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COOKBOOK REVIEW

Recipes good enough to scrape the pan

Roden’s ambitious ‘Food of Spain’ is a success

Claudia Roden offers history and geography lessons, beautiful photos, and more with her recipes in “The Food of Spain.’’ Claudia Roden offers history and geography lessons, beautiful photos, and more with her recipes in “The Food of Spain.’’
By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / September 7, 2011

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There are not many cookbook writers who can pull off a book as ambitious, thoughtful, and deeply nourishing as “The Food of Spain.’’ From the first pages of this hefty volume, award-winning author Claudia Roden makes you feel like you’re in the hands of someone you trust. As a writer, the Egyptian-born Roden, who lives in London, won’t rest till she has the whole story, from every imaginable angle. There are history and geography lessons, exhaustive but lightly worn, forthright headnotes, and glimmering, suggestive photography. Yet as a cook, she retains a thoroughly accessible touch that is as entertaining as it is sure. And in the end, it always comes down to the food, which had me in a swoon for a solid week of can’t-stop cooking.

The dominant flavors here are familiar southern Mediterranean: garlic, tomatoes, parsley, with almonds and bread for texture and body. Yet the techniques are just different enough to make you realize that despite ingredients you already know well, you’re inhabiting a culinary tradition that is definitely neither French nor Italian.

When little ramekins of baked crab are gently cooked in hard cider, the cider floats away, leaving only an apple-y sweetness to marry with the crab and the big flakes of fish beneath a broiled bread crumb crust.

From Roden’s Catalonian friend Pepa comes an irresistible fish soup, really a stew with a heavy-bodied, aromatic broth. It had me at the first garlicky, tomato-infused, saffron-scented hello. A fried almond-garlic picada, which is supposed to thicken it, doesn’t seem to do much at first. Then, slowly but surely its deep, savory earth tones blend and consolidate with tomatoes that have melted to jam.

Garlic chicken from Castile is as simple as it sounds - simmered and browned chicken parts left to commune with a full 2 heads of garlic in a gentle bath of stock and wine, which eventually thickens to become a bay-scented, lick-the-pot golden sauce.

I thought I knew pretty much everything one can expect from a meatball. But an apparently ordinary dish of pork meatballs, coddled in almond sauce, put me in a slack-jawed daze. I am only a little embarrassed to confess that I was scraping the sauce - white wine, saffron, lemon rind, almonds - out of the side of the pan with my finger. When it was all gone, I wanted to cry.

Something similar happened with baked rice, currants, chickpeas, and tomatoes. It’s made with Arborio rice, but without the stirring of a risotto. The rice simply cooks in the oven by itself, with a head of garlic set right in the middle. At the table, you squeeze the mellow cloves over your rice, where they offset a scattering of sweet, plumped-up currants. I had to get up and leave the table to make myself stop eating.

Vegetables are every bit as simple and surprising. Zucchini with onions and oregano melts gently on the stovetop for a full 40 minutes, confounded into sweetness by time alone. A creamy leek tart has the unfussiest tart crust I’ve ever made. You pat it in place with your hands. The filling is nothing more than leeks, eggs, and cream. It bakes into a glazed, golden perfection.

The same bread-and-garlic thickening I’d seen in the meat dishes bulks up a parsley green sauce for artichokes. I couldn’t get my hands on whole artichoke bottoms, so I simply poured the sauce over artichoke quarters.

If there was any disappointment, it came in a batch of pine nut and marzipan sweets. I expected the almond paste to undergo a chewy transformation, but it just tasted like warm paste.

Because it captures the varied tastes of a culture with sensitivity and breadth while slipping comfortably into an American kitchen, the book reminded me a bit of “Around My French Table,’’ last year’s hit by Dorie Greenspan. Greenspan’s book has the kind of success made possible only by night after night of seduction by recipe. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one does too.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@tsusanchang.com.

THE FOOD OF SPAIN By Claudia Roden

Ecco Press, 624 pp., $39.99