U.S. shows up bluntly in “Black-eyed Pea Salad with Calarmari”.  The former is pretty much just duck l’orange with a few sliced olives thrown in.  I used Catalan, jalapeno-marinated olives to spice things up a little, but it still tasted far more of France than Spain.  The black-eyed peas were a more welcome inspiration, and Hirigoyen’s thirty second boil and ice cooking method does a remarkably good job of keeping the calamari rings from turning into plumber’s gaskets. It should be clear though that this book is even less “authentic” than the Ortegas’ 1080 Recipes reviewed in my last post. But unless you consider serving a bowl of olives “cooking,” you’re probably better off with a cookbook that emphasizes modern tapas in their all their cultural promiscuity.  I just recommend drawing the line at “Scallops with Lychee Gazpacho“.  I had never worked with fresh lychees before, which are colorful and fun to shuck, but about as appropriate in a gazpacho as orange marmalade.

My favorite section of the Pintxos book specializes on beans, and the ingredients there tend to be cheaper and more readily available.  I do recommend cooking dried beans rather than using canned, but some recipes lend themselves to shortcuts.  “White Bean Salad with Manchego, Avacado, Apple and Meyer Lemon”  involves no cooking other than the beans.  It’s just beans, avocado and a granny smith apple reduced to corner inch dice, so throw in a can of beans and make a lemon vinaigrette and you’re good to go.  It’s definitely worth going the extra mile though on the “Lentil Gratin with Braised Serrano Ham” though and using lentils du puy.  They don’t take much time to cook.  Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to use a whole half pound of serrano ham in a lentils dish, so I used a little ham from our local farm.

These were simple dishes, but they were good enough to make me try most of the rest of the section. Pipérade Braised Beans with Baked Eggs. gave me the chance to finally break in those single-serving cast iron skillets that Ann’s sister and brother-in-law gave me for Christmas.  Along with the “Black-eyed Pea Salad with Calamari,” Hirigoyen throws in a little southern flavor with his beans and eggs dish.  Or maybe it was just the skillets that gives it the tex-mex/campfire feel.  The “Gigante Beans with Boquerones” may be offputting for some.  But as long as you can get good boquerones (see above), Trader Joe’s actually sells precooked  gigante beans with a light tomato sauce and pequillo peppers.  So that’s another salad that can be thrown together without actual any prep work.

If you’re too squeamish for calamari or anchovies, you can get over it with  “Monkfish in Olive Oil, Tomato, and Saffron”.  Monkfish is quite possibly the ugliest fish available. It’s called “poor man’s lobster,” probably because of its texture and the lumpy, tail-like shape of its filets. But that’s where the similarities end. If you look at the Morimoto video below, you’ll see how monkfish earned its reputation as a junk fish. Who wouldn’t want to throw that thing back? And the ugly isn’t just skin deep, it goes all the way through.  The white filets in the store look ordinary enough, but when cooked, the flesh tends to develop purple veins.  Now that people have discovered that looks aren’t everything, the price of monkfish has gone up.  It’s a good deal cheaper than sea bass or halibut, but if you want to find a good under-priced oddity, I recommend looking for skate.

I’ve tried recipes from most other sections in the book except for the chapter on organs.  The “Watermelon and Tomato Salad” is now part of my usual rotation (I often forgo the tomato and the vinaigrette and just serve watermelon with a little feta as a side salad for sandwiches).  The “Griddled Ham and Cheese Bocadillos,” are really just ham and cheese sandwiches with a little tomato thrown in–but they taste better because they’re called “bocadillos”.  I’m not that fond of tomato on ham and cheese, but I do like the idea of adding something a little sweet into the mix like spiced pears (ala ‘Wichcraft) or fig jam (ala Tria). The seared tuna with onion marmalade, chicken thighs with Spicy basque “ketchup,” and chicken skewers with yoghurt dipping sauce were all good if not particularly Spanish.   In the end though, whatever small reservations I may have had about the book, I have to recommend it–particularly those who are looking to make a diet of small meals.  The fact that I keep inviting Hirigoyen back to my kitchen for one dish after another, speaks well of the book, its inventiveness and its flavors.

Spain II: Cooking in Translation. Simon and Inez Oretga’s 1080 Recipes.

In 2006, Ann and I signed up for a ‘pilgrimage’ through Spain and Italy sponsored by Saint Joseph’s University. The school encouraged faculty to follow in the footsteps of Saint Ignatius, learning as they went about the Ignatian ideals of Catholic education.  While Ann went and learned about cura personalis, or care of the whole person, I snuck along to study cura porcinalis, the curing of the whole pig.  Secretly, stealthily, the only feet I wanted to follow were the little trotters of the famed Iberian black pig.

