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Looking good enough to eat

A dish of fish with segments of orange and lemon drew inspiration from Luis MelÚndez's “Still Life With Bream, Oranges, Garlic, Condiments and Kitchen Utensils’’ (lower left). A dish of fish with segments of orange and lemon drew inspiration from Luis MelÚndez's “Still Life With Bream, Oranges, Garlic, Condiments and Kitchen Utensils’’ (lower left). (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / February 5, 2010

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At the entrance to the MFA’s new Luis Meléndez exhibit, there is a self-portrait of the artist from 1746: handsome, cocky as all get out, a blue scarf tying back his hair and a long, metal chalk holder in his graceful fingers. It’s easy to imagine him today, arms covered in tattoos instead of ruffled sleeves, chalk holder replaced with a sharp chef’s knife. That gaze says: I can command a kitchen. And what else would a modern Meléndez do, with that eye for food and royal patrons now few and far between?

His canvases inspire awe at the fact that someone can paint like this. A melon, so real you can almost feel the give of its overripe spots beneath your fingers. Silver fish, scales shining, a bit of blood still at their gills.

They also inspire not hunger exactly, but a desire to play with food, to explore its possibilities. The carefully prepped compositions found in glossy magazines make you want to eat: They are food porn. This is food art. It makes you want to taste.

And so art critic Sebastian Smee and I find ourselves in his kitchen on a recent afternoon, aiming to recapture the flavors of 18th-century Spain.

One of Meléndez’s still lifes, from 1770, depicts a head of cauliflower, eggs, leeks, salt cod, garlic, and spices - the ingredients for a meatless Lenten meal. I ask Julio de Haro, a Spanish native who owns the South End tapas bar Estragon, what kind of dish these ingredients might have become. He doesn’t hesitate. “Potaje!’’ he says. “It’s traditional for Holy Week. That and salt cod balls.’’ Then he gives the laugh of a man who was perhaps made to eat a few too many salt cod balls as a child.

Potaje is a stew of chickpeas, salt cod, eggs, and spinach, flavored with saffron and garlic, he says. It sounds good, but we haven’t soaked salt cod and chickpeas overnight. So we come up with a version of tortilla espanola, the egg-potato-onion omelet you see everywhere in Spain.

We chop a few cloves of garlic, slice a slender leek, and cut a few generous handfuls of cauliflower florets. We saute them in olive oil until they begin to brown. Then we pour in just enough beaten eggs to cover them. We cook the mixture on top of the stove until the bottom and edges set, then move the pan under the broiler to finish it, frittata style.

When we pull it out, it is golden, steaming, dense with caramelized vegetables. This is penance? The cauliflower makes a surprisingly good potato substitute, and the leeks are sweet, almost nutty.

Next, we turn to a 1772 painting of two bream with Seville oranges, garlic, spices, and olive oil. At New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge, I find orata - a type of bream - that closely resembles Meléndez’s fish. Very closely. Both have mouthfuls of tiny, creepy teeth, which we try to ignore.

For the sour Seville oranges, we substitute a mix of blood oranges and lemons. We rub the fish, gutted but whole, with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then we top them with thin-sliced onion (not in the painting, but we take liberties) and segments of orange and lemon, tossed with sherry vinegar, olive oil, and more salt and pepper. We put them under the broiler, a technique for cooking bream I picked up from Beyond Salmon, a blog written by local cooking teacher Helen Rennie. It’s a quick way to go. The fish takes about 10 minutes, flipped midway.

When it’s done, we sprinkle on chopped mint and parsley and tuck in. The citrus has cooked down to a bit of a mush, but one thing is clear: Orata is a wonderful fish, on the firm side of tender and with great flavor. There’s a reason baked bream remains a common dish in Madrid to this day.

For dessert, we could do no better than steaming cups of chocolate, a Spanish obsession at the time Meléndez was painting. They preferred “a very thick drink that could hold biscuits upright in a cup,’’ according to the exhibition catalog.

We start with a 1631 recipe by Andalusian physician Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma. He instructs us to use 100 cocoa beans. No need: We have chocolate discs made by the Somerville company Taza.

Sebastian grates them into fine piles. We put the chocolate in a pot with water and other ingredients from our recipe: almonds Sebastian pulverizes in a mortar and pestle, anise seeds, a few vanilla beans, and a dried chili. The chocolate looks and smells fantastic as it heats. But there’s no way a biscuit will stand up in it. We cook it till it thickens, then realize something. Once chocolate is thick enough to support a biscuit, it’s no longer thin enough to drink. Ah, well. It tastes mighty nice from a spoon, too.

“It should be noted that Meléndez never presented a cooked meal - only the raw ingredients, leaving the results to the viewer’s imagination,’’ the catalog notes. He left much to inspire ours. In finishing the dishes he began in paint, we are allowed a chance to taste art as well as see it.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com

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Luis Melendez

'Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life'

Mesmerizing still lifes are on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.