Sometimes progress is not totally positive. Nicholas Butcher, British by birth, wrote Recipes from the Spanish Kitchen in 1990, by then living in Spain and endlessly traveling the back roads. He moved village to village, region to region. The roads were slow, the villages inviting, the food regional.
Today, Butcher still travels around Spain and can do so on modern roads where the old villages pass by in a flash, distant from the road, their aromas unable to tempt you to stop and nibble. So when he can, Butcher still takes the back roads, still smells, still nibbles.
He believes that there really is no official Spanish cuisine in the sense that we think of French or Italian. Spanish cooking is distinct, and it would not be confused with French or Italian, but the food is diffuse with a spectrum of ingredients, preparations, and resulting flavors that is quite astounding. Quite definitively Spanish. And quite overlooked.
In America, we do have, finally, a bounty of tapas bars, offering either real or Americanized versions of tapas delights. But tapas is only part of the cuisine that spreads across plains and mountains to the many seacoasts that so influence Spanish cooking.
In 2012, Butcher revised Spanish Kitchen, correcting a few mistakes but retaining the vast bulk of the recipes he had presented now a quarter century ago. If you scan a tapas book or two, you’ll recognized many of his tapas dishes: salt cod and shrimp are ubiquitous. It’s the other chapters in the book, beyond Tapas, that give you a plethora of recipes with ingredient combinations that are not the ones an American would typically encounter.
In Soups, you do find Gazpacho, but in a simple rustic format. There isn’t a long list of ingredients, primarily just vinegar, bread, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and olive oil. No herbs, no chile, no onions. Just Spanish simple. It’s the recipe right after that will give you pause. The Salmorejo is a gazpacho with an egg yolk to thicken it up. And there are white gazpachos here including the Gazpacho de Pinones made with pine nuts.
Soups here include stews, a stable of rural cuisine in nation that is not rich. And stews can be made, not just with the usual beef or lamb, but with octopus and shellfish. The recipes are all here, again deliberately simple.
The Vegetables chapter will give you inspiration, especially if you are a fan of artichokes. I know, you steam them and serve with a dipping sauce. Instead, how about frying artichokes and potatoes together, using a flour spiced with pounded garlic and saffron? Or you might fry some onion, ham and bacon, then add in small artichokes and cook the ensemble in stew fashion.
Frying is a very common Spanish technique. We bake a potato, in the Joecas recipe you fry the potatoes, coat them with a sauce of garlic, saffron and parsley, and then add in deep-fried slices of chorizo. No butter or sour cream are needed here! Or you could try Papa en Ajopollo: potatoes are cooked in a rich sauce of pounded almonds, garlic, saffron, parsley and fried bread. The dish is topped off with lemon juice.
Sauces abound is Spanish cuisine. They are the easy way, the affordable way, to add dimension to a basic dish. Consider this recipe:
Yield: 1 cup
- 2 ounces hazelnuts
- 2 ounces almonds, blanched and peeled
- 3 cloves garlic
- 4 ounces oil [mild olive preferably]
- Vinegar to taste
In a hot oven, toast eth nuts until brown. Rub off the skis from the hazelnuts. Place the nuts and garlic in a mortar with a little salt, and pound to a paste; this is easier done in batches. Transfer the paste to a blender. With motor running, gradually add the oil until you have a smooth, cream-brown sauce. Season it very lightly with vinegar.
Serve with trout or sardines.
This recipe epitomizes Spanish cuisine: Italian-like in its simplicity with heavy dependence on a small core set of simple ingredients — nuts, vinegar, oil.
There is nothing small about the Fish chapter where everything in the sea seems to be edible. There is salt cod, of course, which I think should be the national fish. It isn’t. Hake is. When was the last time you ate hake? You’ll find hake recipes here. Good, authentic ones. And ideas for bream, octopus, bonito, barbo, anchovies, eel, cuttlefish, grouper, mullet, monkfish, sardines, scad, sea bass, skate, sole, squid, swordfish, and trout.
Ah, the trout recipes. I love trout, simple pan fried trout. I would never have imagined pan frying in company with ham, almonds, garlic and parsley. The idea, Trucha con Jamon y Almendras, is here for you to enjoy.
In a rural country with modest incomes, protein in the form of meat has not been a daily staple for many families. So the Carne chapter here spans everything: traditional four-footed meat, poultry and game.When these dishes are prepared, there is special attention and elevated elegance. For example the Pollo a la Montanesa is chicken stew, but with a twist: freshly chopped mint is added at the end to bring that sparkle that is uniquely mint.
Believe it or not, the Spanish eat stuffed turkey. The stuffing in Spanish Table is made with prunes, dried apricots, chestnuts, loin of pork, pine nuts, sausage meat, apple, dry vermouth, and cinnamon. Suzen and I may just test this one out for Thanksgiving.
Any good meal has to end with Dessert. A good Spanish meal must end with a Spanish dessert. There is Leche Frita, literally fried milk. Confused? You make pastry cream, a cream so thick that when cooled you can cut it into chunks. The cream is already flavored with cinnamon and lemon. The pieces are coated in flour, breadcrumbs and beaten egg. And, then, what else, fried. But wait. There’s more. The fried pieces are then rolled in cinnamon sugar. The coating is crunchy and sugary. The filling is gooey. This recipe sounds remarkable — getting my wife to agree to this may require a barrel of Spanish sherry.
If you love Bananas Foster, then you’ll consider Patanos con Brandy. The bananas are cooked in honey, orange juice and brandy. I do like my Fosters, but this very simple recipe tugs at my heart.
Author Nicholas Butcher wrote this Spanish Table based on his love affair with Spanish cuisine. Spain did more than tug at his heart, it won it. Now he lives in Spain, sunny and distant from his native Britain. Read this book, sample its honest recipes, and you might do the same.