There are recipes you dabble with, trying them once before moving on to others. Then there are the ones that stick with you, that become part of your everyday repertoire. They don’t need to be especially fancy--in fact, usually they’re not. More often, they’re simple things that teach you a new technique or show you another face of a familiar ingredient.
The most recent example of this for me was Gazpacho Hoy from Janet Mendel’s new book, “My Kitchen in Spain” (HarperCollins, $34.95). Gazpacho is one of those dishes I’ve never really “gotten"--is it a soup? Is it a salsa? And what’s with all that chopping? But Mendel’s version is so simple to prepare, yet so satisfying, that I know it is one I will be making over and over.
Here’s how it goes: Puree garlic and bread you’ve soaked in water. Add chopped tomatoes and a little cumin and puree again, adding olive oil, a little vinegar and water. Now take your afternoon nap while it chills in the refrigerator. When you wake up, you’ll have one of the best cold soups you’ve ever tasted.
What’s that, you say? No cucumbers, no bell peppers, no meticulously minced everything? You can do all that stuff if you want, and serve it as a garnish, but it’s not necessary. The depth and complexity of flavor of the basic recipe is astonishing--provided you use good tomatoes.
This recipe is typical of the rest of the book, at least in approach. Take basic ingredients and cook them simply but with imagination. Mendel builds complexity not through the layering of many flavors but through the careful use of a very few. There’s only one-fourth teaspoon of cumin in the gazpacho, and you certainly won’t taste it for itself. But it is just enough to add a certain earthy bottom note to the sweetness of the tomatoes.
The use of bread as a thickener is repeated in other recipes as well. With the gazpacho, it adds a creamy texture as well as softening the bite of the raw garlic a bit. It does much the same thing in the green beans with garlic sauce, another extremely simple dish that will probably wind up on my table again. In this one, blanched green beans are sauteed in olive oil with red pepper strips, then the whole thing is lightly bound by further cooking with bread softened in vinegar and pureed with garlic and some of the liquid from the green beans. Just a dash of pimenton is the “complexer” this time.
Other recipes I tested were successful, though less world-shaking. I was pleased that the Basque red bean stew called for cooking the beans without pre-soaking--something I’ve long advocated. And I was interested in the technique of “scaring” the beans periodically, slowing down the cooking with occasional additions of cold water. The texture of the beans was perfect, and the flavor was good (well, with chorizo, ham hock and beans, how could it not be?). But I did find that the dish needed a little vinegar at the end to really lift the flavor.
As you probably can tell from the descriptions, these are not fancy dishes and neither do they go overboard in the quest for authenticity.
Most of the ingredients called for can be found in any supermarket. Rather, this is exactly what the title implies: real-world food from a very talented cook.
And you’ll probably find, as I did, that not a few of the dishes from her Spanish kitchen wind up as regular visitors to yours.