MAY 31, 2018

Cookbook Review: Spain the Cookbook

Spain: Recipes and Traditions from the Verdant Hills of the Basque Country to the Coastal Waters of Andalucia by Jeff Koehler(Chronicle Books, 2013) is a cookbook that could just as well serve as a great travel book.

As a fifteen-year resident himself, and married to a Spanish wife, Koehler has written a cookbook that isn’t just a collection of recipes but a culinary family history that includes roots throughout the various regional countrysides. “The tastes of those rural landscapes, I have learned from living here, are not easily lost. They are still felt in the connection to the land and the cycles of the seasons: the seasonality of food; not wasting anything…long, multicourse meals; unfussy cooking styles and often unfussy flavors; the love of stews and hearty soups…in the traditions of curing and preserving that borders on obsession…these remain, making sure that the countryside is never far from any table in Spain, even in the cities.”

The cookbook is also a comprehensive recipe list of all of the major categories of Spanish food, including the iconic Tapas and Appetizers, Soups and Gazpachos, Vegetables, Fish, Poultry and Rabbit, all the way to Sweet and Savory Homemade Conserves, but it’s the cultural themes that Koehler never loses track of – like the principle las materias primas, or “fresh, high-quality ingredients cooks call the raw materials.” This principle emphasizes the simple preparation of primary ingredients, not the complexity of sauces, for example, and this is why the covered food market and small specialty shops in Spain are so important – so that the common Spanish cook can carefully go through primary local staples. “White Beans with Clams,” a favorite of the Asturias region, highlights the raw flavors of the north shore on the Atlantic. “Country Bread Rubbed with Tomato and Olive Oil (Pa Amb Tomaquet)” takes advantage of old dry bread and abundant summer garden tomatoes. “Grilled Lamb Chops with Honey” is nothing more than exactly those two ingredients, and yet, when well chosen, “is surely one of the most sophisticated Moorish influenced dishes in Andalucia.”

As for the iconic traditional rice dish of paella, the emphasis becomes the communal cooking style. “One of the ‘aunts’ in the ancestral village of my mother-in-law…frequently prepares dazzling paellas(always outside over embers, and always served in the center of the table to be eaten from the pan with a spoon).” Visitors to Spain no doubt want to sample the food, but to learn about the history of the people who are cooking it makes all the difference.