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Kitchen Table | PARTY PLANS

When Spain Comes to Call


Most of us stash groceries in our cars for a short ride home. Joan Sauvion recently toted the makings of a single meal more than 5,000 miles, from her home in northern Spain to West Hollywood.

It was worth it. She staged a Spanish dinner as extensive and authentic as if she were serving it at home in the Basque country.

The scene was the house of her sister, Carol Sauvion, owner of the Freehand ceramic and gift shop on 3rd Street in Los Angeles. The guests were mostly family, including Joan Sauvion's daughters, Nicole and Sara.

Nicole, a student at UC Santa Cruz, brought her blue enameled paella pan, so her mother didn't have to carry that bulky object all the way from Spain. Her luggage was already heavy enough with Rioja wines, serrano and Iberico hams, Spanish chorizo, red peppers that had been roasted over an open fire, anchovy-stuffed green olives and even squid ink.

All Sauvion had to buy here were perishables like chicken, seafood and vegetables for her paella Valenciana--and American rice.

"In Valencia," she says, "there are real purists who will only use the rice from Valencia. This can be very expensive, up to $40 a pound."

Sauvion chose farmer cheese as a substitute for queso de Burgos in an appetizer. And in Santa Cruz, while visiting Nicole, she picked up some American hard cider for poaching sliced chorizo, part of another appetizer.

The morning of the party, Sauvion awakened at 2, realizing that she had forgotten to soak the beans. That omission rectified, she started the serious cooking at 8. By late afternoon, she had assembled a table full of dishes that looked like a glorious painting by a Spanish artist enamored of food.

It also satisfied the requirements of a typical Spanish dinner party. "Usually, when you go out to dinner, there may be five or six appetizers put on a common plate," she says. After appetizers comes a main dish that could be squid, fish or steak. Green salad follows, then the host brings out cheeses and fruit.

"Spanish cooking does not involve elaborate desserts," says Sauvion, who originally went to Europe as an American college student, fell in love with Spain and settled there. She dredged up one from her repertoire, however: almond soup spooned cold over cubes of white bread, a Christmas specialty from Toledo.

If anything, Sauvion outdid the average Spanish host by offering three main dishes: paella, chipirones en su tinta (squid in their own ink) and a big pot of beans cooked with sausages, leeks and carrots. The dried beans were packed in a cloth sack labeled alubia pinta Alavesa, red beans from the province of Alava.

Vitoria, where Sauvion lives and co-owns a language school, is the capital city of Alava, and the wines she selected were two boutique reds from the Rioja Alavesa district: a 1990 Valserrano and 1992 Campillo.

For appetizers, she set out the stuffed olives; the roasted peppers, which she sauteed in olive oil with garlic; tomato slices topped with farmer cheese, anchovies and marjoram; the cider-infused chorizo; a big potato-onion omelet; and the sliced hams.

Serrano resembles prosciutto. Iberico ham, from Extremadura, comes from pigs allowed to run free and feed on acorns, which gives the meat a distinctive flavor. "It is the most expensive and appreciated ham in Spain," she says.

Another plate held the "omelet" (more like a frittata) known as tortilla espan~ola, as typical a Spanish dish as you can get. "The average Spanish family has tortilla at least once a week," Sauvion says. "It's a popular dish to take out on a picnic." And Vitoria is in prime picnic country. "It's surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape you'd ever want to see."

For the paella, Sauvion used chicken, prawns, clams and whole green beans, along with red bell peppers and tomatoes for color.

In Spain, paella pans come in all sizes. "A lot of people have a special gas ring to fit large paella pans feeding up to 16," she says. Although Nicole's pan looked capacious, it was large enough for only four servings.

No matter. The menu was generously filled out with beans and squid cooked in squid ink, both typical dishes of the Basque country. Sauvion mixed the ink with tomato sauce, garlic and onion to create a midnight-hued coating for the squid. "I love when tourists order this," she says. "They never really expect it to be black."

In Spain, says Sauvion, ink extracted from squid is sold in little plastic packets. That made it easy for her to carry this essential component of her dish.

At home, Sauvion cooks daily, not at night but for lunch, which is the main meal of the day. The Spanish lunch break lasts as long as 3 1/2 hours. Dinner, taken around 9 or 10 p.m., is a very light meal, she says: soup or an omelet, cheese and bread.

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