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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Idiot’s Guide to Tapas

Milwaukee author Jeanette Hurt explains eating the Spanish way

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We could learn a lot from Spain. As it is, our culture in America is sagging under the consequences of a life made easier by a diet of fast and convenient food.

This includes sending our country’s obesity rates into epidemic proportions, stamping out small businesses, undermining local food traditions and eclipsing the opportunity for quality family time around the dinner table. Written in 1989, the “Slow Food Manifesto” declares that, “We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods… A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life.”

According to Jeanette Hurt, a Milwaukeebased author who has published extensively on food, wine, cooking and travel, the Spanish take a different approach to food, and find eating well to be almost as important as breathing. In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tapas, Hurt explains how tapas, a variety of hot and cold appetizers, are integral to the Spanish style of eating. Spaniards will snack on some tapas to tide them over between meals, especially between lunch and dinner. And while it fulfills a practical need for food, the tradition of tapas is also about fulfilling our social need to connect with friends and family.

Instructional books like the Complete Idiot’s guides intend to make difficult subjects easier to understand and more interesting through simple, direct prose and bold visuals. While it doesn’t take a genius to understand tapas, you don’t have to be a complete idiot to find benefit in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tapas. Presenting the material with a personal and engaging perspective, Hurt’s cookbook is a manageable read that will prepare and guide readers through more than 100 tapas recipes.

Hurt’s first chapter begins with, well, the beginning. She explains the cultural and historical influences on Spanish cuisine. For example, she tells the story of Roman soldiers planting olive trees on their trek across the Iberian Peninsula and how the Moors are responsible for introducing Spain to spices like saffron, cumin, anise, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper. Hurt also includes the various ideas that surround the origins of tapas and the culinary specialties of seven regions of Spain. Her in-depth descriptions of key ingredients for Spanish tapas, especially her knowledge of olive oil, paprika, garlic, pork and cheese, give readers a solid foundation on which to cook them. Readers have access to valuable cooking techniques that can only come from experience; in this case, Hurt’s.

At the heart of Hurt’s book is the selection of more than 100 tapas recipes she accumulated from her travels to Spain and those given to her by preeminent tapas chefs. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tapas organizes its recipes into two categories: hot and cold tapas. Within those sections are recipes for an extensive variety of vegetarian, pork, seafood and beef dishes and step-by-step instructions for preparing them. Chef Gregg DeRosier of Anaba Tea Room contributed recipes for pancetta crostini and Asian duck with tea sauce for the book’s section on international tapas dishes.

The book’s fourth and final section is devoted to the sweeter things in life: desserts, drinks and parties. Here Hurt shares her expertise on Spanish wine, including sherry and cava, and pairing it with tapas. She even touches on sangria, Spain’s version of punch. Her suggestions for hosting a tapas gathering, including sample menus, prepping ahead of time and plating the special snacks in an appealing display, are especially helpful.

While a bag of drive-thru food is fast and convenient, it hardly stimulates conversation or unites people the way sharing small plates of interesting, carefully prepared and creatively presented food does. We could learn a lot from Spain.

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