For residents of the Pacific Northwest this is a great time of the year to travel. Here it is, mid-May, and while reports trickle in from places far and wide about the beauty of spring and the anticipation of summer, here it is still generally cloudy and cool. Those same gray days of February and March are lingering deep into May with only the slightest hint of sunshine.
The plants are ready. The trees have leafed out in fresh spring green. Flowers are in bloom. But the colors are muted by the damp gray cloud cover. Tender shoots push out on rich green pine and cedar branches then seem to shiver in the spring air, wondering why they have been called out so soon.
The forecast for this week has consistently been hot and sunny. There are rumors that the temperatures will soar into the 90’s by the weekend, but while I have been holding onto the hope of that forecast since early last week, when everyone began to speak of the heat wave to hit just after Mother’s Day, we are into mid-week and still waiting.
So, while the clouds stubbornly refuse to break, I am seeking sunshine in the privacy of my own kitchen. I have a new cookbook "Spain and the World Table" from the Culinary Institute of America, and this seems like the perfect time to explore the tastes of sunshine inherent in Spanish cuisine.
When I think of Spain I think of hot dry summers, welcome shade, refreshing beverages and tapas. This impression was etched in my mind one glorious summer in my youth when I had the opportunity to study in Spain. I have had a special place in my heart for the language, the cuisine and the weather ever since. So I was excited to receive this cookbook and try some of its recipes.
Spain and the World Table
This cookbook comes from DK publishing, you know, the place with the great Eyewitness Travel Guidebooks. I almost never take a vacation without a copy of their travel guide to help plan a trip almost anywhere. I love the detailed drawings and maps as well as the wonderful photographs. If the books don’t grab you with their text they will get your attention and make you want to be there with their photos and diagrams.
"Spain and the World Table" has some of the same great qualities of the travel guidebooks but in a different format. Here I can learn about the Spanish pantry and regional and historical influences on the country's ever evolving cuisine. I can picture the Mediterranean Coast, imagine the sun and sea air as I read about dishes rich in fish and seafood. I can feel the hot arid winds of Andulucia in the recipes that rely on olive oil and figs. I can taste the adventure of exploration and the delight in new discoveries as I read about traditional recipes that rely heavily on new world ingredients not even seen in Spain until after the voyage of Columbus. And I can bask in the fragrant and exotic influences of the ancient Moors who made their mark on Spanish cuisine over 1000 years ago.
This book is not so much about the basics as it is about inspiration and finding a way to bring the origins and influences of the regionalized Spanish cuisine to today's table. It is about making food traditions relevant and interesting to a modern kitchen and lifestyle.
My first impression is that the book is, well, big. Most of the layouts consist of huge gorgeous pictures of food on one page and the recipe on the page opposite. There are lots of interesting Spanish inspired flavor combinations. Cocao nib, fig, and bleu cheese. Saffron and potatoes. Vanilla, pork and tempranillo wine. Some recipes require extra equipment that may not be found in the average kitchen, like a siphon and nitrous oxide cartridges. Some call for techniques the average home chef may not have mastered, like making sushi. Many call for ingredients that can be hard to find or are prohibitively expensive, like quince paste, Serrano ham and quail eggs. Still these recipes are interesting and inspiring and there are plenty of others that consist of classically Spanish ingredients and are more easily attainable like Cold Almond and Garlic Soup (or white gazpacho), made with day old bread, almonds, garlic and salt, or Patatas Panaderas that calls for only potatoes, olive oil, garlic, salt and herbs. In all cases the information is fascinating and the presentation is gorgeous.
After thumbing through the book, wondering where to start, I decided to begin my long distance exploration of Spain with a traditional favorite, Tortilla Espanola. I remember this dish fondly from my initial introduction to it at a tapas bar in Madrid where I first saw wine drunk from a traditional Catalonian vessel called a porron, a sort of a glass bota or wineskin, between bites of this delicious potato and egg dish. I’ve been to the grocery to collect the ingredients and hope that this combination of armchair traveling and kitchen alchemy will result in a sense of copious sunshine by late afternoon.
Tortilla Espanola (Spanish Omelet)
(from "Spain and the World Table")
9 Yukon Gold potatoes (about 2 pounds) peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup chopped yellow onions
1/3 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/3 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup diced chorizo sausage
1 cup diced Serrano ham
10 large eggs
Beat eggs and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a large bowl until smooth. Set aside.
Toss sliced potatoes with 1 teaspoon of salt. Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a large non-stick or well seasoned frying pan. Add potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes begin to soften (approximately 5 minutes).
Add the onions, peppers, sausage and ham. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender, another 5-10 minutes).
Drain the potato mixture and add it to the eggs. Stir until well combined.
Clean the frying pan then return it to medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is quite hot add the potato mixture, smoothing it evenly in the pan.
Reduce heat to low. Cook the egg mixture, gently shaking the pan occasionally to prevent sticking, until the mixture is set (approximately 8 minutes).
Remove pan from heat. Cover the omelet with a large plate ( a flat pan lid or omelet turner be used instead) then flip the pan, inverting the omelet onto the plate. Slide the omelet back into the pan to cook the other side until lightly browned (approximately 5 minutes).
Transfer the omelet to a serving plate. Cut into wedges or squares. Serve hot or at room temperature.
I could not find Serrano ham at any local markets. In this case I substituted prosciutto.
To my taste, the amount of salt can be reduced by about half.
Like any omelet, this dish is very generous in allowing for variations of quantities and ingredients to be added to the basic mixture of eggs and potatoes. Either ham or sausage or neither might be added. Likewise the mixture of vegetables or color of peppers might vary according to what is on hand.