Recipes recapture experience of Spain


July 17, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Janet Mendel has one of those stories that arouses either vicarious delight or itchings of imminent life crisis. The American journalist and her husband quit their jobs in Chicago, pack a few essentials and leave for Spain, figuring on a year's hiatus from their workaday lives.

Need we go on?

Naturally, it's splendid, as the Mediterranean tends to be, the sort of place where lovely scents "waft." Naturally, the intrepid couple faces the hardships of Spanish village life ("Country people trekked to town by donkey ... ") with high spirits, invariably plunging into this, that or another thing with "gusto."

They prevail. The humble town prospers.

That year's break stretches into two years and then some - 35 and counting at the time My Kitchen in Spain (HarperCollins, 2001, $34.95) was published. Intermingled with the 225 recipes gathered since the adventure began in 1966 are helpings of atmospherics - "I would awake each morning to the cries of the fish vendors echoing through the narrow white streets ... " - and food history.

Tapas, for example, appear to have evolved from the Andalusian barkeep's practice of placing a saucer over the wineglass to keep out fruit flies that abound there in spring. A small helping of food could then be placed on the saucer, or tapa, Spanish for cover or lid.

How the fruit flies were then kept off the food and how the Andalusians avoided towers of lids like something from a Dr. Seuss story remains unexplained. At least there are some nice tapas recipes, among others: shrimp fritters, chicken saute with garlic and sherry, assorted batter-fried preparations and sizzling shrimp with garlic, a tapas perennial.

Which is not to suggest the author played it timid. She tells how she tried everything over the years, including a stew with bits of animal lung and congealed blood fried in garlic. Neither of these possibilities is offered in the book, which is long on text and short on pictures, cramming lots of information into 358 pages.

There's an index, short glossary and material on what distinguishes one Spanish regional cuisine from another, and how Spain's food differs from the spicy dishes Americans might associate with things Spanish.

"Spanish is not Hispanic," says the introduction, beginning to draw the distinction between the Mexican and the European, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean, with its azure visions, its evocation of roads not taken.

Chicken Saute With Garlic and Sherry

Serves 6 to 8 as tapas. For main course, chicken parts - legs, thighs and breasts - can be used, but allow a longer cooking time.

2 pounds small chicken wings and thighs

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 whole head garlic (12 to 16 cloves)

1/3 cup olive oil

1 bay leaf

2 tablespoons Spanish brandy (optional)

1/2 cup dry or medium-dry sherry

chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Cut off wing tips and discard. Divide each wing into two joints. Cut thighs lengthwise along the bone. Pat dry the pieces of chicken and dust with salt and pepper.

Lightly smash garlic cloves to split the skins. Set aside 8 of them, unpeeled. Peel the remaining cloves and slice them.

Heat oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add sliced garlic and saute just until golden, 1 to 2 minutes, then skim them out and reserve.

Add chicken pieces to the oil and fry over medium-high heat, until the chicken is browned on all sides, 12 to 15 minutes. Add unpeeled garlic cloves, bay leaf, brandy, if using, and sherry. Continue cooking over high heat until the liquid is almost cooked away and the chicken begins to sizzle again, 8 to 10 minutes. Discard bay leaf.

Serve immediately, garnished with the reserved fried garlic bits and chopped parsley.

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