Taste Testing: Tapas, A Taste of Spain in America

The Book

Early in his career, chef Jose Andres trained at the legendary El Bulli under none other than the famed Ferran Adria. Hearing the announcement that El Bulli will close for the next two years, I felt wistful for a taste of Spain and a bit depressed that I may never have the chance to eat at one of the world's best restaurants. Luckily, I found just the remedy with Andres's Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America.

Andres evokes a fabled time in Spain long before poultry came pre-packaged in cellophane with Tapas. A time when men would make paella in the woods using branches and vines to stoke the fires in pans that were large enough feed 100 people. In those days, having a fresh chicken was a special occasion in itself, it merited a celebration with all your friends and loved ones and I would argue that it still does.

The Meal

Chicken and mushroom paella is not your mami's arroz con pollo. You could call it a Bambi-friendly incarnation of a Paella Valenciana—minus the venison and rabbit for those of you who love small woodland creatures. I appreciate the original recipe, but I'm not going to quibble over the simplification of this dish, I'm going to praise it. I have now made this paella no less than six times and it's phenomenal. It is hearty and deeply satisfying for everyone from the toddler to the elderly.

The secret to this rice is the sofrito Andres uses to make it. It differs from its Caribbean counterpart in its simplicity. But that elegant flavor is deceptively dependent on technique. If you don't wait until the onions have sufficiently browned in olive oil, you will sabotage your own efforts. Be patient, it's worth doing it right. The finished product is a sauce with a plum tomato base and a delicious sweet and smoky pimentón flavor. A Turkish bay leaf happily punctuates the flavor. The recipe will provide more than enough left overs for you to use in other delicious ways. I thinned it out with a little chicken broth and had it as a soup the next day for lunch. Later, I baked chicken thighs with it for dinner. It's also marvelous smeared on the Catalan flatbreads in the book. Your creativity is your only limit here.

If this classic book isn't on your shelf by now, I suggest immediately picking it up—your kitchen is definitely missing out. Andres's anecdotes, in-a-pinch substitutions and suggested wine pairings help to round out the home dining experience. Ultimately it was the intelligent transmission of Jose Andres's accumulated knowledge and his obvious mastery of Spanish cuisine that endeared this book to me. Everyone tells you not to stick your finger in the rice when it's cooking on slow boil but most people won't tell you why. Use this book and you may soon know the reasoning behind some of your abuelita's best consejitos de cocina.