Exotic Catalan cuisine pleases the palate with subtle flavorings


July 12, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

The Expo '92 celebration and the Olympic Games make Spain a headliner this summer. And from a culinary point of view, these events offer a wonderful opportunity to learn about a cuisine that to many minds still is defined by sangria and paella.

Just as America is more than apple pie and hot dogs, the Spanish table also offers a wealth of interesting foods.

Barcelona, the site of this summer's Olympic Games, is the capital of Catalonia, where there is a recognizable, historically traceable, Catalan cuisine. It stands apart, distinct unto itself, as vividly as do the cooking of New Orleans and Cajun Louisiana.

Nature has scattered her bounty all over this area in northeast Spain, providing soils and climates diverse enough to furnish olives, grapes for wine, grain, fruit, nuts, musky mushrooms and lush grass for grazing. Game birds are plentiful, and the sea holds tiny anchovies, giant cod and all manner of shellfish.

The people of Catalonia grow, hunt and harvest crops from farmland, forest and sea. Then they enjoy their bounty, with breakfast snacks, leisurely lunches, more snacks at day's end and multicourse meals begun in the fullness of the evening.

A visit to Barcelona and a week-long immersion in the food and wine of the region leave dozens of taste memories.

For the record, the first is cured olives flavored with anchovies, and the last is a piece of hake (a flaky, white-fleshed fish) with a hearty romesco (a nut- and oil-based condiment that is the ketchup of Catalans) and a delicate allioli (garlic mayonnaise).

It is food that is rich and satisfying, but the richness is neither fatty nor satiating. It is food that is simple and often ungarnished.

"We come to table to eat our food, not look at it," I was told by a native. "Flavors it has, but they are subtle and very unlike the aggressive spices of other Spanish-speaking cuisines that momentarily thrill but soon fatigue the palate."

In her new book, "The Catalan Country Kitchen" (Addison Wesley, $22.95), Marimar Torres writes of a "down-to-earth way of eating" that "reflects the Catalan's true love for food."

Pointing out that Catalan food tends to be "monochromatic, murky-looking brown," Colman Andrews writes in his landmark book, "Catalan Cuisine" (Collier Books, paperback; $13), that "its aim is not to seduce the jaded but to fill and please the hungry."

Many of the ingredients are familiar to us, but Catalans also eat partsof creatures we throw away. They also like odd combinations such as meatballs in a seafood sauce or dessert tarts filled with candied spaghetti squash.

As Mr. Andrews observes, it is a cuisine that is "accessible . . . but at the same time exotic and mysterious."

Those who know the cuisine agree that there are only a quintet of essential sauces or sauce bases a cook needs to know. They are sofregit (slow-cooked aromatic vegetables), picada (a nut-based paste used to thicken and flavor sauces), samfaina (a relative of ratatouille), and allioli and romesco.

Add to that knowledge a mortar and pestle and/or a food processor, some of the shallow pottery cooking pots called cazuelas, a paella pan and the books mentioned, and you're halfway to Barcelona.

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