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At times a cookbook is more than just a cookbook. It might be inspiring, enlightening, or a special kind of coffee table book. On a rare occasion an individual book draws qualities from a variety of genres. "Espana: Exploring the Flavors of Spain" blends each aspect into a satisfying presentation.
When the book first arrived, I was singularly unimpressed. It was a large format, truly weighty and seemed more fitting to look at than earn a real place on my crowded kitchen shelves. I've owned more than 400 cookbooks in the past--today I'm looking for real cooking value when it comes to shelf space. Two bibliophiles occupy our home, so competition for library space is fierce on all levels.
However, in this hobby of dedication, there is one important rule: if you request the book, one is obligated to review it. In my case, that means making at least three recipes. Such is my commitment to myself, readers, authors and publishers. I hate reviewers who don't actually make anything but yak on and on about a collection being good or bad.
My opinion changed after forcing myself to select some recipes and start cooking. This started with the fact that when I propped the substantial collection on my recipe stand it stood easily. I didn't need any clips, weights or other jerry-rigged shenanigans to keep it open. The stand and protective Plexiglas cover sufficed.
Working in the kitchen also opened my eyes to beauty of the recipes. Many of them require a brief ingredient list. Yes, you may have to do some hunting to find the specific type of cheese called for or stretch your budget for some good saffron to get the best results. You will not, on the other hand, find the recipes difficult to follow or complete. The techniques called for most home cooks can handle.
Then came the results. Tasty, impressive, clean, and unexpected. One recipe for marinated Manchego stuns in its simplicity. Easy to prepare, interesting to look at and an enjoyable twist on a cheese course to eat. The recipe lets anyone have a cheese course--accessible, rustic and sophisticated in one lovely dish. The tasters all agreed: it's exactly the kind of recipe that melts my heart and charms my intellect.
A variety of salads also pleased on varied levels. The star of the tested recipes however, came from the "Huh, never thought of those flavors together" category. Every cookbook gets a bloodhound treatment for these precious combinations. You rarely need extraordinarily fancy ingredients to get amazing results in your home kitchen. The real key is quality, appropriate preparation, and new dance partners to open your tastes to unexpected pleasures.
"Baked Spinach with Goat Cheese and Raisin Compota" completely fills these needs. Reading the recipe hit that unexpected combination button. The list of ingredients seemed to be one of those that could be great, below average, or just silly. My over-developed sense of curiosity and adventure can't resist such recipes. I ended up tasting Haggis, 100 year old eggs, chicken feet at dim sum, and many other oddities for the same reason. (The eggs basically tasted like dirt, by the way. Better than starving, but not a delicacy that won my vote.)
In the case of this recipe, a three-on-base home run flew into the stands. I made my version all in one stone-ware dish. Besides not having that many small terra cotta dishes, with a line-up of 10 dishes for a testing lunch, I opted to save space and time. The first reaction of all the testers was how pretty the dish appeared in the bake ware. The contrast between green spinach, creamy white cheese and sunny little sultanas ensured everyone wanted a taste.
Those tastes consistently surprised. Everyone commented about how they never considered putting raisins and spinach together. With the various flavors and textures in each component playing against each other, the ensemble surpasses the individual players.
The goat cheese and sherry may be a bit of an indulgence in your home--trust me and the 9 testers--it's worth it. Once you make this recipe, you will have a new standard in your repertoire that is sophisticated enough for a dinner party while still useful on a regular night at home. This recipe, and many more from this rare, 5-star rated book, are worth the time to cook, eat together, and laugh with at your own table.