October 7, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Expat, Food and wine, Spain

News flash: I’m obsessed with Spanish food.

And you know what? Nothing chaps my culo like faux Spanish cuisine (yes, I’m talking to you, San Francisco “Spanish” restaurants – if I see another taco on your menu I’m going to refry your beans).

Oh but you can imagine my excitement when I found out about a traditional Spanish cuisine cookbook – in English. The American author, Elizabeth Parrish, has lived in Spain for 22 years, so she knows a thing or dos about Spanish cuisine, and also how it translates to the American table.

Now, I’m not going to lie (would I ever lie to you? No, never), I can cook, however I pretty much don’t like to. But I’m a big eater and studier of foods, so my first line of business was to examine her book, reading every last word about the ingredients and methods.

So far so good.

Next up – convince Jacobo to cook a few of the recipes with me so that we could give it a try. He was game.

Fresh off of my obsession with The Canary Islands’ papas arrugadas (wrinkly potatoes) and mojo, I thought that would be just the dish to try. Super easy to make, it was just right for someone like me who wants less cooking and more grubbing. The contrasting sauces – one of red chili pepper and the other of green bell pepper and cilantro – are like the peanut butter of Spanish sauces (that is – they go with anything!). Most typically served with the famous salted and wrinkly papas arrugadas, they can easily top off chicken or fish (or you can just slurp it straight from the bowl – whatever).

The recipe from La Buena Mesa was mojo-and-papas perfection. My only suggestion: opt for a food processor rather than a ghetto Ikea mortar and pestle. Achieving a pasty consistency was virtually impossible, and plus all the elbow grease totally went against that whole “less work, more eat” philosophy that I was talking about.

After whipping up that mean batch of garlicky goodness, a girl needs some sweets (this one anyway), so that can only mean one thing: turning to the back of the book to find a dessert. The winner – one of my Spanish faves – natillas. I’m also kind of an expert on them (says me). Unfortunately, the natillas and I kind of got in a bit of a fight as my two batches turned out more like eggnog than custard. But I suppose they still had some yum potential if you like to drink your desserts. I’m still not really sure what went wrong…

THE VERDICT: Spanish cooking isn’t about precise measurements, and true to that spirit, Elizabeth has admittedly kept many of the formulas loose. I can easily promise that this cookbook captures the essence of regional Spanish cuisine – but be sure to bring some chef savvy to your pretend Spanish kitchen or else you’ll end up with watery natillas.

Now, for a little Q&A with the author:

LTV: Do you have any favorite recipes?
EP: I guess my favorites are the ones I make time and time again. In summer, hardly a week goes by that I don’t make a batch of gazpacho. In winter, it’s chicken consommé and, of course, I add a bit of fino to it. I’m also fond of the “classics,” like Spanish omelet, flan or chicken in garlic sauce. And I like Spanish comfort food along the lines of lentils with chorizo or fried eggs and potatoes (in olive oil, of course). If I’ve got a little more time, almond and pine nut soup is a favorite. I almost always make it for Christmas. I also like fish a lot and if you’ve got access to good seafood, you can’t go wrong with Catalan fish stew.

LTV: Which recipe was the most difficult to master?

EP: I would say that the most difficult was probably the Galician rye bread. I think that anything involving yeast is open to a lot of variables. There’s the flour, which differs from place to place, the type of oven used – especially where bread is concerned. As you know, people here don’t make their own bread; they buy it at the local bakery. That means professional ovens or artisan stone ovens – something a home cook doesn’t have access to. And then there’s the climate, which also affects the final outcome. I just think that bread is tricky.

LTV: What was your most memorable experience when learning how to make these recipes? And/or is there a dish that is particularly sentimental?

