I first fell in love with Spanish food while attending a programming trade show in Washington, DC. Some friends and I had dinner At Jaleo’s, a tapas bar. Prior to that I’d had Americanized paella, which my mother occasionally made when I was growing up, but that was the extent of my experience with Spanish food. Then in 1997 two weeks with my family in a villa on the Costa del Sol confirmed my passion for this simple cuisine.
Consequently when I was recently offered a review copy of Spain: A Culinary Road Trip, I jumped at it. This is a companion volume to a PBS series in which chef Mario Batali, food writer Mark Bittman, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols tour Spain exploring it’s art, culture, and food.
Because Batali is a chef and Bittman a food writer I assumed the book would essentially be a cookbook with some narrative related to the TV show woven through it. But it’s not. There are indeed about 70 recipes in it of which some are traditional Spanish fare, others more modern dishes, and some are recipes invented by the four participants. But as the dust jacket notes, it’s more like a scrapbook.
In the introduction Batali writes: “I must say that my truest roots in the world of food are still deep in the heart of Castile where my family traveled simply but comfortably with a constant eye on the best place for a tortilla Espanola or a pincho moruno.” It turns out he lived with his family in Spain while he was growing up. It also turns out he owns two Spanish restaurants in New York, something I didn’t know having thought he was purely an Italian chef.
The book is organized by the routes they took through Spain so, for instance, the first section is named “From Madrid to Toledo.” The section then consists of short descriptions of Madrid and Toledo, photographs of hanging hams and Batali and Paltrow in a restaurant, a description of the restaurant and it’s owner, assorted chunks of dialog and random thoughts, a few recipes, and a description of a birthday dinner. In short, each section is a diverse hodgepodge of elements related to each other primarily by geographic proximity.
The problem with the book is that if you don’t care that Batali is a celebrity chef and Paltrow is a famous actress then a lot of the material isn’t particularly interesting. A photograph of Paltrow and Bittman standing over a paella pan is less interesting than the same photo would be if the people were native Spanish herders. And a quote by a restaurant owner – “Everyone has eaten here but the Pope, he’s too busy.” – is more amusing than a silly exchange between Bittman and Bassols.
I did try a few recipes. The recipe for escabeche is good as is the one for pisto manchego but the empanada recipe doesn’t even look good and using puff pastry is just wrong.
All in all, I’m disappointed in the book. As I mentioned, my expectation was that it would be a collection of recipes for one of my favorite foods with some narrative to knit the food together. But despite the recipes it really isn’t a cookbook and the narrative is more like a collection of random elements probably better conveyed in the television series. It is handsome in its way and would look nice on a coffee table but I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.
Adapted from Spain: A Culinary Road Trip
4 ripe plum tomatoes
2 sm Japanese eggplants
4 red bell peppers
2 sm red onions – not peeled
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat oven to 375F.
Coat tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers with 2 tablespoons of oil and arrange on a baking sheet with onions. Roast for 45 minutes to an hour until onions are tender. Cool until you can handle the vegetables.
Remove skins from tomatoes and seed and core peppers. Cut the eggplants in half and scoop out the flesh. Peel, trim, and cut up the onions then coarsely chop vegetables with remaining oil in a food processor. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
Serve on toasted coarse bread.