Janet Mendel interview

What misperceptions do Americans have about Spanish cooking?

Americans are still not completely sure where Spain is. You say “Spanish” and they still think Mexican or Latin American. You have to remember that Spain is a Mediterranean country. It shares more with Italy, Greece, Morocco and Tunisia than it does with Mexico. Mexico has dishes adapted from Spain, but in Spain, we don’t have any Mexican dishes. We took their chilies and chocolate, but we don’t have hot salsa and we don’t use corn masa.

One iconic Spanish dish that isn’t widely known in the U.S. is gallina en pepitoria. Every Spaniard seems to have a soft spot for it. Tell us about it.
Janet MendelJanet Mendel
Chicken en pepitoria, in almond sauce, probably goes back to the Moors. The preparation can be used with chicken or with fish like monkfish. The sauce is similar to the Catalan picada. It includes ground almonds; a thickener like toasted bread or galletas, a type of cookie, to add a little sweetness; garlic of course; and saffron usually. That mixture from the mortar or blender is added to chicken—a stewing hen in the old days—that has been boiled first, then cut up and fried. The broth is served as first course. There’s a wedding stew mentioned in Don Quixote that is basically chicken en pepitoria.

The Spanish adobo seems like it would translate well to American kitchens. What’s the basic method?

There are two kinds of marinade used extensively in Spanish cooking: one is escabeche, the other is adobo. Both are ancient ways of keeping foods before refrigeration. The difference is that escabeche is done with cooked food. If you have a lot of partridge from a shoot, for example, you would cook it in olive oil, then put it in a vinegar marinade and pack it in sealed jars. Adobo is a way of marinating before the cooking. It’s a tapa bar favorite in Andalusia. In Sevilla you might have pescado en adobo, done with shark or monkfish cut into cubes and marinated in vinegar with oregano, pimentón and garlic. Then the fish is floured and fried in olive oil so it has a tangy background and crunchy exterior.

You wrote a whole book on the food of La Mancha. What are some of the region’s signature ingredients and dishes?

This is Don Quixote’s stomping ground. The food is pastoral, rural. It’s a land of shepherds, so we have Manchego cheese. It’s where saffron is grown, some of the best in the world, and so valued that it wasn’t widely used in local cooking except for feast dishes, like pepitoria. Mainly it was harvested, sold to middlemen and marketed outside of Spain. That’s still pretty much the case in La Mancha.

One of my favorite dishes from La Mancha is something called gazpachos, plural. It has some bread in it, but it’s an old hunter’s stew and contains things like partridge or quail or hare. The stew is served on top of this big torta, an unleavened bread like matzo, and after you finish the stew you eat the “plate.” The torta absorbs a lot of the juices, but it doesn’t disintegrate. It turns into a kind of pasta.

What Spanish ingredients do you wish Americans knew better?

An ingredient I use quite a bit and find kind of magic is membrillo, or quince paste. You can make it yourself, and it will set up firm because quince has a great deal of pectin. Or you can buy the imported membrillo from Spain and just dissolve it in a little hot water with sherry vinegar and you’ve got an instant sauce that’s really good with duck and pork. Or combine it with grated orange zest and turn it into sorbet. The pectin makes a sorbet that’s creamy and very smooth.

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