EP: When I first lived in Spain (nearly 25 years ago!), I shared an apartment with two other girls, one of whom was from Salamanca. I wanted to be able to make a Spanish omelet like the ones I ate in local bars. I made it time and time again. After each try, Marga (one of the roommates) would tell me something along the lines of “you need to cook the potatoes more slowly” or “you need to use thinner slices.” So every time I made it, I would fine tune that omelet according to whatever advice Marga had given me until one day she finally pronounced it as being right. Spanish omelet is also one of the few Spanish dishes that my mother made when I was growing up. Whenever I visited home, my father always requested that I make the omelet. My mother was too worried about his cholesterol and skimped on the eggs. I threw cholesterol to the wind and went for taste and texture.

LTV: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Spanish cuisine?

EP: I think that the biggest misconception is that it’s like the food from other Spanish-speaking countries or that it’s spicy when, in fact, I find that Spaniards are pretty adverse to hot peppers and spices. It’s a Mediterranean cuisine that has grown out of the collective experience of the people who inhabit this particular area, influenced by climate, terrain, and availability of ingredients. Spain isn’t even on the same continent as the rest of the Spanish-speaking world!

LTV: What is your favorite regional cuisine? (Mine is Galician – hands down!)?

EP: Galician food is excellent. I love hake, Galician-style; however, I think that a big part of what makes the food there so great is the exceptional seafood that comes from those waters. The Atlantic there is cold with lots of undercurrents and white water and that makes for spectacular seafood. And you simply can’t find that kind of quality in seafood everywhere, which makes some of the dishes hard to duplicate outside of Galicia. So I guess I’m going to have to bat for the home team and go with Catalonia. The cooking can be both amazingly simple and straightforward (bread with tomato and olive oil) or downright baroque, but it’s always ingenious. I mean, they’ll season meat with cinnamon or thicken and flavor a sauce with ground almonds and hazelnuts. If you want to try a Catalan recipe that you can incorporate into your everyday meal repertoire, try Chicken with Vegetable Medley (pg. 140). It’s easy, healthy, thoroughly Mediterranean, and, of course, tastes good; otherwise, what’s the point of eating it?

LTV: How is life in Spain as an American expat? Do you plan to stay here indefinitely?

EP: I won’t say it’s easy, but it’s certainly a learning experience and I think I’ve grown from it. Some people figure out early on what they want to do and follow a charted course and that’s perfectly valid. Others of us are given somewhat more uncharted maps. I try to be open, to explore what I’m interested in, and not panic! I don’t really know if I will stay here indefinitely or not. I’m divorced with a 10-year-old son and right now my number one priority is taking care of him and making sure that he is stable, happy, and doing well. (He is.)

LTV: Outside of the cuisine, what do you love most about Spain?

EP: I like the villages here. I like being able to disappear into a rural setting with its close contact with nature, the quiet, the architecture, and the slower pace.

Finally, the important part: to win yourself a cookbook, leave a comment below telling me your favorite Spanish dish by Monday, October 10th and I’ll do an extra-scientific hat drawing to pick the winner. Buena suerte!

And you know the drill – if you buy the book via my site, I will get a microscopic commission (we’re talking pennies people).


16 Responses to “Book Review: La Buena Mesa (and how to win a cookbook)”

  1. Christine Says:

    Great interview! I LOVE mojo picón w/potatoes…mmm! But my favorite dish has to be judias verdes con patatas….simple, healthy and buenísimo!

  2. Janel Says:

    Loved the interview, had never heard of Galician rye bread and now have something new on my list to try.

    My current favorite dish is pimientos de Padrón – so simple, all salt and olive oil goodness on a breezy fall day in Madrid accompanied by a glass of Rioja.

  3. Erin Says:

    Not sure that I’ve ever had judias verdes con patatas!

    Love the pimientos de padrón. The other day I got one that was crazy spicy!!!!

  4. My Traveling Troop Says:

    Hola! My favorite Spanish dish is paella. I’ve been using a recipe from an American cookbook. But, I’d love to find an authentic Spanish recipe and give that a try!


