A conversation with Spanish cookbook author Janet Mendel

Journalist and Cookbook Author Janet Mendel

Photo courtesy of Janet Mendel, http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/

Introduction: When I first moved to Spain nearly three years ago, I had done very little Spanish cooking. Yet, as is the case with many foreigners who land here, it didn’t take long before I was enamored with the food. I soon found myself wanting to learn as much as I could about Spanish cuisine from a range of perspectives, which led me to American journalist and cookbook author Janet Mendel.

Mendel’s Traditional Spanish Cooking was the first Spanish cookbook written in English I bought. I loved how she captured the essence of simple, flavorful and seasonal village cooking from across Spain. The delicious simplicity of the dishes Mendel includes – from satisfying stews like the Asturian bean fabada to classic tapas like clams simmered in garlic-infused sherry – helped me understand why tradition remains so strong in Spanish kitchens today. I was far from the only one to be impressed. In 2010, the UK daily The Guardian selected Traditional Spanish Cooking, published in 1996, as one of the “50 Best Cookbooks of All Time.”

Mendel has lived in a village on the Costa del Sol in Andalucía since 1966, which gives her a true insider perspective. From the beginning, the food – its flavors and stories – caught her attention. On the Profile Page of her recipe-packed blog, My Kitchen in Spain,  she writes,

“During my first year living in a Spanish village, shopping and cooking were a daily adventure. I learned Spanish cooking in  village tapa bars, where I migrated to the kitchen. Intrigued by all kinds of wigglies, squigglies, uglies and unmentionables (squid, octopus, snails, baby goat, bulls’ testicles and more), I tackled the kitchen with the zeal of the investigative reporter.”

In Mendel’s many books, and now on her blog, she takes us along on this journey into Spanish culture and cuisine, giving us a glimpse into the kitchens she visits as well as her own accomplished kitchen.

As you can tell, I have been inspired by Mendel’s work, and was thrilled when she agreed to answer my questions. The interview was done via e-mail, with a follow-up phone conversation. My questions are in bold. Where Spanish words appear in italics, I have provided a translation in parentheses.

AE: One thing I appreciate about your books and blog is your voice. The stories you tell are just as welcoming and giving as all those cooks who have invited you into their kitchens. I particularly feel this in your cookbook My Kitchen in Spain (which is really part memoir, as well). While reading the stories and recipes within, it is as if I have been invited into a Spanish home. I get the sense it hasn’t just been the recipes and flavors that have inspired your writing, but also the generous spirit of all the people you’ve broken bread with in Spain.

You’re absolutely right. In the first place, seeking out recipes was a way to get to know people—village housewives, the guys in the market, the butcher, the baker, the basket weaver. Talking about food gained me entry into homes—and hearts—of the people I was living amongst. Maybe it’s because I am, not a culinary professional, but a reporter. I like telling people’s stories, and those stories often revolve around food. Isn’t that wonderful?

AE: I read that you moved to Spain in 1966, and have lived in a village on the Costa del Sol in Andalucía ever since. This means you have witnessed and experienced breathtaking changes in the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, from a largely poor and rural nation to a first world economy. Yet, in My Kitchen in Spain, in 2002, you wrote that, minus a few new time-saving methods and innovative flourishes, cooking in village homes had changed surprisingly little. What is your outlook on the future of local food traditions in Spain?

Your question inspires me to talk to some of the young mothers in the village. I’ll ask them what they serve their families for dinner, Monday through Friday. My guess is that, although they definitely throw in some of those frozen lasagna or pizza meals, the usual fare is what their mothers served—potaje con garbanzos, lentejas, puchero, pescado frito, sopa de pescado (various soups and stews with legumes like garbanzos and lentils, or fish dishes, like fried fish or fish soup).

There is enormous pride in the local culinary traditions. Excellent bread. Good olive oil. Wonderful fruit. Ham, sausage, cheese. Fresh fish. A wider market for Spanish food means that these products will endure beyond local consumption.

Nevertheless, as people have more spending power, I see that they consume more calories, more sugar-laden foods. Kids used to go off to school with a desayuno (breakfast) of a sandwich with sliced chorizo or potato tortilla. Now the snack might be packaged (sweet pastries or fatty chips). At the same time, there is a lot of current info on TV about good nutrition, so maybe, gradually, bad habits will change.

AE: You have also traveled extensively in Spain, collecting recipes in kitchens throughout the country. I imagine you have spent a fair amount of time visiting the big cities like Madrid and Barcelona, as well. Yet how has living in an Andalusian village in particular shaped your perspective on food and cooking in Spain? 

