This book, 'El Farol' by Chef James Campbell Caruso contains recipes from the menu of the Santa Fe restaurant of the same name. A few restaurant cookbooks transcend their very simple objective of publicizing the restaurant. Some of the more obvious examples are 'The French Laundry Cookbook' by Thomas Keller and the 'Zuni Café Cookbook' by Judy Rodgers. Both take the reader far beyond simple recipes and provide either very basic insights into what makes a great restaurant or truly inspired instruction on what it takes to cross the boundary between good food and great food. While both of these cookbooks offer over the top attention to details, there are some transcendent restaurant cookbooks which succeed through simplicity, at the cost of providing instruction. The premier examples of such books are the cookbooks of Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of London's River Café. If this book is to break out of it's mold as an elaborate advertisement for the El Farol restaurant, it will want to emulate these great River Café cookbooks.
I believe this book almost succeeds in matching the quality of the Gray and Rogers books. The first thing that impressed me was the modesty of the book's author and 'sponsor', the El Farol owner David Salazar. There was no posturing, preaching about using fresh ingredients, or gratuitous photographs of strolls through the hills around Santa Fe. The next pleasant surprise was that in spite of the fact that El Farol is very close to 'Tex-Mex Central', the cuisine is almost entirely Spanish, and a fairly faithful Spanish cuisine at that. As we see in the subtitle, the cuisine also specializes in tapas. In fact, fully half of the book is dedicated to hot and cold tapas, with another full quarter of the book dedicated to sauces, flavored oils, stocks, and other pantry preparations. The scant last forty pages of the book contain main dishes and desserts.
The second thing to impress me about the book was the chapter on 'El Farol Basics'. This is the kind of stuff that most authors stick at the back of the book. I am glad Caruso has gone against this trend, as this very valuable chapter may otherwise be overlooked. Among the thirty-four (34) recipes in this chapter, there is plenty of pretty familiar stuff such as aiolis, stocks, flavored oils, salsas, and vinaigrettes, but even these staples are often done with a twist. I really appreciated that the aiolis are made with mortar and pestle. Jamie Oliver may have single-handedly resurrected this simple tool, but just in case, I really like to see it used whenever possible. It is utterly simple, easy to clean, and actually produces a better result than a blender or food processor for many jobs.
I have not studied Spanish cuisine as much as French and Italian, but if this book is any evidence, it seems that butter is an important ingredient at least in some regions of Spain, the world's leader in production of olive oil. There are several recipes here for flavored butters. There are also artifacts of the great Moorish influence on Spanish cooking. The book includes a recipe for preserved lemons and a Moroccan carrot sauce and the Moroccan Harissa spiced chile sauce, a very convenient intersection of old Spanish cuisine with New Mexican produce. The variety in this chapter is truly impressive, ranging from Migas (fried bread croutons) to a Spanish version of buerre blanc incorporating preserved lemons.
The first chapter also introduces several pillars of Spanish cuisine, jamon Serrano, Cabrales and Manchego cheeses, the fortified wines, sherry and port, and sherry wine vinegar. I suspect true Serrano ham may be hard to find in these United States, but I believe a good prosciutto will make a decent, if not inexpensive substitute. In fact, a good Italian prosciutto may actually be less expensive than a good Serrano. This ham is so important to the Spanish cuisine, the book even offers a Jamon stock recipe. It's the rare Italian who would put her prosciutto in a stockpot.
The cold tapas recipes have samples of all the different classic Spanish dishes you may expect, such as ceviches, escabeches, couscous salads, queso fresco and the very misleadingly named tortilla espanola. For anyone unfamiliar with Spanish egg dishes, a 'Spanish' omelet is not Spanish, and the Tortilla Espanola, is an omelet (actually more like a frittata), and not a tortilla. But, it is very, very good. Believe me, I have made it.
The star of the hot tapas recipes is the empanadas, of which Caruso offers four different recipes. The beef and chorizo-potato fillings are expected, but the oyster and portobello fillings are something of a pleasant surprise. As I got to the end of the hot tapas, things started looking a lot like the cuisine of Spain's Italian cousins, especially in Sicily, with the grilled sardines and fried calamari.
It should be no surprise at all that the star of the 'Main Courses' is the Paella, with variations using pork and spinach; poultry and seafood; and shrimp and blood sausage. The remaining dishes offer a very nice mix of shellfish, fin fish, beef, pork, duck, lamb, and quail.
The desserts are all fairly easy, with a lot of flans and chocolate coming to the party. The chapter on drinks is no surprise, with several recipes for sangrias, brandy, and tequila. There is a useful short chapter on Spanish vintage and fortified (sherry) wines.
The most impressive and gratifying aspect of the book is in the simplicity of the recipes, especially for tapas. I recently reviewed two books on entertaining whose recipes for 'little bites' were as complicated or more complicated than many a main dish. This alone compares it favorably to Rogers and Gray of River Café.
This book will not replace a good book on Spanish cuisine, but at a list price under $30, it will not disappoint you.