When an adventurous home cook first becomes interested in the cuisine, one tends to begin one’s education by producing a cooking scrap book: a collection of magazine cutouts, containing a wealth of recipes that have caught our eye and that we are generally unable to locate when we decide to cook them. Not unlike The Blob, this scrap book will continue to grow in magnitude, if not much in usefulness, unless we move to stage 2: the purchase of a cookbook, whose pages become the new home of the selected cut-outs that actually stand a chance of ever being made
This second stage is of critical importance. The wrong cookbook can completely smother our enthusiasm for a particular type of cooking. Frustration at impossibly complicated recipes, inaccurate cooking times or impossible-to-find ingredients, to name but a few reasons, will not only end with the book stored at the bottom of our cookbook pile, but might very well result in our discarding our culinary experimentation in a particular field entirely.
It is only a chosen few of each household's cookbooks that earn the right to actually live on the kitchen shelf. Only the truly useful earn the right to become tatty and torn, each sauce stain on a page a medal earned for valued service. Only the right cookbook can become a true kitchen companion. So, in aid of all 'stage twoers', Spain Gourmetour presents this brief selection of commendable cookbooks.
1080 recipes: the Bible
When 1080 recipes was first released in 1972, few could have imagined it would become the third most sold book in the history of Spain, trailing behind the Bible and Don Quixote. Simone Ortega's passing on 2nd July 2008 was marked by moving obituaries by Spain's most renowned chefs in all the major media. Given Spain's current reputation for innovative cooking and culinary whimsy, it seems strange that a selection of generally simple and traditional recipes could elicit such a response.
But the influence of this book in Spanish home cooking can hardly be overstated. One can find a dog-eared copy in almost every Spanish kitchen and, in a more traditional Spain of the past, it was the favoured parting gift of a mother to her daughter when she abandoned the family nest. This meant that, when the book was first translated into English in 2007, comparisons to The Joy of Cooking were rife in its reviews.
Both are designed for the novice cook offering valuable information on kitchen basics (such as how to fillet a fish or clean a partridge, for instance). And both share a pragmatic, no-nonsense approach designed to increase the reader's basic home cooking repertoire and not to create dinner party flights of fancy. But while The Joy of Cooking all but teaches the reader how to turn on the stove, 1080 assumes the reader, at the least, "knows how to fry an egg", as the Spanish sating goes.
Be that as it may, 1080 recipes basically does what it says on the cover: it offers 1080 ideas, covering basic Spanish staples such as gazpacho or paella, new and simple takes on traditional ingredients such as pulses, vegetables or chicken, some more adventurous ideas involving game, sweetbreads and offal, alongside French-influenced and continental dishes which Ortega was instrumental in introducing into the Spanish home back in the now-distant seventies.
A final word must go to the additions made in the last edition of the book, adapted from the original by the mother-daughter team of Simone and Inés Ortega in the first half of our decade. The first must be the capricious illustrations by Barcelona-based illustrator and designer Javier Mariscal that pepper the pages of an edition that, otherwise, presents the numbered recipes with little fanfare or, for that matter, garnish. Second, a series of new recipes contributed by prominent Spanish or Spanish influenced chefs, such as Andy Nusser and Alexandra Raij of, respectively, Casa Mono and Tía Pol in New York, Sam & Sam Clark and José Manuel Pizarro of Fino and Tapas Brindisa in London, as well as TV chef and Washington's culinary whirlwind José Andrés, Michelin star collector Santi Santamaría and a handful of others.
The New Spanish Table: Comprehensive Fun
Anya Von Bremzen's first visited Spain in the return to democracy of the 1980s, she found a cuisine in which all started and ended in tradition. Not that this was bad, for she confesses to have returned home "besotted" by the richness of regional variations, styles and attitudes. This initial interest warranted return visits which paid tasty dividends, for Von Bremzen was a witness to the culinary revolution in Spain, first through the development of Basque nueva cocina at the hands of the Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana crew, and subsequently by Ferran Adriá and the current Spanish New Wave.
