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8/04/2012

Influential Cookbooks for a “Self-taught” Amateur Cook



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In the Words of "Mr. Spain," Gerry Dawes This post is part of a series called: Books That Paved the Way, highlighting culinary luminaries and the books that influenced their careers. In the days leading up to The Culinary Institute of America - - Greystone's Worlds of Flavor Conference 2008, I received a note from Gerry Dawes. A hearty welcome followed a congenial, “Stop and say hello!”
 

Little did I know, that generous nod was from the foremost authority on Spanish food & wine. Gerry has a long list of accolades--including the first to introduce American readers to maestro of molecular gastronomy Ferran Adrià--but industry folks call him simply, “Mr. Spain.”
 
At the conference, Gerry led a compelling discussion on Spanish street food. Through images and stories, he artfully crafted a culinary sense of place, taking us on an insider’s nosh through Barcelona’s largest indoor market, Boquería.  Gerry drove home the importance of both terroir and the people, leaving little to wonder why Spanish cuisine is one of the hottest culinary trends.

When I approached Gerry about his most influential writing, his response revealed a wealth of information and more than a few surprises. Generously peppered with autobiographical insight, Gerry’s words read like an arm wrapped around your shoulder, guiding you to the good stuff. 

Photo by John Sconzo©2009.

Influential Cookbooks for a “Self-taught” Amateur Cook  
by Gerry Dawes©2012.
 
First off, I rarely use cookbooks, I fly without instruments most of the time. Between the Ramsey Farm Korean produce market, five miles away in Ramsey, NJ, which also has fish and shellfish, and the local supermarkets around Suffern, NY, where I live, I cook from the lay of the land, picking out what vegetables, etc. look best, then I put them together in ever changing combinations, even when I am alone and not cooking for Kay, my SE (Spousal Equivalent).  (Note:  I now live in Eastern Putnam County, so, for ingredients, I make the rounds of local farm stands in season, a neighborhood bird farm for chicken and duck eggs, DeCicco's and the ACE Endico company store in Southeast, Hanneford's for some ingredients and the local A & P and Shoprite for others.  If I am in the city, I sometimes pick up ingredients at Zabar's and Spanish ingredients at Despaña Brands in Soho.  And about once a month I return to Ramsey Farm.)

Breakfast might include scrambled eggs with chopped scallions or leeks, red peppers, little cubes of eggplant, jalapeño and/or habanero peppers and the finished dish will be topped with grated Asiago cheese and freshly ground black pepper. I often accompany this with Mexican salsa verde, Spanish chorizo and cherry tomatoes quick-sautéed with jalapeños, garlic and cilantro or Italian polenta with Spanish Valdeón blue cheese on the side. 


 
Mexican-Spanish-Mediterraean breakfast: Olive oil "poached" eggs, polenta with mushroom, eggplant, tomato and garlic saute topped with Valdeon cheese, chorizo sausage. Served with salsa verde, Mexican tomatillo sauce (not shown).

When I make my own salsa (like gazpacho, in season only), I use Rick Bayless’s basic salsa recipe (I add cooked corn, fresh-cut from the cob) from his excellent Mexican Kitchen cookbook, but that salsa is for margarita time–my World’s Best Margaritas require a signed disclaimer and the recipe [self-developed from Taxco, Mexico; from a Mexican doctor friend from Morella and from Maria’s Mexican Kitchen in Santa Fe and using Torres Licor de Naranja from Spain]. The recipe is so secret that I would have to kill you if I told you all of it. For the civilian version of my margarita recipe, see the book Peace, Love and Barbecue--written by Mike Mills and his daughter, Amy Mills Tunnicliffe–with some authentic down-home barbecue recipes for dishes to keep your drinks company.


Dinner might be Spanish rosemary-and-thyme-and-olive oil basted, grilled rib lamb chops with all-i-oil or roasted chicken breasts with sherry, leeks, lime juice, cilantro, garlic and Spanish extra virgin olive oil, served with a melange of quick-sautéed vegetables (last night it was cherry tomatoes, red peppers, scallions, eggplant and parsley) and Yukon gold fingerling potatoes boiled Canary Islands style with lots of salt in the water so they come out like papas arrugadas.


 
Papas arrugadas con mojo ("wrinkled" potatoes cooked in salt water and served with red and green Canary Islands mojo sauces), El Escaldón, Canary Islands restaurant, Cava Baja, Madrid.  Photo: Gerry Dawes©2011 / gerrydawes@aol.com.

