A reader recently sent me the following question via email:
"Can you recommend a good starter cookbook for Spanish cooking. I'm thinking something in the vein of Paula Wolfert or Patricia Wells -- flavorful, rustic dishes that would give me a good sense of the fundamentals of Spanish food."
Because I frequently write about Spanish cooking, people often ask me what my favorite cookbooks on Spanish cuisine are. I started to answer the reader's email and, as my reply grew longer and longer, I thought I should just put the answer on my blog. That way, if anyone else cares to hear my opinions on the topic, they will have a place to read it. I hope my response will be helpful.
In my opinion, there is no starter cookbook on Spanish cuisine that is quite at the same level as Paula Wolfert, Patricia Wells or, I may add, Marcella Hazan. The problem is that Spanish cooking is incredibly diverse and regional. Galicia, Asturias, the Basque region, Catalunya, Valencia, Andalucía, the Castillian heartland - the regional specialties are all so different, easily as varied as the regions of France or Italy (in fact, I would say more varied). The reason Wolfert's book on the cooking of southwest France is so good is that it focuses in depth on one region. However, there are some very good books out there.
The author who has been writing about Spanish cooking for an American audience the longest is Penelope Casas. She's an American who is married to a Spaniard and they split their time between NY and Spain, where they lead luxury cultural and gastronomic tours. She has written an indispensable travel guide to Spain, Discovering Spain, which I often consult when planning a trip, even though it was last updated 10 years ago. In fact, this guide book illuminates the culinary differences between the various regions better than any cookbook. Only the enormous Culinaria Spain, replete with shamelessly sumptuous food porn, rivals Casas' guidebook in this category.
Casas also has several cookbooks out that are all highly regarded. However, my personal opinion is that many of her more general earlier books seem dated and lack the intensely personal voice of someone like Wolfert, Wells or Hazan. That said, I do like her newest book, La Cocina de Mamá (2005), quite a bit. She collected family recipes from many well-known chefs and other more traditional cooks, so there are lots of rustic dishes to tempt you. To discover more about the rice cooking of Valencia and Alicante, her Paella (1999) book is a good resource too.
For an all-purpose introduction to Spanish cooking, however, I prefer and highly recommend Anya von Bremzen's book The New Spanish Table (2005). She provides tempting recipes for the lusty traditional dishes associated with Spain, yet also balances them with a few of the more innovative and modern approaches to cooking that are so prevalent today (and not just in restaurants). This book is packed full of valuable information and I thoroughly enjoy von Bremzen's writing style, so I was able to overlook the publisher's choice of graphics. Be sure to read this book from cover to cover, because the most interesting anecdotes and techniques are scattered throughout the book in the recipe headers and little info boxes.
Another excellent introduction to Spanish cuisine that I recommend with equal enthusiasm is Janet Mendel's My Kitchen in Spain (2002). She is American-born and has lived in Andalucía for decades. Like von Bremzen, her recipes are excellent. They focus more on traditional Spanish cooking, especially that of Andalucía (one of my favorite regions), and there are a lot of interesting Spanish pastries which you don't find in other books. For "flavorful, rustic dishes," like the author of the email has requested, this may be the best book. In fact, Wolfert's personal recommendation is prominently displayed on the book jacket!
Another favorite region of mine is, of course, Catalunya. To learn about that region, you can do no better than Colman Andrews' classic Catalan Cuisine (1988, reprinted in 1992, 1999). I find his writing style to be highly engaging. You'll have to look elsewhere, however, for photography.
As an aspiring restaurateur, I am interested in the cooking of other chefs who have tried to adapt the highly product-dependent cuisine of Spain to American and British audiences. I am often inspired by the recipes found in the two books by the chef-proprietors of the restaurant Moro in London, which I have yet to visit. Their most recent book is Casa Moro (2004). Although I also have not had the good fortune to visit any of Josés Andrés' restaurants in Washington, D.C., I love his new book, Tapas: a Taste of Spain in America (2005). I would categorize all the recipes in these books to be balanced and flavorful, but perhaps less rustic than what the author of the email is looking for.
Now, if you want to know my favorite Spanish cookbooks written in Spanish (and Catalan), that's a whole other topic.
Like all things, cookbook preference is intensely personal and subjective. I suggest you use my opinions as a starting point. Go to your local bookstore or library and look through the books I've mentioned and see which ones resonate with you. Have fun and buen provecho!
If you follow the links above, you will be taken to a great on line resource for discounted cookbooks, Jessica's Biscuit (ecookbooks.com), which I prefer to the site named after the South American rain forest (Why would a bookseller name themselves after a forest any way? Think about it). However, I strongly encourage everyone to support your local independent (non-chain) bookstore and buy your books there, even if you have to ask them to place a special order. Sorry for the editorial, but I have a friend whose fabulous neighborhood bookstore is struggling. In addition, one of the best bookstores in our city, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, is on the market (in fact they sold their website URL, bookstore.com, so I don't have a website for them). Besides, this is Eat Local Month, so how about we locavores consider buying our cookbooks locally too!