Much to my surprise, a pilgrimage turns out to be a great way to see a country.  Turns out, most people go to Spain to see churches and drink wine anyway.  So going with Jesuits is like getting back stage passes to the show.  You get to see the big churches like the Gaudi, and you also get to see the little dark places with their bone-filled ossuaries. You get to cut through lines, and if you stay in Montserrat, you get to stay at the monastery that is usually off limits to tourists at night.

Monserrat is a surreal “serrated” geological formation.  Driving from the countryside, you really understand why it had spiritual significance for so many people.  You drive for hours by bus across the flatlands, hot and hung over from last night’s wine. You can only imagine what it might have been like to cross by horse or foot.  Then, all of the sudden, this knife of otherworldly pink conglomerate juts up, precisely where a mountain range shouldn’t be. So naturally, ones first impulse is to build a church on it, or a monastery, or a chapel, or a shack to meditate in. And while the first monks to climb that slope must have been armed with pitons and crampons, the whole surreal image is now made complete with a funicular railway sliding up and down the middle of it.  It’s like some sort of Disneyland theme park for Benedictines.

Yet while most of the tourists had to slink back to Barcelona for the night, we got to spend the night in Santa Maria de Montserrat, one of the trips more memorable moments. Ann and I bought cheese off the back of a cart to share with our fellow travelers.  Some other composition specialists were on the trip—including Patricia Bizzell and Cinthia Gannett—but I was an adjunct at the time, and a bit tentative about starting up conversation, particularly with Pat since she was on my graduate exams reading list.  But that night, Pat asked me, “And Ted . . . What do you do?”  I thought for what must have seen an unreasonably long time, and said, “I roast chickens.”  The whole table suddenly became engaged in a discussion of brines, high-roasting, and trussing, and I suddenly felt comfortably at home. After dinner, we took wine out to the courtyard of the giant church, home of the Black Madonna and drank beneath the stars while giant, feral pigs roamed quietly back and forth. That’s right, black, bristly, boars just routing around for God knows what in the shrubberies. After that evening, Spain made a lot more sense to me. So did Spanish wine. So did Salvador Dali.

What did I learn about Saint Ignatius? Born of a wealthy family, he was injured as a soldier and retired to a cave in order to contemplate his rapidly growing beard and fingernails.  Deciding that this life was a kind of vanity in its own right, he returned to the world and committed himself to the fight for social justice. We were all asked what the saint’s retreat from the world meant to us.  Catholics said catholic things. Non-Catholics said Non-catholic things.  Others related the experience to Jungian archetypes. All I could think of was that Saint Ignatius had a lot in common with Batman.

What did I learn about food? More, at least more that stayed with me and has sparked further spiritual inquiry.  Most of St. Ignatius’s travels seemed to go from Bilbao to Bacelona, Basque country and Catalonia, so the food we ate was French influenced but quite distinct in its own right.  I gather there’s a certain amount of struggle for Basque and Catalan cuisines to keep their identity unique.  Look at on-line at reviews for Gerald Hirigoyen’s Pintxos for example, and you’ll see users savagely criticize him for being too French, going to French culinary school, or only representing the more Northern Basque traditions, an argument which seems to resolve almost entirely around his use of butter—The horror!  Butter or not, the Basque and Catalan food was a revelation, and I have been trying to recreate it at home ever since. This has become a trend for all of Ann and my trips, but I’ve become a better note taker over time.  Every year we go somewhere–Spain, Italy, China, or Sweden—we immerse ourselves in books before and after. Ann will immerse herself in six months worth of books set in or about the country, while I make the same journey through cookbooks, shoring up my memories with the tastes, textures, and aromas of the country.

A lot gets lost in translation however.  So I can only speak guardedly and at times despairingly, about my efforts.  There are three reasons for this, though it’ll take me two posts to explain them fully.  First, there seems to be a paucity of really good cookbooks.  Second, in spite of Spain’s copious export industry, some ingredients are still hard to find without a website.  Last but not least, the fun stuff like tapas and pintxos aren’t really the kind of thing that’s easy to make for two.

The Cookbook Problem

I only own six Spanish cookbooks, but ironically, when it comes to recipes for Romesco or other Spanish classics, I might as well go to my old standbys like Judy Rogers’s The Zuni Café Cookbook. People don’t even really think of them as being Spanish dishes.  Doesn’t Romesco come from Rome?  Well, there you go.  Like many French and Italian dishes it’s all been absorbed by the mainstream, and there are a lot more good mainstream cookbooks out there than there are good Spanish cookbooks. But what I wanted after coming home from Spain, was something thoroughly Spanish, something like Julia Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or Marcella Hazan’s’s, well . . . pretty much anything written by Marcella Hazan.  I wanted a book that sought to explain authentic Spanish cooking to outsiders.

