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Cookbook Review

In these Spanish recipes, imagination is a key ingredient

We're blessed with nearly 3,000 new cookbooks each year, not to mention the Food Network and magazines, all of which means there's always someone to tell you how to chop an onion, what's the best grater, and how long a dish is going to take to cook. Some do it with admirable concision, but the fact is, the kitchen is one place where too much information is never enough.

So opening "1080 Recipes" for the first time comes as something of a culture shock. It bills itself as Spain's "Joy of Cooking" and has been in print for more than 30 years (the original name is "1080 Recetas de Cocina"). When coauthor Simone Ortega wrote the original book, it became a bestseller. Unlike "Joy of Cooking" - whose original edition famously began, "Stand facing the stove." - "1080 Recipes" leaves much to the imagination and experience of the cook. Many of its recipes are easy or short, but that doesn't mean you can't go astray.

Spaniards don't eat paella every day (although there are a couple of recipes for the classic). Apparently they eat lots of little fried foods, things stuffed with other things, and salt cod. Serrano ham is about as ubiquitous a seasoning as salt, and there's bechamel sauce everywhere.

You can tell just from looking that this is a book meant to be used daily. The majority of the recipes are constructed from a handful of ingredients. But instructions often seem more vague than what we're used to; as for quantities and cooking times, some of that gets lost in translation.

That was the case with porrusalda, a Basque potato-leek soup with salt cod. It eventually came together as a hearty, oniony soup reminiscent of the sea. But six leeks is a lot, and I couldn't make sense of cooking them for five minutes over low heat until they were "beginning to brown." It took 15 over high heat to get to that point.

In theory, eggplants stuffed with meats seemed like a great idea. Breaded, with diced serrano ham (substitute prosciutto, if you have to), it also smelled fantastic. But the eggplant flesh hadn't softened as promised in 30 minutes in the oven, so the texture was more chewy than silken.

An easy, sweet, flavorful side was a dish of carrots cooked with onions and wine, thickened with a little flour. Garbanzo bean stew with spinach was a great way to use leftover salt cod; most of the flavor came from a fragrant paste of sautéed onion, tomato, and paprika, added late in the process. Again, I found the instructions a little cryptic (should the stew be on or off the heat while you make the paste, which takes 30 minutes?) and I suspect my chickpeas fell apart because I inadvertently overcooked them.

The Spanish like a bit of sour with their sweet, and a handful of briny capers took pasta with bell peppers and ham a step beyond the familiar. It made an easy weeknight supper, but be sure to double the time to sauté those onions. A simple sauce of onions and milk made the most of the rich, dense texture of monkfish. I could not buy monkfish with backbone (listed as "optional" in the recipe). The bone's flavor-amplifying effects would have made the mild dish more memorable. Veal stew with leeks, scattered with currants, did not get tender in a 45-minute braise, though the winey, lemony braising liquid was a good match for the meat.

Roast chicken with grapefruit came together in that wonderful, distinctly Iberian marriage of citrus and pork. Smeared with lard and bacon before trussing, rinsed in the cavity with flaming brandy, and stuffed with peeled grapefruit segments, it was a bit fiddly to prep, but the results were well worth it. It turned into a juicy, succulent bird with that undercurrent of sourness I had come to look for.

The recipe for Spanish classic flan was a load of trouble. There wasn't enough caramel to coat the bottom of the pan (never mind the sides), and it took twice as long to set as the instructions said.

I had to stop myself from instinctively seasoning the food during cooking, since most recipes recommended salting at the end, which gives less depth. But in addition to the distinctive flavor combinations, "1080 Recipes" is full of clues that this isn't the "Joy of Cooking." A few pages in you'll find a big spread on snails, followed by another on octopus; the entrees end dramatically with brains, tripe, and pig's feet. Recipe instructions are printed in a single dense paragraph (no mollycoddling about with step 1, step 2, etc.), and it's easy to lose your place.

But with its lively color illustrations by Spanish graphic designer Javier Mariscal and sheer abundance, "1080 Recipes" has an adventurous spirit that makes you willing to put up with some of its foibles. Just keep your wits about you - and your "Joy" handy - in case something doesn't work out.

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