One night early in my semester in Madrid, my señora held a dinner in the formal part of her apartment, inviting over two of her friends to join my two flatmates and me. This hushed room had been off-limits, and I was struck by the heavy wooden furniture at odds with the Ikea brightness of the rest of Carmen’s apartment. I don’t remember what she served for dinner that night, but I summoned up enough Spanish to try to communicate that her food was straightforward and satisfying. In English we’d say simple, so I said the same thing in Spanish: simple. The table got a Spanish lesson in response.
“En español, decimos sencillo. Simple es como…estúpido. O para algo que no es complejo.”
Sencillo is for modest, straightforward, unadorned. The dinner ended, but I’m still thinking about sencillo. I don’t think English has the perfect equivalent, which is why I like to use it to describe Spanish cooking. But words can only go so far. At some point, you have to taste Spanish food to understand.
So, thank goodness for chef and restaurateur Katie Button.
For a full scope on Button’s background, check out this excellent interview she did with Eater in 2014 and then read The Sorcerer’s Apprentices by Lisa Abend. I’ve loved learning about Button’s life because it’s a textbook example of how sometimes you start to unquestioningly follow a path you merely think you should follow. Luckily for us, Button got cold feet about her PhD program and returned to her first loves: food and cooking.
Cúrate, Button’s first cookbook–created with Genevieve Ko–is named after her restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, and offers a survey of recipes that Button has translated from Spain to her restaurant to the home kitchen. It isn’t a super comprehensive, must-cover-everything cookbook (for that, check out The Foods & Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas). But it isn’t trying to be.
Button’s recipes detail Spanish classics like pan con tomate, tortilla, and rabo de toro, preparations that allow their components to shine in true sencillo fashion. Other recipes start with a dish or ingredient used frequently throughout Spain–migas, cod, piquillo peppers–and then add a new twist. Migas matched with Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, fried eggplant with honey instead of cane syrup, adobo sauce used on spare ribs instead of lomo. These interpretations make dishes relevant for American cooks and also point to Spain’s own culinary history, one that incorporated influences from the Moors, the Jewish population, and Spain’s colonies in the New World. The Columbian Exchange gave Spain, and consequently the rest of the Old World, potatoes for patatas bravas, tomatoes for gazpacho, and chiles for salmorejo.
Cúrate will appeal to home cooks of varying skills. The cocktail skewers and lamb chops with olive and rosemary crumble would suit those just getting comfortable in the kitchen while satisfying everyone’s palates. More ambitious projects include making sausages from scratch and breaking down a whole octopus. (The latter directions feature a two-page spread of Button in her kitchen, merrily turning an octopus inside out for butchering.) Through it all, Button offers succinct and sound advice on searching for specific ingredients, whether it’s fresh pork without additional seasonings or anchovies packed in oil (she recommends Ortiz). She recommends wine and sneaks in notes on the origins of certain dishes–such as paella and the role of white asparagus–so that readers have context for the food they’re preparing and, consequently, some fun facts to share when the food goes onto the table and the wine is poured.
As if that weren’t enough, it’s a gorgeous book. Leave it on your coffee table! Flip through it during commercial breaks! Shove it under the noses of your guests! Photos get your mouth watering (check out the luscious chocolate-brandy sabayon and the hearty fabada), while the layout of recipes is uncluttered and direct. This makes sense since so many Spanish dishes tend to rely only on quality ingredients with little more seasoning than salt, olive oil, and maybe some pimentón. That’s sencillo. With Cúrate, Button offers a tight, curated vision for Spanish cooking in the American home, and it is this vision and her voice that guides the reader and creates a cookbook that is warm, approachable, and authoritative.
In her section on paella, Button talks about meeting a cook in Costa Brava, how he went on and on about the importance of the stock in the classic rice dish. She realized, “Spaniards take pride in how long their cooking takes, both in terms of actual simmering hours, but also in terms of the years it takes to master a dish.” While the dishes in this book won’t necessarily demand years of effort before you’re satisfied with them, I like that Button views Spanish cooking as an ever-reaching cuisine, one in which recipes are passed down, shared with family and friends, refined and honed over time. In her introduction, Button describes Spanish food as “simple, comforting food that highlights the beautiful produce, seafood, and meat grown, caught, and raised all around the country.” She says simple, but I like to imagine she thought sencillo.
Cúrate is published by Flatiron Books.