I thought I’d found this with Simone and Ortega Inez’s 1080 Recipes.  This is one of those fat Phaidon books, which have been showing up lately.  Phaidon, best known for its books on art and architecture, ironically seems to be trying to corner the market on dated, rustic cookbooks with mostly hand-drawn illustrations.  These are not overly dressy, coffee-table books.  They’re repackaged popular cookbooks from different countries, some 30-50 years old, but never before published in English. All of them claim to be the “bible” of something. Look at the Phaidon website. The Silver Spoon is “the Bible of traditional Italian cooking”.  I Know How to Cook is “the Bible of traditional French home cooking”. Vefa’s Kitchen is “the Bible of Traditional Greek Cooking”.  And 1080 Recipes is “The Bible of Authentic Spanish Cookery.”

This sounds promising, but there are many ways to define “authentic.”  In this case, the book is authentic in that it was written thirty years ago and was popular in Spain. But it’s a general cookbook, and really makes no claim to reveal regional secrets.  It’s more like The Joy of Cooking for Spanish audiences. There’s no pretense here of explaining mysteries to outsiders.  The recipes are simple, appropriate for a family meal, and many of them aren’t Spanish.  Curiously too, there are very few recipes calling for uniquely Spanish ingredients beyond saffron.  For all its 1080 recipes, there are fewer calls for Guindilla, Padron, Choricero, or Piquillo peppers than there are in much shorter American cookbooks by Hirigoyen, Barrenchea or Garces.

Phaidon books are also spare on instruction. A recipe for suckling pig, for example, basically just says to cut the pig in half and roast it.  It hails back to an era where a relatively high level of competency or familiarity with cooking seems to be assumed.  And while there may be some interesting subtleties or nuances to Spanish cooking, it doesn’t make it onto the page.

Consider the onion.  Most cuisines have some combination of aromatics that they cook in fat or oil at the start of a dish. People like to buy fancy bottles of oil with all manner of herbs and peppers in them because this is what fat is good at: it holds aromas.  But it doesn’t really matter if those peppers have been swimming in oil for six months, or whether you’re cooking in the pan for six minutes at the beginning of a meal.  It has the same effect.  By cooking aromatics first, you can cook them just right to activate the aromas, and let the flavors permeate all the other ingredients as you go. But it seems to me that every cuisine has its own unique combination of aromatics, as well as their own very particular ways of cooking them. The French have mirepoix. The Italians have Soffritto that usually includes garlic. India has its own concoctions of onion, garlic and dried chile. Onion is common in all, but it seems that French books usually insist on sweating onions, cooking them slowly so that they turn soft and translucent, but never brown. Indian food in contrast, seems to find it desirable to brown onions over relatively high heat. Marcella Hazan’s books, however, always use the term arrosolate, as if there were some sort of rosy in-between state of cooking onions.  It’s a fiction, of course.  There is no rose colored onion. But it’s a workable fiction. I keep looking for that arrosolate state and while I’m never sure if I’ve got it right, it makes a relatively mundane part of cooking seem new again.

I’m assuming these preferences are not simply an arbitrary decision born out of prejudice.  Presumably, the stronger, slightly singed flavors of onions better match spicy foods.  The fats and even cooking fuels may play a role here as well. Whatever the reasons for these changing conventions, however, I want to know them. I want a cookbook that can explain something like inspiratore and arrosolate, and the Phaidon books don’t do that. Whether you’re in France, Italy, or Spain, they all pretty much just say, “cook onions”.

There’s also something ironic about the Phaidon artwork.  After decades of producing art and architecture porn for your coffee table, Phaidon is now turning to cookbooks that are subdued enough to border on the plain. This is probably deliberate, and in some cases there’s a nice contrast between the modern design of the books and the simple, hand-drawn images, such as in Pork & Sons by Stephane Reynaud.   Pork & Sons has decidedly unglossy photographs matched with charming sketches of pigs in various compromising positions and S&M outfits.  In 1080, the hand-drawn artwork is appropriately rustic, but the photos are universally taken from above, without regard for depth of focus or field or even really color.  It’s a lot of brown food all photographed on a brown table.

Perhaps this is out of deference for the original, but I haven’t been able to find a copy as a source of comparison.  So out of spite, I’ve included a close-up here, of my own effort to make the Ortegas’ chicken with lemons look tasty.

And it was tasty.

When all is said and done, the book has the advantage that it actually works.  Like most old cookbooks, you have to fill in a lot, but so far the recipes have served me well.  I say, guardedly, that it is the best Spanish cookbook that I have yet to find. The chicken with lemons was delicious, if not uniquely Spanish, and I’ve liked other recipes well enough to pre-order Simone and Ortega Inez’s The Book of Tapas. But I’m still searching for the book that will bring back my memories of Spain. Perhaps all I really need is an explanation for why the Café con leche and churros in Spain seemed so much better than in the U.S.  Is that really so much to ask?