Bring Me the Head of
Alfredo Garcia a pig (image courtesy of Phaidon Press)
These days Spanish food seems hot-to-trot, and quite the Zelig. Consider its range, broad and brash, from homey to healthy to highfalutin: roast pork and marinated olives; liquid nitrogen peaches and Rice Krispy paella; small plate (slur that “s”) tapas
galore. So upon receiving word of Phaidon Press's newest foreign culinary “Bible,” I expected big things. After all, 1080 Recipes
has been Spain's bestselling cookbook for over 30 years and, per the publisher, remains “essential reading in every Spanish household.” They are no less effusive with the adjectives: “astonishing,” “definitive,” “traditional,” “the greatest.” Chicken Soup for the Spanish Soul? Or hot Iberian hooey?
For what it's worth, Phaidon's previous cookbooks have been largely successful. Each tome is heavy, definitive, and culturally apropos
. Italy's Silver Spoon
meanders with puckish charm and confidence, a granparent's culinary tour of The Boot. France's Pork & Sons
treads a delicious Gallic line between whimsy and self-indulgence, never losing sight of its reverance for all things Porcine. As for Spain's 1080 Recipes
? A bit harder to peg.1 Shrimp (head-on), 4 Cups “Blood of My Enemies” (image courtesy of Phaidon Press)
After all, I was expecting matadors, mustaches and swarthy gastronomic affairs. But 1080 is notably subdued, even utilitarian. (Authors Simone
and daughter Inés Ortega
were not, I assume, paid by the word.) At first glance, the recipes seem almost perfunctory: open can of tomato sauce here, stir mayo there. Such staid tone strikes an odd contrast to Javier Mariscal
's newly-commissioned line drawings. The Catalan illustrator has an enjoyably perverse sense of humor, and his bright targets enliven the pages: stately duck, smiling lamb's skull, a knife collection out of Dead Ringers
, wine bottles galore, and one (Spanish?) calf's heart.
This disconnect between artist and author suggests, if nothing else, that things have changed in Spain. 1080 first arrived in 1972 when the nation was in flux, relative prosperity on the eve of economic crash and a dictator's demise. And the text itself seems a product of these times: cautious abundance under Franco's looming specter. Yet beneath the restraint lies comfort, a surprising – almost stubborn – elegance, and appreciable accessibility. Which is to say, it works.When evaluating a cookbook I tend to fall back on three criteria:
do the recipes succeed; would I use them; and what do they teach me about the food and/or culture in focus? In brief, yes; yes; and Spanish sausage, ham and saffron are terrific ingredients. But with over a thousand options where to begin? We opened on a winner: #718 Beef with tomatoes and olives
, a lovely fork tender stew ennobled by a robust cup of prosciutto's musky, meaty cousin Serrano.
#434 (Bell peppers stuffed with meat and rice
) was a lesser accomplishment. They sure looked
impressive – towering infernos of beef bathed in light tomato broth – but the saffron was lost in an otherwise dense equation, and the pocket of rice didn't fully cook.
#20 proved luckier. These Stuffed mushrooms
were a favorite recipe, and one to which we have since returned. They also make superlative use of ham, the centerpiece of a rich filling both tempered and enhanced by fresh lemon juice.
Other recipes proved equally crowd-pleasing. #554 Red porgy baked with garlic, parsley, and vinegar
tasted as good as it looks: light, aromatic and ever-so-slightly acidic, infused with fennel and baked on a bed of potatoes and olive oil. The finished product was impressive without being overbearing, a recipe characterized by the clarity and freshness of its flavors.
After a few relatively healthy dishes we were in the mood to clog some artery. On that front #976 Apple fritters
did not disappoint. Alas, the thick, sticky batter was cumbersome, especially to wrap around rum-soaked apple slices. We ended up foregoing the fruit to fry up quick donuts. (Mmmm... donuts
#1009 Catalan cream
proved a bit more manageable and even more enjoyable. This smooth, citric take on brulée
was suprisingly light and refreshing, a delicate swan song to our experiment. More significantly, it clarified why I came to appreciate Ortega's efforts: her recipes satisfy without fanfare. Furthermore, she offers staid, time-tested rejoinders to the current wave of Spanish culinary hype. And because 1080 is so completely devoid of trendiness or pretension, its charm unfolds rather naturally. If you're trying to impress Mr. Tapas or the El Buli crowd look elsewhere. But if simple, authentic, accessible food strikes your fancy, this should not disappoint. What's more, Ortega's humorlessness actually yields a good deal of culinary fun. In the end, her taciturn style offers something of a respite: the recipes – all 1,080 – are left to speak for themselves.Catalan cream(adapted from 1080 Recipes with permission of Phaidon Press)
- 4 cups milk
- 2/3 cup superfine sugar
- zest of 1 lemon
- 8 egg yolks
- 1 1/2 - 2 tablespoons starch (preferably potato)
Bring the milk, zest and 4 T of sugar just to a boil. In a bowl, beat the yolks with 2 T of sugar and the starch. Slowly stir in the hot milk. Return mixture to low heat, and stir for 5 minutes (until thick). Strain into small dishes and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Before serving, sprinkle remaining sugar and caramelize with a torch (a nice hot broiler works in a pinch). Then kick back with some Chick Corea and enjoy.
You can find additional recipes here
at the Phaidon website. And if you're ready to take the plunge, you can order a nicely discounted copy at Amazon