I have to admit my purchase of this book had less to so with the presence of Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover than the appetizing recipe for slow-roasted chicken on page 245. A quarter-pound of diced pancetta, a quarter-pound of diced pork sausage, two cups of chicken stock and one big chicken...six hours in a pot in a low-heat oven, and you have slow-roasted chicken. That's the kind of easy, rustic cooking that even I could execute. Even though Batali is known more for his Italian roots, he is quick to point out in the book's introduction that his passion lies in Spanish cuisine since he spent his formative years with his family traveling through the Iberian Peninsula. His focus with this pleasing combination travel and cookbook is on the time-honored classic dishes which rely on fresh ingredients more than fancy kitchen techniques. For an in-and-out cook like me, that is the primary draw of this book.
Beyond that, it is obviously a companion piece to PBS travelogue series, Spain... On The Road Again, currently running on PBS of which I have watched only a couple of episodes. While the program is predictably picturesque and oriented to the food they eat, it also meanders quite a bit in following an affable celebrity quartet traipsing all over the country in a semi-reality show format. Batali and Paltrow, already an odd pair, are joined by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and Catalonian actress Claudia Bassols. Their chemistry wavers depending on how they are paired and what the setting is, for example, the sequence on the Santiago de Campostela pilgrimage seemed endless. There is no question that Batali dominates the show, and his tendency toward know-it-all remarks can prove rather grating. The benefit of the book is that his attitude does not seem as pronounced in print, and what you focus on are the interesting travel and food facts all four collect about Spain, as well as a nice photo album of their trip. Granted there are silly sidebars in which each shares personal opinions in true Playboy centerfold fashion about their favorite candy bars, driving music, ice cream flavors, and even what they want to find on their hotel room pillow at night. On the upside, interesting reflections are provided on the restaurants and famous sights they visit like the Alhambra in Granada and the Guggenheim in Bilbao (including a brief interview with its architect Frank Gehry).
The sum of these features certainly makes for a nice coffee table book just in time for the holidays, but the beauty of the book really lies in the surprisingly easy-to-follow recipes for the food featured on the show, and that's what will keep it from collecting dust on the bookshelf. The Gypsy Salad from Madrid (page 326) offers a very Spanish combination of bacalao (salt cod), eggs, potatoes and oranges. The Pan Con Tomate (page 168) sounds like an Iberian-style bruschetta, while Torrijas (page 28) looks like a savory French Toast. The Rabo de Toro from Córdoba (page 195) is like an oxtail stew only with bull's tails if you can find them (though oxtails apparently work fine as a substitute). There's even a dish that Paltrow made up called Gwyneth's Clams (page 82) which consists of steaming clams, garlic, dry white whine and olive oil in a pot. That's it. Even a dish as comprehensive as Valencian Paella (page 316) does not seem so intimidating since not all the ingredients are essential to make this a hit at a dinner party. By the way, I find it intriguing that neither Bittman nor Bassols are mentioned on the cover as co-authors like Paltrow, yet both contribute as much to the running commentary as their more famous companions.