[Correct Dining by Wilfrid: December 1, 2008]
I first visited Spain in my mother's womb, but you will understand I have few gastronomic memories of that trip. I rediscovered the country many years later, and from the late 1980s into the 1990s, visited the stunning city of Barcelona once or twice a year.
Whenever possible, I made a point of staying in an apartment with a kitchen, rather than in a pension, simply because this permitted me to cook the produce I saw in the Bocqueria market, rather than just gawp at it.
After ten years of Spain's greatest city, I transferred my attention to Madrid - estimable in its own way, if no Barcelona. And from time to time I found myself in Pamplona, Burgos, Tarragona, Granada - although not in Bilbao, where I had to make a last minute cancellation of a trip I never re-scheduled. But that leaves wide swathes of the country untouched. Not a mistake Rohan Daft, author of Menú del Día has made.
This new cookbook and casual guide to everyday Spanish eating is the product of years of living, travaling, shopping and cooking in Spain - especially, according to Rohan's introduction - of an enviable four-month gastronomic dérive undertaken just last year.
Unlike me, Rohan knows the Basque country, Galicia, Valencia and Alicante, and his love of the country and its honest traditions of simple preparations shines through this collection of well over a hundred recipes based around the concept of the bargain, three or four course midday lunch still offered by many Spanish restaurants (indeed, the introduction reminds us that, under Franco, offering a cut-price menú del día was mandatory as a way of keeping the nation's workers well fed).
Lunch is a heavy meal in Spain. Some readers might be surprised to find several paellas in the Primeros Platos section, along with soups and salads. In fact, a medium-sized plate of paella with seafood and chicken often precedes the main course on the lunch menu. The last menú del día I ate was last summer, at an ancient back-street Barcelona restaurant called Mesón Jesús. A substantial plate of the fat local green beans tossed with hunks of sausage preceded half a roast chicken, and there was dessert to follow. This is hearty food. For the most part, too, it's easy food for the home cook. I couldn't agree more with Rohan's comment that this is not a "persnickety cuisine." As he says, "the odd slip, miscalculation, or change of ingredient" is unlikely to spoil your enjoyment of the finished dish. I like those instructions: I enjoy recipes which give me room to turn around and re-strategise. And so I spent a week making my own mayhem with Rohan's instructions - I take full responsibility for the results and the photographs.
Having implied that the dishes described here are fairly straightforward, I should qualify that by saying that some of the more robust meat courses commend themselves to large gatherings rather than family supper.
The recipes, for example, for escudella barrejada and cocido Madrileño - great mixed meat platters -call for half a dozen or so cuts of meat. Admittedly, the cuts are very inexpensive for the most part, ranging from pig's ears to split bones and bits of chicken, and shouldn't be hard to source if you know an actual butcher, but they call for a certain amount of time and trouble, and would be great for a special occasion. To feed my small tribe, I selected a dish I don't recall eating: the beef shank with orange in Albariño wine.
I don't even recall cooking with beef shanks before. It's the same cut as osso bucco, of course, only from an older cow. I found them at Fresh Direct. Season, flour and brown them, of course.
If you can fit them in a pan, that is. Fortunately, these came split.
Rohan asks you to casserole the browned meats in a mixture of white Albariño wine and beef stock. The Martin Codax Albariño is easily found in New York, is inexpensive, and is good enough for drinking as well as cooking. In Rohan's recipe, the orange comes later, but I couldn't resist scattering some bits of peel over the meat before putting it in the oven for about three hours.
down fully and add body to the cooking liquid. Impatience will lead to chewiness.
The meat is served with a cooked garnish of carrots, onions, blanched orange peel (I used a sharp peeler to strip just peel and no zest from the fruit, which allowed me to skip the blanching) and seeded tomatoes.
The meat, slowly braised, can be cut with a spoon, and the accompanying orange-vegetable mix has the sweet and acid notes needed to balance the beef's exceptional richness. If you haven't eaten beef shank, think oxtail write large.
Each of Rohan's recipes has a brief, contextual introduction. Turning the pages brought back some great memories. There are recipes from familiar restaurants like Barcelona's classic Ca L'Isidre and Granada's Sevilla. There are dishes I've enjoyed again and again in Spanish restaurants - the stewed partridge of Toledo, the fideu and pa amb tomaquet of Catalunya, the ubiquitous arroz negro, rice cooked in squid ink and studded
with seafood. There are dishes I've never come across too, like toasts spread with sobresada and honey.
As a change of pace from the rib-sticking braise, I made a sort of taken-apart version of the warm mussel-potato-chorizo salad.
Rohan rightly asks for the mussels, stewed with wine, garlic and onion, to be shelled and tossed with the sliced potato, egg, and chorizo. For my daughter, however, shelling the mussels is half the fun. So I presented the shellfish and the salad separately (the parsley garnish on the side too). Plucking the critters from the shells, and serving them with the salad, a spoonful of the broth and a sprinkle of parlsey re-created the subtly varied mouthfuls the author surely intended. Again, not a difficult dish at all.
To my surprise, though, the humble lentil stew was as splendid as either of the above choices. I guess most of us have made lentils, and mixed them with onions and herbs and meats, but Rohan's mix of onions, bell peppers, carrots, garlic, thyme, parsley, tomatoes and cumin really hit the mark.
I omitted bacon, as I had none, but made sure the stew was well-seasoned in compensation. I should think you could throw in any good, tasty sausage. I used the same mild Palacios chorizo as in the salad above.
You can eat the stew as it comes, or serve it with meat or eggs.
My daughter was pleased with the slices of pork shoulder I'd poached slowly in olive oil.
Black sausage is an obvious accompaniment (in Rohan's recipe, it's included in the stew, but again I happened not to have any when I made the dish). The Catalan butifarra sausage would work too, or any pork chop or cutlet.
Rohan suggests serving the lentils cold too, dressing them with oil and good salt.
He also proposes poaching eggs in the stew just before it's done. I tried topping the lentils with fried eggs, and more slices of chorizo, and it's just a terrific combination, the yolks drenching the lentils in velvety gooeyness. It may not look much - blame my photography - but it's a dish which packs a restaurant-level wallop of flavor; something a modest home cook is always pleased to achieve.
The great American food writer Waverley Root left us Food of France and Food of Italy - two monumental guides to the regional cuisines of those countries. It's a pity he didn't stretch to a Food of Spain. Rohan's ambitions here are less grandiose, but this is an excellent sketch of what the country offers - and unlike Root, comes with clear recipes too. It's especially timely, too, during a period where Spanish cooking has become increasingly identified with the - often excellent - avant garde experimentation of young Basque and Catalan chefs. This book brings it back home.
Rohan Daft, Menú del Día, Simon and Schuster (2008). The book includes a useful list of online sources for ingredients. Note for disclosure mavens: Rohan is a member in good standing of Mouthfuls, and I have enjoyed discussing Spanish eating experiences online with him, but I've not yet met him and that is the only relationship we have. I did receive a review copy of the book.