  5. Denise Milligan Says:

    I’m in Spain now and anticipating a night of wine and tapas. Sitting here outside of Barcelona waiting for friends to wake up from siesta so we can get out of the piso — and saw your post come in via email. Of course since it was about food I stopped everything to read it. Thanks tons for the book recommendation and recipes! I will absolutely add it to my collection of Spanish cookbooks and when we have our annual Tipsy Toro Spanish food and wine party in November, I’ll be able to add some new recipes to the menu. FUN!
    P.S.Truly enjoy reading your blog!

  6. Marit Says:

    I know it’s not truly a dish, but Spanish manchego is a revelation. Add a gingered fig and some almonds and you have an elevated meal of simple yet complex ingredients.

  7. Erin Says:

    In my book, manchego cheese is and always will be a dish unto itself. It has been an entire meal for me on way too many occasions!

  8. Aubrey Says:

    Great post! I love the idea of this cookbook. I bought a tapas cookbook while in Spain, but with my limited Spanish culinary vocabulary, translation can be a pain. As for my favorite dish, I think I would have to go with the classic tortilla. While in Spain, I discovered that I could get a lot more of it on my college-kid budget than I could fish dinners, so I tried it in many different places and was never disappointed. So simple, so good.

    Also, if dessert counts, I would have to go with the chocolate-covered, cream-filled pepito from a certain bakery in Salamanca. Increíble.

  9. Meagan Says:

    My mother and I share a deep obsession with Flan. Can’t get enough of it.

  10. bnann Says:

    Hi! Well over 20 years ago, I made my way through the Spanish kitchen thanks to the first serious cookbook on Spain written in English, written by a North American married to a Spaniard. Since then, I have gifted or recommended it to many people who live abroad. When it was first published, it even won the Gastronomy Award in Spain. Its not perfect, but it is pretty good still!

    Foods & Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas

  11. Cat Says:

    I have the pleasure of being a “Blue Eyed Homer Simpson” who is a disaster in the kitchen and an Asturian suegra who fattens me up on a weekly basis. I keep meaning to learn how to master kitchen arts (I can do gazpacho and grilled cheese, y poco más!) and am slowly learning. Having a cookbook to whip up a few extra dishes would certainly score me brownie points with the Nov! I’m a firm believer that a good meal weighs heavily on the company you eat it with, but I do love a hearty fabada (dude, my babies will be a quarter Asturian!) on a cold day, and I flip over flamenquines!

  12. Erin Says:

    God bless your Asturian suegra – I already love her. My suegra cooks up some pretty impressive stuff, but being madrileña means we kind of miss out on some of the fun regional cuisine like fabada. She does make a pretty kick-A gazpacho though. Tear, summer, why must you come to an end!??

  13. Cassandra Says:

    A family member once asked me, “How is the Mexican food in Spain?” “Nonexistant!” I replied. Thus, I can’t help but agree with Jessica when she says that a common misconception is believing that Spanish food ranks sky-high on the spicy index.

    When family came to visit me this year, I had them try dishes as diverse as pulpo a la gallega, huevos rotos, tortillitas de camarones, and–my current fav–migas topped with grapes and txistorra!

  14. Lauren Says:

    I’m slightly embarrassed that my go-to favorite Spanish dish is patatas bravas. I’ve never had an order of them that wasn’t completely delicious!

  15. Allen Dodson Says:

    My favorite Spanish food? I can only pick one?? This is hard!
    Maybe little eels (elvers) in olive oil, which I had at a tapas bar in Las Vegas and still dream about…but it’s hard to find those (I think they flew theirs in specially).
    And pinchitos. I just love any sort of marinated, grilled meat.
    But in the end I come back to paella, partly because it is such a pleasure to make, and there are so many different kinds….so paella it is!! Gotta stand up for the Comunitat Valenciana!

  16. Erin Says:

    We have a winner folks! Christine – it’s you! Congrats! (I will shoot you an email for your deets :).) Thanks all for participating!

Leave a Reply