Von Bremzen's knowledge of Spanish cooking can therefore be labeled as encyclopedic. If we add to this an enthusiasm as unbridled as it is contagious, we have two of the main elements in a good book: knowledge and passion. For that is what The New Spanish Table is, above all else: a good book. Beautifully written and informative texts on meetings with the figureheads of Spanish cuisine and on her experiences in Spain sit alongside vibrant and colorful photographs, information on the typical products of the Spanish pantry and an illustrative selection of 172 recipes. Von Bremzen has collected the recipes from the toast of Spanish chefs, tapas bar owners and home-makers alike, producing a comprehensive look at Spanish food.
What makes Von Bremzen's book especially appealing is the enthusiasm she shares with Spaniards for the joys of eating and drinking and the way she approaches what is the core of its cooking today: a marriage of tradition and innovation and a deep-rooted respect for the ingredient. This ultimately results in recipes that are practical and accessible yet still exciting and authentic. In her own words, the book presents an appealing selection of what "Spain eats today. And no country in the world is better fed".
La Cocina de Mamá: the Great Home Cooking of Spain
If you ask Ferran Adrià who the best cook in the world is, he will invariably answer: "my mother". This statement, which may seem surprising, is also very telling of Spanish culinary tradition- the extravagant brilliance of modern Spanish cooks could never have happened without the rich tradition behind it, kept alive in the hearths of Spanish homes and handed down from generation to generation.
Penélope Casas, who was involved in Spanish food for over twenty years as a writer, guided culinary tour operator and journalist and was once described as "the guiding light for anyone doing Spanish cooking in America" knows this well. She has therefore prepared this fantastic compendium by inquiring into the star recipes of chefs' mothers' all over Spain, from tapas bars to high end restaurants.
The resulting book is not only a fantastic guide into the influences of modern Spanish cooking, but also a studiously comprehensive collection of recipes from the different culinary cultures of Spain. From the good-natured and hearty simplicity of Castilian stews, through the husky spiciness of Andalusian fare, all the way to the daring philosophy of Catalan mar y muntanya (mixing products from the sea and land), all the regions of Spain shine in this book.
One-page recipes are completed with a little story of where each recipe was found, providing interesting insights into Spanish culture, as well as background to the playful mix of simplicity and exuberance that characterizes Spain's art and food.
If you should ever find yourself in need of a visual example of the term hyperactive, you could do worse than Washington-based chef José Andrés. Chef or culinary advisor to no less than 5 US restaurants, host of Spanish network show "Vamos a cocinar" (Let's cook), and the 26-part culinary tour "Made in Spain" (currently on-air in the US), Chef of the year according to Bon Appetit Magazine in 2004 and best chef in the mid-Atlantic according to the James Beard Foundation in 2003, Andrés has also found time to regularly publish cookbooks both in Spain and abroad.
His first publication, in fact, is all one could ask for in a cookbook. Elegant presentation, easy-to find ingredient-based structure, inventive and delicious recipes, useful tips and wine suggestions, all garnished with the recollections and thoughts awakened in the author by each of the dishes. One of the book's greatest assets, ease of use aside, are the tips that Andrés volunteers on nearly every recipe, suggesting alternative ingredients should one be hard to come by, pre-cooking tricks or volunteering alternative serving suggestions.
The greatest one, however, comes from the sheer eagerness and fervor that Andrés feels for tapas not as a type of dish, but as a way of eating. "Tapas", he says, "are a shared experience that is more sociable than any fancy sit-down at a restaurant. (...)[they are] something to share and mix. There are no rigid rules about separating meat and chicken, fish and vegetables. There are no appetizers and entrees. You can build a meal around a series of dishes that you like, mixing according to your taste. With tapas, the eating and sharing are just as important as the food you are serving". This enthusiasm shines through, page after page, making Tapas, a taste of Spain in America not only a good book to turn to for delicious ideas, but a first step on the road to understanding why food and wine matter so much in Spain.
This second stage is of critical importance. The wrong cookbook can completely smother our enthusiasm for a particular type of cooking