Friday, August 14, 2009

Review: 'The Barcelona Cookbook'

The Barcelona Cookbook: A Celebration of Food, Wine and Life. Sasa Mahr-Batuz, Andy Pforzheimer. Andrews McMeel Publishing, $29.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0740773945

A cookbook about Barcelona? With recipes of all those great things I ate when I was there this spring? When I first heard about 'The Barcelona Cookbook' that's exactly what I thought. Then when I received it for review I discovered that it wasn't that at all. Instead it's a cookbook based on a Connecticut restaurant group: Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurants. The concept is tapas and wine; the restaurants have been around since 1996. The book's subtitle is: A Celebration of Food, Wine and Life. When co-owners Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer opened their first restaurant they decided to name it after the city of Barcelona because of its vibrancy, and colorful lifestyle -- its 'cosmopolitan, pan-European' feel. They wanted to evoke the feeling of eating in a restaurant along the Mediterranean coast. However, the dishes served in the restaurants, and the recipes used in the cookbook, are not solely Catalan or Mediterranean. Mahr-Batuz and Pforzheimer have traveled to Spain often so the dishes on the restaurant menus come from all over Spain, or are Spanish-influenced; Mahr-Batuz is originally from Argentina so there are Argentinian influenced dishes as well.

When I first read through the book I was surprised and pleased to see that Chef Pforzheimer gave credit to Chef Jeremiah Tower, and the Stars restaurant chefs, for teaching him hands on skills he would later use in a successful career as a chef and restaurant owner. Being that I also worked in and have an association with Chef Tower and Stars it was a comfort to see that. I knew right away he had a good cooking pedigree. I was also happy to see that Chef Pforzheimer's menu choices are influenced by what is available from local farmers and farmers markets. Another area I believe in strongly: living life locally.

I have found with other restaurant cookbooks that the recipes don't always work. It can be difficult to translate dishes made in a professional setting to the page for the home cook. Professional chefs cook differently than the home cook; they also have different equipment at their disposal. I didn't find that to be the case in the recipes I tried from 'The Barcelona Cookbook.' The recipes worked just fine. I chose to try recipes that I had recently eaten in Barcelona -- to see how they measured up. One of my favorite dishes on that trip was patatas bravas -- olive oil fried potatoes served with a spicy mayonnaise. It's a very simple dish and the cookbook's recipe for 'Catalan Potatoes Bravas' measured up perfectly. I was momentarily transported back to my favorite tapas bar in Barcelona. Being that it is currently summer I have been overwhelmed with farmer's market produce; needing to use up all those pesky organic tomatoes I made the 'Barcelona Gazpacho.' An easy recipe to follow and execute, and the added touch of a garnish of day old bread, scallions, cucumbers and green peppers made this cold soup exceptional. Since meat is almost a national pastime in Spain I decided to try a recipe for grilled steak: 'Steak Paillard.' The recipe includes a delicious bell pepper and tomato vinaigrette that is spooned over the grilled meat, as well as fried potatoes. Simple, basic and a perfect summer evening meal.

To me the book echoes what Andy and Sasa seemed to have set out to do in their restaurants: offer a fun, festive, colorful place to eat well-prepared food, drink great cocktails, and taste good wine. The book has a similar feel. The color photos are plentiful and well shot; a mixture of ingredients, dishes, kitchen and dining scenes from the restaurants, and photos of Spain. The two men state that the restaurants are foremost about entertaining people; sections of the book are devoted to throwing parties. There's a whole chapter on cocktails and wine. Interspersed throughout are little histories and commentaries on Spanish food, wine, cheese, cured meats, trips to Spain, and the city of Barcelona, among others. They also include recipes for a number of stock Spanish dishes: sangria, cazuela, albondigas, zarzuela, romesco sauce, paella, gazpacho, arroz con leche and others. Well explained cooking techniques for many of the dishes are added value. Looking at the dishes, the recipes, and the ingredient lists that include such things as olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, paprika, cured meats, seafood, and saffron rice I could easily smell and taste the food, and was almost transported back to Spain.

The book covers a lot of ground, and if I was going to offer any criticism that might be it; there's a lot contained in its 202 pages. It might also suffer from a bit of an identity crisis in that I did think it was a cookbook about food from Barcelona; and it does veer away from strictly Spanish food to include dishes from South America. Once the reader understands what the restaurants are about that is easily overlooked. And if one is looking for a serious Spanish food cookbook, this is it. It has most of what you would want and need plus more. I do wish there was a recipe for one of my favorite Spanish tapas dishes: Padrón peppers. But there is enough else to make this a worthy addition to any cook's bookshelf.

My Status: going on vacation for a week to Guerneville-Russian River-Sonoma County. Lunch at pork store Black Pig Meat Co. and restaurant Bovolo in Healdsburg; dinner at Zazu Restaurant & Farm in Santa Rosa; wine tasting at Chalk Hill, Hop Kiln, others in the Alexander Valley, Healdsburg and Sonoma County; canoeing on the Russian River, and more...

Upcoming Posts: 'gleaning,' or the act of gathering public produce, or leftover farmer's market produce, and giving it to the poor, needy and hungry. A history of the movement
, and the groups that are actively involved in it.
Bookmark and Share


  1. Thanks for your review, Charles. Any cookbook on tapas always gets my attention. There have been a number of mediocre releases over the years, so my cookbook shelf suffers a great deal in regards to Spanish cuisine.

    This definitely sounds like it's worth a look. What, may I ask, is that tapa on the cover? Do they say? I see a green olive, an anchovy, and a pepper. If that's not a Padron, what is it?

    Whatever it is, sign me up!

  2. You're very welcome Phil. Thanks for the comment. I do think this one is worth adding to your library. These guys know what they're doing. And in answer to your question that, my friend, is a Pickled Green Pepper, Anchovy, and Olive Spears "Gilda," page 63. Apparently it is served in every bar and tavern in San Sebastian and Bilbao according to the book.

  3. I need this... because I'm thinking El Bulli may happen in 2010 and I'll be spending a lot of time in Barcelona. : )

  4. It could be a great Barcelona and Spain trip primer, Jo. I do recommend it. Perfect to get more acquainted with the food.

  5. Guess I'll be buying another cookbook -- this sounds too good to skip! I don't know about Phil, but I've been happy with what I've tried in José Andrés' TAPAS: A TASTE OF SPAIN IN AMERICA

  6. Well, bummer it wasn't exactly what you were looking for, but it looks like it's good all the same. I know what you mean about restaurant cookbooks- sometimes they don't work out so well at home!

    Looks like you have some terrific, fun things planned this summer. Have fun!

  7. This sounds like an interesting book. Have a wonderful vacation! We loved visiting that area this spring. You might check out Taverna Santi in Geyserville for a delicious Italian meal.

  8. Charles -

    Thanks for the nice review! We worked pretty hard on this to make sure thatthe recipes worked at home -- it's one of my pet peeves about cookbooks as well. I actually got a nice note from Jeremiah about the book, as well, which was a huge boost -- I know you understand!