For people who love to cook there is no greater pleasure than following
a recipe for an unfamiliar dish and ending up with something wonderful.
It's as if a door has opened and the cook, having walked through, now
understands what a whole class of dishes means.
Despite thousands of cookbooks currently in publication,
very few of their writers can deliver this experience. I can think of
two: Julia Child, who so clearly and meticulously translated French technique
for the American kitchen, and Paula Wolfert, who has done something as
authentic with the food of the Mediterranean.
In her five ground-breaking volumes, each the
fruit of an obsessive amount of travel, note-taking, hands-on cooking
in home kitchens, endless testing, writing and rewriting, we lucky readers
obtain access to food that most of us otherwise would never be able to
taste: dishes that are disappearing, along with the traditional societies
that cook them; dishes, handed down from one generation to the next, that
have never been written down; dishes imbued with soul, sense of place
and complex cultural history.
What separates Wolfert from, say, a cultural
anthropologist, is motive. She is an eater (and I say that as a proud
member of the same clan), a lover of food, a sensualist, an ardent cook
who was drawn to the Mediterranean - Tangier, Morocco - as a young woman.
In a sense, she never left its shores, circling the rim many times in
her travels and writings. But most important to us, she singles out dishes
to translate that she likes to eat. Having chosen for pleasure, she brings
her formal culinary training to the task. Any dish that appears in a Paula
Wolfert volume will be doable if you follow her instructions, and will
taste astoundingly luscious. Above all, Wolfert understands the importance
of flavor - deep, rich, layered flavor - and she doesn't stop working
on a recipe until it delivers that in full.
I read her just-published volume, Mediterranean
Grains and Greens (HarperCollins, 1998), cover to cover, and as usual
I learned, in-depth, about regional, exotic, ingredients. This book is
inspired by ingredients both timely and timeless - timely in the sense
that grains and greens are recommended by nutritionists as the key to
a healthy diet; timeless because the grains and greens written about here
are foods that traditional societies around the Mediterranean have been
eating for centuries. This crosscurrent makes this Wolfert volume particularly
She talks about unusual Mediterranean grains,
like bulgar, through illuminating short essays that explain everything
you need to know about them as an American cook. Then she delivers a series
of recipes for them scattered throughout the book. In the case of bulgar,
she works it into meatballs, salads, pilafs, soups, stuffings and desserts.
Rice, couscous, barley, spelt (in Italian, farro) and cornmeal, among
others, get similar treatment. When grains are at the center of a cuisine
- as they are throughout the Mediterranean - their preparations are multi-faceted,
drawing on a wide spectrum of other foods - meats, nuts, legumes, fruits,
cheeses, spices and pastes - all of which she makes sure you can find
locally or through mail order.
The population in all of the countries in this
region - southern Spain, Provence, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Tunisia, Morocco,
Greece and others - eat greens, wild and domesticated, sweet and bitter,
cooked and raw. People grow up foraging for them, mixing them in certain
ways with each season for beloved traditional preparations. Greens in
America seem to be a new discovery, though Southerners have been eating
them for generations, especially when the larder was empty and they could
be harvested from the backyard. They have become almost an addiction for
some of us in other regions. I can't get enough of them, especially those
with a bitter edge. While the rest of my family watches, I consume huge
mounds of braised kale, chard and broccoli rabe. Grains
and Greens expands the possibilities with a treasure trove of dishes
that use them. A revelation!
When you first read a Wolfert recipe you think
you'll never be able to make it. First you have to collect the ingredients,
which often involves a seriousshopping foray. It may include the farmers'
market, an ethnic market, mail order and making spice blends or pastes
yourself. Getting your hands on the right ingredients is essential to
the outcome of these recipes, though Wolfert makes sure you can or offers
substitutions. In the process you discover fantastic new foods - like
the Turkish red pepper paste called Selim, which I purchased at Haig's
on Clement (where I found the fine bulgar) for the Harpout Köfte;
or frozen fish fumet I bought at Whole Foods on California Street, which
greatly simplified the preparation of the scrumptious Caldero Murciano.
Having cooked with these new ingredients once, you see a world of possibilities.
The lively personal introductory notes put the
recipes in context, pointing out the absolute, non-negotiable essentials,
whether they be an ingredient or a cooking pot. Most important, the introductions
tell you where you're going, and what the finished product should taste
like. Now you're ready to follow instructions, step by step. They are
understandable, exact, infallible. Every question has been anticipated
and answered, either in the recipe itself, the notes, or an essay somewhere
else in the book. At the end you have the pleasure of putting a dish on
the table that transports people in many different ways.
Grains and Greens,
like all of Wolfert's volumes, is a complete and mature work; the voluptuous
food you get a reflection of her thoroughness, her integrity and her continuing