But, since I couldn’t make the classic Islas Canarias mojo (I was out of fresh cilantro), I used yogurt mixed with Dijon mustard, black pepper and drained Spanish capers as a sauce for the papas. That and a glass of Casal Novo Mencía, a delicious red wine from Galicia with moderate alcohol and no oak, was dinner.  Lunch is often leftovers or a can of Progresso soup doctored up with sherry, grated cheese and sometimes Oriental chili sauce.

Several cookbooks influenced me and helped me develop my shoot-from-the-hip style. One in particular was Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, which I first encountered in the early 1970s when I was living in Southern Spain and just learning how to cook on a counter top, Butano gas-fired, two-burner affair at our fairy-tale apartment ($56 a month) in Sevilla’s jasmine-, orange blossom- and dama de noche-scented, sound-of-Sevillanas-permeated Barrio de Santa Cruz (The Old Jewish Quarter), where I spent parts of almost six years and in Mijas, an artist’s village overlooking the Costa del Sol, where I lived for nearly three years more.

When I first opened Elizabeth David’s book, I wondered, “Who is this crazy English woman?” She was often imprecise in her measurements--which I was to discover is only of deadly importance in pastry cooking--so she left one guessing just how big a glass of wine, etc. to add to a dish. But, by cooking a few of her recipes–her beurre blanc is still my benchmark–I realized that I was getting a feel for what the dish should be like and that the rules were not that rigid. It was indeed cooking a bit intuitively with Ms. David as your guide (when you try to teach children how to ride a bicycle, you don’t hold on to the seat of the bike, you hold onto the child’s shoulders, so they soon learn to keep the bike balanced–cooking is much that way, learning balance that does not come from rigidity.) I made a number of recipes from French Provincial Cooking, but it was the lessons the book taught that stayed with me longer than the Daube Provençal.

Also, when I was living in Southern Spain in the early 1970s, my former wife, Diana and I, acquired Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook with that awful television photo on the front. I was very skeptical at first until I began cooking whole fancy meals from that book and found out that Julia was indeed the real deal.  I had several memorable casual encounters with Julia years later at food events, but one of the best was having drinks with her at Ducasse in Manhattan and having her autograph that now tattered, dog-eared, well-used copy of The French Chef Cookbook and telling her how she had helped teach us to cook.

Still in the French vein, Waverly Root’s marvelous The Food of France, was an excellent overview of French regional food, fine writing and a very good read. Although in the intervening years, I have come to believe that Spanish modernized regional cuisine is on a par with that of France, writing about Spanish food in English has seldom reached the level of Elizabeth David or Waverly Root.

The American cookbooks that influenced me most and contributed to my modest cooking style, once I moved to New York, were The James Beard Cookbook and James Beard’s Fish Cookery, both of which have great recipes and teach the user good fundamentals. And The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet cookbooks, spun out of columns written by Bryan Miller with recipes developed by Pierre Franey, not only had great appeal because of their time frame for cooking a complete meal, the recipes were often exceptional.

Since I am supposed to be a Spanish food freak, I should get on to the Spanish cookbooks and food books that have had the greatest influence on me.

One monumental influence, the impossible-to-find, self-published classic, Adventures in Taste: The Wines and Folk Food of Spain will always be near the top of my list. In 1972, Donn Pohren, a Minneapolis-born American who lived in Spain for decades and was the world's greatest foreign expert on flamenco, published this idiosyncratic underground classic, which outlined wine-and-food trips all over Spain and included specific restaurants and tapas bars, mentioning specific dishes, for which he often included the recipe obtained from that establishment.

See: The Great Donn Pohren: His Passing & His Significance "Embedded in me like a memory chip is the spirit of Donn Pohren and his book."


I was living in southern Spain when I first encountered Pohren's book (privately printed in Spain) soon after it was published and it had a profound effect on me. At first, I merely wanted to have some of the wine and food experiences that Pohren had described, but I soon found myself cooking from his authentic regional recipes, including pollo or conejo al ajillo (garlic chicken or rabbit), pochas con perdiz or codorniz (white cranberry bean-like bean stew with partridge or quail) and the inforgettable, undoubtedly Moorish-influenced, Málaga mountain-village dish, caldereta de chivo (a kid [goat] dish with kid’s liver, garlic and the juice of two lemons). 