The Andalusian village kitchen—which I got to know quite intimately—has definitely shaped my perspective on food and cooking. The culinary traditions of other regions I have had to learn on visits. I learn by tasting, first, talking to people, visiting markets.

I am an avid collector of cookbooks in Spanish. They sometimes help to fill in the blanks when I am researching the culinary traditions of regions that I’m less familiar with. I test all recipes in my kitchen and I acknowledge any help I’ve gotten from other cookbooks.

AE: I find that Spain sparks the imagination of foreigners (such as myself) more than many other countries, with its fiestas, boisterous bars, flamenco and siestas. While you have lived here for many years and are a true local, your voice remains one of enchantment with the country and its cooking. I really appreciate that. How do you keep the spark alive?

Perhaps it’s because there are always new “sparks”—a new region to visit (I first visited the Sierra de Aracena, where Jabugo ham comes from, last year and was enchanted by the region); a new food; a new perspective (I enjoy watching Un Pais para Comerselo or José Andres Made in Spain because they give different perspectives); etc. Although the coastal areas (where I live) are overbuilt and congested, Spain continues to amaze and enchant with the diversity of landscapes, monuments, cuisines.

AE: What inspired you to start your blog?

The blog was a way to keep me involved in tasting, traveling, talking to people, trying recipes, exploring food traditions while I was between writing assignments. I was reading other food blogs and realized that there were virtually no blogs (in English) about Spanish food. I’ve got a wide knowledge of Spanish cooking, a huge recipe file and a voice. I hope that the blog generates interest in my cookbooks.

AE: In My Kitchen in Spain, you wrote that patterns of immigration helped to explain why Spanish food was so little known in the United States compared to other foods, such as Italian, French and Chinese. Since then, Spanish food has been steadily growing in popularity in the U.S. On the one hand, there has been all the buzz about Ferran Adrià and Spanish haute cuisine. Yet traditional foods, particularly tapas, have also grown in allure, with advocates such as José Andrés, who has championed Spanish traditions alongside his more avant-garde creations. And then there is Claudia Roden’s new tome, The Food of Spain, an homage to traditional cooking, which has been greeted with critical acclaim in publications like the New York Times. What is your take on this rising popularity of Spanish cooking in the U.S.?

I can only say, it’s high time! Because there was not an immigrant population that opened restaurants, bringing familiarization, Spanish cooking was way behind Italian or Chinese or Mexican. Even now, though Spanish food is growing in popularity, it’s still not widely known. And, even people who buy Manchego cheese at their local deli (I say Manchego is the new Gruyere—the go-to cheese for everything), they may not have the slightest idea that it comes from Spain, from La Mancha.

AE: To wind down, what are some of your favorite kitchen tools? Out of curiosity, do you have a Thermomix?

I don’t actually. Do you? My favorite tool may be a Braun immersion blender. I used it for baby food (38 years ago!) and mayonnaise and gazpacho. I use it almost daily for one thing or another. (Just blended some mangos with non-fat yogurt to make “ice cream.”)

AE: I read in your interview with andalucia.com that you were particularly proud of mastering the bacalao al pil-pil in the process of writing Tapas – A Bite of Spain. That is impressive (the emulsified sauce is notoriously difficult to make)! I’m still taking baby steps with paella. What recipes you are working on now?

Meatballs. Albóndigas en salsa de almendras. I was working on an assignment about Spanish food for a British magazine, with three tapa recipes. One was meatballs. The editor asked if I had any photos, and I realized that I hadn’t made meatballs in years, had no photos in my files. They were delicious, too. Reminds me of what I love about Spanish food—the subtle spicing, use of ground almonds, wine in a sauce. Meatballs will be the next blog.

Don’t be intimidated by paella making! Once you’ve assembled the right ingredients and done the prepping, the cooking is really easy. Remember, the chicken and shrimp are to make flavorful rice. Add boiling stock or water to the rice in the pan and cook on a medium-high heat for the first 8 minutes or so. Don’t stir the rice! Lower heat and cook till rice is tender. Allow to set at least 10 minutes before serving.

AE: What else are you working on at the moment? Do you have any new cookbooks planned?

I’m working on a couple of cookbook proposals, but don’t know if they will come to fruition. Fewer cookbooks are being published. Readership has declined. We shall see. I still love reading cookbooks (yes, Claudia Roden’s is marvellous), but many people look up recipes on the internet rather than in a book.

Thank you so much, Janet!


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