Yes, there are too many cookbooks being published. Too many recycled low-fat ideas, too many cute books, too many recipes and not enough real writing, too much packaging and not enough passion. Still, it wasn't easy for each writer on the Times Food staff to choose just one favorite book from the year. Many worthy cookbooks are not mentioned--though we will describe several notable ones in next week's issue. What follows on the next few pages is a highly subjective list of the cookbooks that pleased us most this year.
Maybe the food of Spain isn't for everybody. I sure like it, but I have to admit it has a flamenco-like austerity, a relentless avoidance of ingratiating effects.
At bottom, Spanish cuisine has a lot in common with French, but the heavy French use of vegetables like carrots and onions (not to mention all the butter and cream) gives French food a sweet quality. Spanish cooking, by contrast, is informed by the flavors of olives, almonds, beans and saffron. Instead of onion soup, Spain makes garlic soup. In short, it's an existential sort of cuisine with a tough, dogged, living-on-the-edge character. If you get on its wavelength, nothing else will do.
Penelope Casas wrote "Tapas, the Little Dishes of Spain" a couple of years ago and starts out her latest, "Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain" (Knopf; $30), with 60 more tapas recipes. But that isn't its appeal. It's the more offbeat selections from all over Spain.
She organizes her book by culinary regions. They're pretty much the same regions everybody else sees--the Basque country, Catalonia, the paella country of the eastern coast, Andalusia, the central plains--except that she includes the little-known cuisine of the Canary Islands, which has an unexpected specialty in dipping sauces.
There are the famous dishes paella and gazpacho and some reasonably well-known ones such as chilindron (meat stewed in an Aragonese tomato sauce with ham and peppers) and cocido (a hearty stew of beans and meat), but also a load of lesser-known dishes. For instance: watercress meatballs, a paella made with short pieces of pasta, an oxtail stew scented with juniper berries.
Most recipes show a Mediterranean-style economy of means. In caldereta de cordero extremen~o, you fry onions and garlic, remove them from the pan and fry lamb in the same oil with bay leaves and paprika. Then you add wine and vinegar and boil them down, and finally you add some broth and stew the lamb, returning the pureed onions and garlic half an hour before the end of cooking for a hint of sweet-sour flavor.
This is a book for garlic lovers. The chapter on the central provinces alone gives three recipes for chicken with garlic. In one, the chicken is quickly browned with a whole head of garlic and the pan is deglazed with wine, vinegar, saffron and more garlic; in another, the chicken is basted with a paste of garlic, parsley and lemon juice as it bakes; in the third, it's browned with garlic and stewed with wine, vinegar, red pepper and herbs.
There are also two garlic chicken recipes in the Andalusian chapter. In fact, where there's chicken in this book, garlic is not far away. Chicken with onions calls for five cloves; lemon and rosemary chicken with potatoes calls for 12.
But this is not a book for decadent dessert fanciers. The sweets are mostly homey Mediterranean things: sweetened garbanzo fritters, candied almonds with a touch of cinnamon, crepes stuffed with apple sauce. If you want ingratiating, go to France. Heck, don't fool around; go to Vienna.
GARLIC CHICKEN (Pollo al Ajillo Casa Lucio)
This very simple recipe from Penelope Casas' "Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain" produces a meaty and aromatic result. The recipe discards the whole garlic cloves after frying, but they make a tasty garnish if you care to pick the peel from them.
1 (3-pound) chicken
1 head garlic, divided into cloves, left unpeeled, partly crushed
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon wine vinegar
1 tablespoon dry white wine
1 tablespoon chicken broth
5 to 6 strands saffron, crumbled
Divide chicken into wings (discarding tips), legs (hack off bony ends), thighs and carcass. Quarter carcass and cut with kitchen shears into 2-inch pieces. Sprinkle meat on all sides with salt and let sit 10 minutes.
Add 1/4 to 1/2 inch oil to large skillet. Set over high heat until very hot. Add chicken and crushed garlic cloves and cook, shaking skillet and turning pieces frequently, until well-browned and cooked through, 12 to 13 minutes. Remove skillet from heat. Drain chicken pieces in strainer or colander and discard oil.
Return skillet to medium heat and add minced garlic, vinegar, wine, chicken broth, saffron and pinch salt. Bring to boil and use large spoon to loosen browned bits from bottom. Add chicken pieces and toss until glazed.
Makers 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
452 calories; 282 mg sodium; 127 mg cholesterol; 34 grams fat; 4 grams carbohydrates; 30 grams protein; 0.18 gram fiber.
* Sunburst plate from the Los Angeles Public Library gift store.