Quick look: Lush photographs lure novice and veteran cooks alike into this sumptuous exploration of Spain’s culture and diverse regional cuisine. Some of the richly hued images come from the author, a Gonzaga University graduate who’s been living in Barcelona for 18 years and whose wife is Catalan.
What’s inside: Food and travel writer Jeff Koehler pays homage to his adopted homeland in this colorful compilation of more than 150 traditional recipes. “Traditional Spanish cooking is flavorful but frugal, and many of its finest dishes originated not in palace kitchens, but as country fare,” he writes. These humble origins are evident in the rustic and sometimes surprising simplicity of the recipes, some of which feature as few as four ingredients. For example, the Basque Walnut Pudding is made only with walnuts, milk, sugar and a cinnamon stick. Similarly, the Baked Figs blend fresh fruit, sugar, lemon and sweet dessert wine.
Others – Rabbit Paella with Artichokes and Red Bell Peppers; Black Rice with Allioli, or Catalan garlic sauce; and Lobster in a Nutty Chocolate Sauce, Costa Brava Style – are a little more elaborate. All seem seductively flavorful. Take the Chicken with Shallots and Orange and Cinnamon Sauce, or the Grilled Lamb Chops with Honey, for example. There’s Classic Andalusian Gazpacho, Balearic-Style Baked Stuffed Eggplant and Shellfish Paella, too.
Spain is known for its seafood, variety, and long, multi-course meals. And Spanish fare – from tapas to flan – celebrates seasonal ingredients as well as locale. Only one entrée – cocido, a two-course soup made with pork sausage, garbanzo beans, root vegetables and pasta – is common to all regions. Koehler begins his book with this dish, a common thread linking a complex landscape.
The 15 chapters not only cover warm but cold soups as well as appetizers, rice and pasta, vegetables, fish, shellfish, poultry and rabbit, other meats, and eggs. There are also separate sections for game and snails, innards and extremities, homemade conserves, desserts and drinks, or bebidas, like Summer Red Wine Sangria and Spanish Cinnamon-Scented Drinking Chocolate in the Cup.
What’s not: Plane tickets to Spain, a jar of saffron threads and a paella pan – all of which you will crave after diving into this book.
Following are recipes for Spinach with Garbanzo Beans and Galician Fair-Style Octopus with Paprika on Potatoes.
Spanish fare is sophisticated yet rustic, simple and elegant.
These two dishes – a comforting first course from Andalucia and fair-style octopus from Galicia – are hearty, relatively easy-to-make regional staples from Jeff Koehler’s latest cookbook.
Spinach with Garbanzo Beans
“Garbanzo beans combine well with numerous other ingredients, while offering substance, texture, and their own earthy flavors,” Jeff Koehler writes in the introduction to this recipe, typical bar food in Andalucia in southern Spain, where it’s usually served in small, terra-cotta bowls or casserole dishes called cazuelitas.
I made the picada using the heel of a loaf of organic wheat bread, extra garlic and double the amount of almonds. This probably isn’t how it’s done in Spain, but I opted for smoked almonds for additional flavor.
3 cups canned garbanzo beans
12 ounces trimmed fresh spinach leaves
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 thin slices baguette, day old or toasted
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon Spanish sweet paprika
2 teaspoons sherry or wine vinegar
Drain, rinse and place the garbanzo beans in a saucepan with about 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, cover pan, and leave in liquid until ready to use.
Wash spinach in a couple of changes of water and drain. Put it in a large pot, cover with a lid, and wilt over medium heat, about 5 minutes.
In a large skillet or sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium heat, add bread and garlic, and cook until golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove when done and reserve. In the same oil, add onion and cook until soft and translucent, 8 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare a picada (recipe below) with the reserved bread, garlic and 2 tablespoons of liquid from the beans.
Drain beans, reserving the liquid. Add them to the skillet and stir in the picada, cumin and paprika. Season with salt and moisten with the vinegar and 1 ½ cups of the reserved liquid. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and cook mostly covered until tender and the flavors have melded, about 20 minutes. The dish should be moist. Stir in a bit more of the reserved liquid from the beans, if needed.
Drain off any excess liquid from the spinach and add the leaves to the skillet. Stir well and cook uncovered for 3 to 4 minutes. Spoon into bowls and serve hot.
Yield: 4 servings
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 slice baguette or small piece of crust-less country bread, day old or toasted
12 unsalted toasted almonds or hazelnuts (or a mix) without skins
1 tablespoon minced, fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 to 2 tablespoons stock or water
In a small skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat and add garlic, cooking until it is golden and fragrant, about 1 minute; remove and reserve. Add bread and fry until golden, turning as needed, about 2 minutes. Add all ingredients to a food processor and grind using quick pulses, checking after each pulse for desired consistency. Add in a bit more liquid if necessary and scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Galician Fair-Style Octopus with Paprika on Potatoes
Fishermen in Galicia in northwest Spain swing a fresh octopus by its head, giving the slithery sea creature 33 smacks against a hard surface, like seaside docks, to tenderize the chewy meat.
However, this technique is not advisable in your home kitchen, Jeff Koehler writes in the introduction to this recipe in the tapas and appetizer chapter of his new cookbook, “Spain.”
Instead, freezing an octopus for at least five days will help break down hard fibers.
But, Koehler says, be careful not to overcook it. The octopus will become tender after about 20 minutes, then toughen up again, requiring all-day boiling to become tender again.
Not all supermarkets carry octopus. I found mine at Williams Seafood Market and Wines, 2118 N. Ruby St.
1 cleaned octopus, about 2 1/4 pounds
1 onion, peeled and halved
4 to 6 medium white potatoes
1 bay leaf
Flaky sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Sweet Spanish paprika and spicy Spanish paprika, for sprinkling
Thaw octopus gently in refrigerator. Fill a large pot or stockpot with water and bring it to a roiling boil. Add a pinch of salt and the onion and, following tradition, dunk the octopus three times in the water “to frighten it.” When water returns to a boil, submerge the octopus in the water, cover the pot, and cook at a roiling boil over high heat for 20 minutes or until tender. It’s done when a toothpick or tip of a knife pricked quite deep into the upper part of a tentacle enters with little resistance. Remove the pot from heat, leave covered and let the octopus sit in the water for 15 minutes. Remove the octopus and place on a large platter to cool.
Wash but do not peel the potatoes. Place them in a large pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt and the bay leaf, reduce heat to medium-low, partly cover the pot, and gently boil until potatoes are tender and knife tip penetrates with little resistance, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a colander to drain and cool. Once cool, peel.
Cut the potatoes crosswise into 1/3-inch thick slices and arrange them on a large round plate or wooden platter. Cut the tentacles of the octopus with kitchen shears into ¼-inch rounds and arrange them, overlapping the rounds, on top of the potatoes. Season with salt flakes and drizzle liberally with olive oil. Mix the sweet and spicy paprikas together as desired – half and half for sharper, more sweet for softer, and so on – and sprinkle over top before serving.
Yield: 4 servings