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SPAIN REIGNS AS CULINARY MECCA

There's not a trend-dazzled chef or foodie in the world these days who's not looking toward Spain.

Led by Pied Piper Ferran Adria, today's mad-scientist Spanish chefs are playing with liquid nitrogen and dry ice, agar-agar and nitrous oxide, working a kind of culinary alchemy to conjure conceits such as vegetable foams, caramel-sheathed caviar, sheets of frozen olive oil, powdered foie gras, and noodles cut from gelled consomme.

There's no question that Spain is the contemporary mecca for restaurant trends, but not many home cooks are eager to turn their kitchens into laboratories or to serve their guests tapas of frozen Parmesan-flavored "air."

Luckily, there are cookbook authors like Penelope Casas to remind us that the down-to-earth regional cooking of Spain still exists, and it's easily translatable to American tables.

Her heart is with "La Cocina de Mama," the title of her new Spanish cookbook (Broadway Books, $29.95).

In a country about the size of Texas, she notes, Spain offers an astonishing variety of terrain and climate -- "deserts, forests, swampland."

But throughout Spain, she says, cooks "have the genius of taking the simplest ingredients and making them into incredibly good dishes."

Asked to pick the top five ingredients that define Spanish cooking, Casas names olive oil, garlic, peppers (sweet, not hot), saffron and cured ham. All except certain characteristic peppers have become easily obtainable here from larger supermarkets and specialty grocers, and "it's so easy these days with mail-order to get the real thing."

This tapas-bar staple is given a haunting flavor with sherry; offer plenty of bread to sop up the sauce.

Mother Pepa's Garlic Shrimp

3/4 pound small shrimp, shelled

Kosher or sea salt to taste

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

2 tablespoons amontillado (medium-dry) sherry
Sprinkle the shrimp with salt and let sit for 10 minutes. In a shallow casserole, preferably earthenware, heat the oil with the garlic and parsley until the garlic begins to sizzle. Add the shrimp and stir until they are opaque. Add the sherry, salt to taste and cook over medium heat for a minute or two, until the sherry evaporates and the sauce thickens slightly. Serve immediately in the casserole. Serves 5 to 6.