The cooking of the Canary Islands is neither so distinctive nor so varied as to be worthy of the name cuisine . But the Canarian kitchen does produce a number of unusual and vividly flavorful dishes--and any culinary idiom whose signature dish is baby potatoes crusted with salt, to be eaten with sauces full of garlic and chiles, can't be all bad.
This dish is called papas arrugadas con mojo --wrinkled potatoes with mojo --the latter being a generic term for a spicy, vinegary sauce (there are many different recipes), which exists in both red and green versions.
If this is the Canaries' signature dish, though, the archipelago's emblematic foodstuff is something much simpler: gofio . Gofio was once eaten by the Guanches, a Stone Age people the Spanish found living in the islands in the 15th Century (and later all but exterminated).
Jokingly called "Canary cement," it is flour made from toasted wheat or (since Columbus) corn, and looks like a thick powder. The Canarians stir it into hot milk as a breakfast drink, bake it into a primitive kind of bread, and moisten it with fish stock, then mix it with green mojo , as an accompaniment to fish (I found it especially delicious in this guise). It's even beaten with cream and sugar and frozen as ice cream. (In reference to their predilection for this substance, Canarians are sometimes known as "Gofiones" in mainland Spain. The Canarians take it as a compliment.)
Other popular traditional Canarian dishes include caldo de pescado , which is fish and potatoes simmered in a rich fish broth (served on the side) flavored with saffron and mint--spices suggesting that it might be of Moroccan origin. There's also sancocho , which is dried cherne or wreckfish, boiled with potatoes, sweet potatoes and garlic, served with red mojo and gofio bread.
A whole series of rich, thick potajes or hearty soups are eaten, including one made with millet and another made with yellow squash and pineapple. Salmorejo de conejo is rabbit cooked in a slightly spicy vinegar sauce with garlic.
Desserts include bienmesabe ("tastes good to me"), an opulent confection of caramelized sugar, egg yolks and ground almonds, and frangollo , a cornflour cake with raisins, anise seed and cinnamon.
Bananas, which grow plentifully in the Canaries, especially on Tenerife, are used in soups and omelets as well as in desserts. The slightly grainy palm honey from La Gomera, called guarano, is memorably good.
Two surprises, finally, are the wines and cheeses of the Canaries. Although Canary wines were famous in Shakespeare's time (they were a great favorite of Falstaff's), and once constituted a major export from the islands, they are all but unknown outside the archipelago today.
I found the unpretentious and inexpensive white and red table wines, especially Grifo Seco from Lanzarote and red Vina Norte from northern Tenerife, to be extremely pleasant. Some of the sweet Malvasias and Muscats (for instance, the El Grifo Moscatel de Ana) are the kinds of wines for which the islands were once renowned and are absolutely superb.
As for the cheeses, I was astonished by their variety and quality. I counted at least 15 different kinds at the cheese counter of the local El Corte Ingles department store in Las Palmas.
I sampled several and was particularly fond of a firm, pungent goat cheese from Fuerteventura called majorero and a mild but flavorful cheese called Herreno, from El Hierro, made from a mix of goat, cow and sheep milk. There was also an unusual cheese from Gran Canaria called Flor de Guia, which is set, in the old-fashioned style, with the essence of cardoons instead of with rennet.
The following recipes, for typical Canarian dishes, are adapted from "Gastronomia: 100 Recetas de la Cocina Canaria" by Josefina Mujica:
This is the most famous dish of the Canary Islands, served both as an appetizer and as an accompaniment to meat and fish dishes.
PAPAS ARRUGADAS Y MOJOS (Wrinkled Potatoes and Mojo)
1/2 to 1 red jalapeno chile, halved, with ribs and seeds removed
1/2 to 1 mild long green chile, halved, with ribs and seeds removed
2 small heads garlic, very finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon paprika
2 cups corn, peanut or mild olive oil
1 to 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
8 sprigs parsley, finely chopped
4 pounds small new or baby red potatoes (of equal size, if possible), well-scrubbed but not peeled
Place each chile in separate small heat-proof bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to sit 1/2 hour, then drain and chop each very finely, keeping them separate.