Spain: A Culinary Road Trip
By Mario Batali with Gwyneth Paltrow
Published by HarperCollins 2008, hardcover; $37.95; 384 pages

I took a road trip through Spain last fall with my husband and two close friends so I was thrilled when this book arrived on my desk. I thought it might recapture some of what we experienced. I could see from the map provided at the beginning of the book that Batali’s trip took in many of the towns and cities we visited.

But, alas, I quickly learned that this is not really a book as much as it is a series of little notes, pasted together with a jumble of photos. And the sauce that flavours this book is not so much Spain as it is celebrity.

It’s clear celebrities travel in a different universe than you and I do. Every word they utter, every thought that bubbles from their brains, every nibble that passes their lips is fair game for preservation. It is the “I” of travel, rather than the eye, that gets a workout here. Favourite breakfast foods, favourite things to find on their hotel room pillows at night, what they like in their coffee, favourite candy bars, favourite travel music – these tidbits are folded into the pages like whipped air, as are snatches of conversation that from anyone else would be mercifully forgotten as soon as the words are spoken. Here they are enshrined in big, bold type: “I love it out here, it’s such fresh, crisp air, and the oxygen helps your body relax,” says Paltrow on arriving at Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route dating back to the 9th century that even today changes people’s lives — never mind their relaxation response — after they spend many weeks trekking its entire length.

Bad food? Unfriendly people? Insane city driving? These were all part of our experience, but you won’t find any of that as Batali, Paltrow and their travel companions, New York Times food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols, race (literally! Batali admits the fastest he drove on the trip was 245 kmh, “but I’m not as fast as Gwyneth”) from one destination to another.

As for the recipes, most are simple to execute – stews, grilled seafood, hearty soups. But some may be difficult to duplicate because they’re based on specialty local ingredients, such as “unto”, a distinctive cured pork belly that makes Caldo Gallego, a traditional soup from Galicia, what it is, or “lechazo” (“one of the best things we ate on our trip,” says Batali), grilled baby lamb under 25 days old and fed only mother’s milk. Then there are 10-pound capons and hake cheeks that are not really widely available here either.

I can’t be too churlish, however. As I roamed through the book, I found myself beginning to relax into its rhythm. A bit of history here, an interesting person there, a recipe or two, a list of things eaten that day. It all began to jell into a comfortable little ride. By the time I finished reading the book, I really didn’t know much more  about the people who actually took the trip or about the country they had travelled through, but I still had a very pleasant time. It’s sort of like reading about people in People magazine who find all the best restaurants, drink wines that are 50 years old and effortlessly meet high-profile people such as architect Frank Gehry, who designed the spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. They run into rock star Michael Stipe along a country road near Barcelona (it was a setup to surprise Paltrow, says Batali), and have lunch with the world-famous chef Ferran Adria, who joins them afterwards at the Prado Museum where he spends the entire time explaining how the food he produces at his restaurant, El Bulli, is actually as serious as the art on the walls there.

Okay, then. . . Here’s a recipe that doesn’t require a science degree, or liquid nitrogen, or deep artistic contemplation. It is the national dish of Spain, a toothsomely simple mixture of onions, potatoes and eggs. It is found everywhere – in tapas bars, on breakfast menus, in sandwiches, at dinner alongside salad and velvety slices of the ubiquitous jamon (Spain’s answer to prosciutto). It’s good either warm or cold. Every grocery store in Spain carries a heat-and-serve version in the refrigerated section. But fresh is best.

The most complicated thing here is turning the tortilla to finish the cooking. If you’re leery of turning the tortilla as directed (I did and it was a bit of a messy business), you might try running this under a hot broiler for a minute or two to finish cooking the top, but if you do that, make sure the pan you’re using is completely ovenproof. Use a largish pan for best results. This makes enough for 8 to 10 servings as part of a selection of tapas. We had it the other day with shredded duck confit and garden ratatouille. Delicioso!

Tortilla Espanola

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ¼ lb. waxy potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
8 extra-large eggs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high until very hot but not smoking. Add the potatoes and onion, season with salt and pepper, reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally and adjusting heat if necessary so that the vegetables do not brown, until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife, 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile beat the eggs with salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl. Add potatoes to the eggs, then pour into the skillet, spreading the potatoes evenly in the pan. Cook for about 1 minute, just to set the bottom of the egg mixture. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 20 minutes or until almost set throughout. Carefully flip the tortilla over (invert it onto a plate) and cook for 5 minutes longer, until set. Flip out onto a clean plate and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 4 to 6 as a tapa or appetizer.

– From Spain: A Culinary Road Trip