In the early years, I never traveled without Adventures in Taste. Soon, I was having new experiences of my own, using Pohren’s book and James A. Michener’s Iberia as my compass, which led me to a multitude of adventures that provided me with the platform from which I eventually became a widely published writer on Spanish wine and food and a recognized authority in the field.

And, if you can find a copy, The Cooking of Spain and Portugal (Time-Life Series), which Peter S. Feibleman did an excellent job editing and putting together some 50 years ago, was (and still is) superb for authentic, quintessential recipes for such Spanish classic dishes as gazpacho, paella, cocido madrileño, etc.

And, when I was living in Mijas, I came to know Janet Mendel, who wrote a food column for Lookout magazine and subsequently published a number of books using recipes obtained from the regional cooks she encountered, most of them in Andalucía. Her Cooking in Spain; Traditional Spanish Cooking; Great Dishes From Spain; and My Kitchen in Spain are an important body of work on the traditional cuisines of Spain. In the early years, her books were not available in the United States, but now they are and I highly recommend them for anyone who seeks to understand the basics behind good Spanish regional cooking.




Janet Mendel. Photo by Gerry Dawes©2010.

And major kudos to Penelope Casas, whose The Foods and Wines of Spain; Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain, etc. were for years the benchmarks in English in the United States for anyone seeking to learn about Spanish Cuisine.

Anya Von Bremzen’s The New Spanish Table also should be on anyone’s bookshelf. And, if you can find remaindered or used copies of Könemann’s Culinaria Spain, buy every copy you can lay your hands on and give them as gifts. The articles (by several authors) and photographs are exceptional. Just the chapter on the little-known cuisine, cheese and wines of the Canary Islands is worth the cost of the book alone.  (Late additions: Claudia Roden excellent The Food of Spain, published in 2011, is must addition to an bookshelf on Spanish food and, though not a cookbook per se, Donald. B. Harris's The Heart of Spain: Families and Food by the founder of Spanish specialty food outlet, Latienda.com (which also has a brick-and-mortar shop in Williamsburg, VA) is highly recommended as well.)

The last two books on my “short” list come from my dear friend, Teresa Barrenechea, who for nearly a decade cooked at her Marichu restaurants in New York, the Spanish restaurants that I frequent most in this country. Barrenechea’s The Basque Table, her first book (which also contains classic Spanish recipes common to other regions of Spain), and her The Cuisines of Spain: Exploring Regional Home Cooking are musts for anyone serious about Spanish cooking.

Though some of my cooking style came from cookbooks in the early years, most of what I picked up comes from cooks like the great chef, Raúl Aleixandre, of Valencia’s Ca Sento (sadly, now closed), who taught me how to cook shellfish; the late Doña María Franco (my Spanish “mother”; see slide show below.), whose gazpacho recipe is still tops; and people like Ambrosio Molinos of Roa de  Duero and Manolo Pérez Pascuas of Viña Pedrosa in Ribera del Duero and Basilio Izquierdo in La Rioja, who taught me that the only real way to have baby lamb rib chops is grilled over grapevine cuttings.


 
Gazpacho slide show.

And there are a multitude of restaurants and tapas bars around Spain, working with impeccable, locally available products that are so good that it is futile to try to duplicate them by using their recipes at home. Nothing done out of a cookbook can duplicate the terroir of rodaballo (turbot) grilled whole over coals on an outdoor grill at Elkano (Elkano in Getaria, West of San Sebastián: The Best Fish Restaurant in the World?) or Kaia in Getaria (Basque country); arròs con conejo y caracoles (thin-layer rice cooked in a paella with wild rabbit and wild snails that having been put with fresh rosemary branches) at Casa Elias in the tiny Alicante pueblo of Xinorlet; or Albert Asín’s addictive mongetes (beans) with a squirt of balsamic vinegar at Pinotxo and Quím Marquéz's fried artichokes at Quím de la Boquería, both in Barcelona’s sensational Boquería market. 

And it is hard to top a dozen or so vegetable dishes that Nabor Jiménez artfully cooks at El Crucero en Corella (Navarra), just about anything that Manuela Nieto cooks at La Balconada in Chinchón, the same for Fernando and Paco Hermoso's Casa Bigote in Sanlúcar de Barrameda (Cádiz), Emiliano García's Casa Montaña in Valencia or María José San Román’s Taberna del Gourmet in Alicante

To have these dishes, it is preferable to beg, borrow or steal to get back to these places–and many more around Spain–to have the “real thing” and let those cooks who have mastered these dishes do what no cookbook can really do: Make you believe in magic!

!Buen Provecho!
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