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).

September 13, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Spain

I am perhaps overly excited to share with you all the US release of the book Or the Bull Kills You by Jason Webster – an author with whom I had the fortune of meeting some months ago. He’s a Brit by blood, but based in Valencia, and married to a stunning Spanish flamenco dancer. Considering I’m fascinated by all things Spain, when I learned of his book last spring, I quickly snatched it up from Amazon UK.

And I couldn’t put it down. I seriously gobbled up every last word. Not just a murder mystery, the tale takes you on trip right to the heart of Spanish culture – from bull fighting, to cuisine, traditions and the pink press. I knew the storyline would be based in Valencia, but I never expected to so vividly experience and contemplate Iberian culture – something I think I know a thing or two about.

If you like reading, or like a good mystery novel, or just want to get under the skin of Spain, then I promise you will be as obsessed with this story as I am (seriously, if you aren’t, I’ll treat you to a caña). I feel honored to have had the opportunity to pick Jason’s brain a bit about the creation of the story, and more important, to find out when to expect the next book in the series (yes, series!).

LTV: I understand that you didn’t know much about bullfighting prior to writing the book – so what made you decide to write about it?
JW: Bullfighting is one of those iconic Spanish things that – whether you’re attracted to it or disgusted by it – any student of Spain has to look at and grapple with at some point if they want to further their understanding of the country. I’d written books on Flamenco, the Moors and the Spanish Civil War, and I wanted to find out more about bullfighting, so writing this book was one way of doing that. Bullfighting throws up all kinds of moral questions – it becomes less and less of a black-and-white issue the more you delve into it. What are its origins? Why do people find it so fascinating? How is it ever justified? What does it say about the Spanish, and about us as humans? These were all questions I wanted to look into when I started my research.

LTV: What was your opinion on bullfighting before the book? Did researching arguments on both sides sway your opinion one way or the other?
JW: I deliberately took a neutral position, suspending judgement as much as possible. Any other approach would only end up clouding my vision. And the result is that I’m still very much on the fence on this. Not that I don’t want to come down on one side or the other, but the more you understand about a subject the more difficult it is to think of it in simplistic terms. And bullfighting is very complex. So my main character – Chief Inspector Max Cámara of the Spanish National Police – approaches bullfighting as someone who hates it, essentially, but has to find out more about it in order to investigate the murder of Spain’s top matador. In so doing he learns things about himself, and his own violent urges (and those of others).

LTV: When researching the story, was there anything you learned that especially surprised you – whether it be politics, the police department, bullfighting, etc?
JW: The biggest surprise came when I met the head of the Valencia murder squad – the ‘real Max Cámara’. It turns out that ‘he’ is actually a ‘she’. Spain is still quite a macho society, and it’s no mean feat for a woman to reach such a high position in the Police.

LTV: What was the hardest part about writing the book?
JW: I had to pick up the basics of the crime genre, which meant quite a steep learning curve. There are certain rules and norms which more-or-less have to be obeyed before you can even begin to write the book. Essentially you have to work out very thoroughly two different but linked narratives – that of the murder and that of the investigation. The reader only sees the second, but the writer has to have both very clear in his/her head.

LTV: Where did you find inspiration for your characters – from specific people? How was the idea for Max Cámara born?
JW: The main characters – my detective Max Cámara; Alicia, a journalist; Torres, Cámara’s police side-kick; and Hilario, Cámara’s anarchist dope-growing grandfather – all appeared in front of me almost fully formed. I didn’t want to intellectualize the process too much, so allowed my instincts to take over as far as characterization was concerned. I’m going to be living with these people for some years (I’m just finishing the third novel now), so they need to be as real and as organic as possible.

LTV: I understand that there will be more Max Cámara books in the future, can you tell me a little bit about them and/or give any clues about future storylines? When will the next book be available?
JW: The second book in the series is called SOME OTHER BODY and is also set in Valencia, involving the murder of a paella chef, the abduction of an abortionist and a visit to the city by the Pope. It’s published in the UK next February and will be coming out in the US in September 2012. The third in the series is provisionally titled THE ANARCHIST DETECTIVE and takes place in Cámara’s home town, Albacete.

LTV: Will this book or future books be available as e-books?
JW: Yes, all of the books will be available in electronic format.

LTV: Do you plan to release the book in Spanish?
JW: We’re negotiating with Spanish publishers at the moment on this, so watch this space!

To get a copy of the book please click here – and yes, clicking exactly HERE will give me a minuscule cut of the sale so that maybe, just maybe, I can afford to peel myself away from the computer to get some jamón and cheese or something. Happy reading!

*To find out more about the book, and particularly Valencia, check out the video below. (Thanks, Erik from American in Spain, for sharing this!)