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'La Cocina de Mamá' brings Spanish-style comfort food to American kitchens

Ask average San Antonians what they know about Spanish food. Chances are they've had tapas, but unless it was at one of the few authentic places in the States, the term tapas is applied to anything from nouvelle snacks to cold cuts. For authentic Spanish food, the best option (short of hopping on a plane) is to cook it yourself. Penelope Casas' most recent book, La Cocina de Mamá: The Great Home Cooking of Spain, is all about down-home cooking, Spanish style - simple, basic comfort food that is some of the best you've ever tasted.

Casas is, without doubt, the foremost American authority on Spanish food. A scholar of Spanish literature, history, and cuisine, she has led gastronomic tours of Spain for more than 20 years, is on the faculty of New York University, and has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society. The government of Spain has awarded her the National Prize of Gastronomy, the Medal of Touristic Merit, and named her Dame of the Order of Civil Merit. That the Spanish government has a Prize of Gastronomy should tell you a little about their attitude toward food, and if the list of honors doesn't convince you of Casas' commitment, her books will.

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Casas is an excellent writer and her five previous books are a joy to read, provided you can quit salivating long enough to pay attention. La Cocina de Mamá is no different, filled with amazingly descriptive, poetic memories and vignettes of people, places, and meals. Unlike the recipes in her other books, these are not dishes found in restaurants, inns, or professional kitchens. Rather, this is a collection culled from friends and family that speak of humble means, the complex cultural history of a nation, and personal relationships.

My husband introduced me to Spanish food and Casas' writing more than 15 years ago. A true aficionado of the range of Spanish paella dishes (Casas has an entire book dedicated to them), he's been heard to muse: "Isn't it ironic that one of the world's greatest dishes misrepresents one of the world's greatest cuisines?" Indeed, the cuisine of Spain is among the finest in Europe, earthy and garlic-infused, developed over centuries of cultural exchange in the Old World and domination of the New, perfumed with the spices of the Moorish occupation.

A tradition-heavy country (Spain wasn't heavily Catholic, it was exclusively Catholic until the last 20 years or so), Spain was slow to adopt new attitudes toward food and culture. "Creative cooking has taken the country by storm - and by surprise - in recent years, and in so doing, revived a yearning for the past and for tradition," says Casas. "Unquestionably, most Spaniards still prefer the country's hearty country cooking." If you like garlic, ham, eggs, sweet peppers, smoky paprika, and a dash of sherry or mild wine vinegar, this cuisine is for you.

La Cocina de Mamá's introduction includes an overview of common ingredients and a survey of Spanish wines. The good news is, there's nothing particularly exotic that you can't find or substitute. With the possible exceptions of smoky pimenton (a distinctly Spanish paprika), saffron, and dry sherry, you probably already have much of what you need to prepare most of the dishes in this book, and what you can't find at Central Market, you can find elsewhere if you look hard enough.

La Cocina de Mamá:
The Great Home Cooking of Spain

By Penelope Casas
Broadway Books
$29.95, 320 pages
ISBN: 0767912225
For canned goods, such as pequillo peppers, quality Spanish tuna, and dried chorizo (the local Tex-Mex version is NOT an appropriate substitute), try Las Americas Latin Market, 6651 San Pedro. If you find yourself in Austin, Fiesta Market, 3909 I-35 North, has a good dried chorizo. For saffron, try an Indian or Middle Eastern market such as Ali Baba, 9307 Wurzbach (they also have an amazing collection of olives). If all else fails, Casas gives you a list of mail-order suppliers in the book. The Spanish ñora chili is one ingrediet not readily available here. You can use dried red New Mexico chili, or ask someone going to Spain to bring some home for you.

Better yet, go to Spain yourself and take an empty suitcase for provisions. As Casas points out, "Tapas can be as easy as opening a can or a jar. In Spain, these products are top notch and treated as delicacies." I assure you, as someone who has lugged cans of tuna home in my suitcase, local canned tuna isn't in the same league.

As for recipes, these couldn't be easier. Most have 10 or fewer ingredients and tend to be simple stews, fricassees, or quick sautés. For those of us who profess to be experienced in the ways of Spanish cooking, some of the dishes are so brilliantly obvious we're embarrassed not to have come up with it before. My personal favorite, Maria's Lamb with Lemon, has only nine ingredients: lamb, olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, tomato, bay leaf, lemon juice, and brandy. The directions are complete in five sentences. An hour later, it was the best lamb I've ever eaten. Honest.

By Diana Lyn Roberts


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