By Sara Medlicott,
“The highest expression of culture, besides art, is gastronomy. Gastronomy is the art of every day,” – Chef Jose Menendez
With an opening line like that, you know you are in for an excellent class. I recently had the pleasure of participating in the Essentials of Spanish Cooking course (next start June 6!). I was also lucky enough to sign up at the same time as the incredible Kristen Maugeri from Admissions.
The reason this class was so outstanding is not just learning to make tapas, chorizo or paella, but because Chef Jose Menendez is a walking encyclopedia of Spanish cuisine, culture and history.
He didn’t just teach us the technique for traditional paella, but he also explained why most “Spanish” restaurants here do not make it the traditional way, how it is different region by region and where it originated. So I came away with some amazing recipes, new culinary skills and I also gained a tremendous amount of knowledge. There is another class coming up in June, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, what could be more impressive for your next party than a spread of homemade tapas? If you can’t wait until June, stop by the ICC library! Chef Jose is a regular patron and he selected a few books from the collection that cover some of what we learned in class.
We started off with Tapas. Imagine my surprise that I have been doing Tortilla Espanola wrong all this time! I quickly learned the proper technique and it will only take a few modifications from what I was doing before to vastly improved flavor. Other favorites were the Mejillones a la Vinagreta (Mussels in Vinaigrette) and Coquetas de Pollo (Chicken Croquets). Variations on these, as well as many other tapas recipes are available in the beautiful Pintxos: Small Plate in the Basque Tradition by Gerald Hirigoyen and The Book of Tapas by Simone & Ines Ortega.
Next was Charcuterie. We learned how to make two types of sausage, classic chorizo and blanquets Valencianos. Here at the ICC library, we have a huge selection of all types of Charcuterie books. For the home cook, Chef Jose suggests Toro Bravo by John Gorham & Liz Crain which has very clear and easy to follow instructions for making chorizo at home. The book covers much more than sausage though; it also teaches you how to make tapas, raciones and cocktails. Toro Bravo is a great overview of Spanish cuisine as interpreted by a chef in Portland.
Finally, we came to Paella day. Paella day is a favorite of the whole school because there is always plenty to go around. The whole class cooks two large pans as a group, then shares with everyone. In fact, my first experience of the Spanish class was during the previous session when I got a call in the library from a student, “Chef says you can come down for paella!” What better way to take a break than that? At last, it was my turn to be the Paella angel and we rolled the two huge platters upstairs during dinner break.
To try your hand at home, check out Paella by Alberto Herraiz. This beautiful and thorough book covers everything you need to know start to finish and has recipes for many regional variations such as Barcelona style, A Banda, Valencian and even New York Style. If you aren’t a rice fan, have no fear. There is an entire section of non-rice paellas with everything from quinoa and bulgur to desert paella with apples and camembert.
For our last day the focus was on Molecular Gastronomy which is a passion of Chef Jose. It was always hard for an amateur like me to imagine whipping up some of these space age foods we see in magazines, but in this class we learned several recipes from start to finish. While they do require some unusual tools and ingredients, you don’t need a Michelin starred restaurant kitchen or a food lab to start on basic molecular gastronomy, you can do it right at home.
To find out more about the Spanish origins of this food movement, come pick up Ferran: The Inside Story of elBulli and The Man Who Reinvented Food by Colman Andrews or A Day at elBulli by Ferran Adria — both cover the details of one of the original modernist restaurants in Spain. If you are a huge elBulli fan, you may also want to take a look at the yearly catalogues (see if you can find our signed copy!)
Of course, elBulli is not the only modernist restaurant in Spain. Chef Jose also recommends One Day at Mugaritz Restaurant by Bent Christensen. This beautiful book walks the reader through the inner workings of Mugaritz from the dishes to the philosophy. We also have the Mugaritz cookbook, if you feel inspired to try yourself.
All of these and many more books on Spanish cuisine are available in the ICC library, so stop by and have a look.