1080 Recipes
By Simone and Inés Ortega
Phaidon, 2007; $39.95

To a food-obsessed American, Spain evokes two rival things. One is the kitchen surrealism of Ferran Adrià and his acolytes: the foams, the gels, the caviars, the countless trompe l’oeils and trompe les bouches that come from Adrià’s tireless experimentalism and affection for technology. And there’s the more rustic world: of salt cod and jamón ibérico sliced with a 14-inch knife; of lusty, salty tapas full of garlic, anchovies, and funky sheep’s-milk cheeses. And so along comes 1080 Recipes, the English translation of a best-selling Spanish cookbook, and I expected to see a lot of either one of these modes. Would I need to buy a Pacojet to make the recipes in this book? Or was I going to need a wholesale supplier of piquillo peppers?

The answer to both questions is no: 1080 Recipes is markedly different cuisine from the bits of Spain we experience here in the States. True, there are recipes for gazpacho and paella, but the book is both more Continental and more bourgeois. Along with recipes for madeleines, risotto, and “American macaroni” (a curried mac ’n’ cheese made with cream of mushroom soup), I counted 45 béchamel-based recipes in the index. That’s a lot of white sauce.

First published by Simone Ortega 35 years ago as 1080 Recetas de Cocina, it has sold more than 2 million copies in Spanish. It’s a household compendium, an Iberian Joy of Cooking. (Perhaps more precisely, it is akin to Italy’s The Silver Spoon, which Phaidon released in English with great success in 2005.) Now 1080, too, has been revised, Rombauer-like, by Ortega and her daughter, Inés Ortega, and translated.

Into the Iberian Kitchen

I wasn’t entirely surprised by this neither rustic nor high-tech cookery—I’ve seen hints of it before, when I worked for a Spanish chef here in Seattle. Every now and then he’d want to run a dish that seemed oddly milquetoast for our standard balls-to-the-walls garlic and pimentón cookery. Take ensaladilla rusa, for example, a salad of diced potatoes, peas, and carrots bound in mayonnaise. It seemed like a step above cafeteria food to me. Don’t even get me started on the salsa rosa, a pink mayo concoction all but indistinguishable from Russian dressing, which we slathered on Dungeness crab. I loved most of the food we made at the restaurant, but these preparations seemed flabby to me. (I’m not bashing mayonnaise, by the way, just certain applications of it.)

But even though I was put off by some Spanish affinities, there is a softer side of the cuisine that I’ve grown to love. All that béchamel can be put to good use in crisp-shelled ham or shrimp croquetas (Ortega has two pages of recipes for these), and there is no doubt that Spaniards are masters of the egg dish and the potato dish—or best of all, the egg and potato dish (in 1080, see the tortilla de patatas, the soft scrambled revuelto of straw potatoes and salt cod, or the amusing little shirred eggs set in mashed potato nests).

According to the introduction, the Ortegas purposely stripped down the recipe titles—they are given “names that describe the main ingredients in the dish.” The names were modest in Spanish; they’re even drabber in translation: squab in sauce, coated green beans, navy bean garnish. You really have to read a recipe to decide if it sounds interesting.

In part because of this plainness of speech, and in part because some recipes themselves seem wan, I don’t want to make all 1,080 recipes in the book, but the ones I tried were very good—better than they sounded in print actually. Andalusian chicken, stuffed with apples and Serrano ham, was not the prettiest dish I’ve ever made, but the sherry-anisette roasting pan sauce was one of the best bread-soppers in a long while. Arroz negro, blackened with squid ink, inched me back toward the best meal I had in Barcelona. And garbanzo beans, salt cod, and spinach stew, perked up with a last-minute addition of a fried tomato sauce, was the kind of thick and bone-warming stew that tempts me into food clichés like honest and soulful.

Another pleasure of the edition is the design: Visually, it is one of my favorite cookbooks in years—clear, spacious type with great full-color pastel illustrations by designer-illustrator Javier Mariscal popping up everywhere, sometimes illustrating kitchen gestures (washing mussels, a fishmonger studiously cross-sectioning a tuna) and sometimes whimsically capturing an ingredient (a hapless-looking turbot, a cow’s tongue that resembles a Jim Dine heart). There are a few sections of photographic plates, half the size of the rest of the book, on flimsy paper. Shot from above, the pale birds and foil-wrapped mullets are not sexed up—the photos suffer next to the dynamism of the illustrations, but there is something charming in their modesty nonetheless.

The publishers of 1080 know that the American foodie audience has certain ideas about Spanish cuisine and have offered some parenthetical nods to contemporary restaurant cookery. Ferran Adrià himself provides a courtly, if measured, introduction to the book. And Spanish chefs from both sides of the Atlantic and on both sides of the rustic/high-tech divide provide some up-to-the-minute recipes as a sort of tacked-on afterword to the Ortegas’ book. The Roca brothers give us, for example, their secret to asparagus with Viognier, a gelled and frothed creation that you and I are never going to make at home. Here’s the last sentences of that recipe: “Cover each round with a glass dome, place the powdered holm oak in a specialist culinary pipe, burn it and introduce the smoke into the dome. Take the dome off the dish at the table.” But this is not the book for tricked-out Spanish haute cuisine; for that you might try to get ahold of Joan Roca’s own cookbooks, Adrià’s El Bulli notebooks, or the trippy Bestiarium Gastronomicae from Mugaritz (Spanish only).

On the other hand, if you want some approachable recipes with a different sensibility from your everyday cookbooks, you’ll like having 1080 Recipes around. And the pictures will make you happy.

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