|The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen : Reviews|
Paula Wolfert has always been so far ahead of what's going on in the world of food that sometimes it takes everyone else years to catch up. Her Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco came out in 1973 -- when hardly any Americans knew about the otherwise famous North African dish. Now, few cooks would attempt to make this delicate grain and its elaborate garnishes without Wolfert's book propped open on the counter.
On the phone from her house in San Francisco, the New York-born writer explains that she lived in Morocco for seven years, France for eight, and now the Bay Area -- an unlikely place, she admits, for someone with East Coast sensibilities -- for nine. Every seven or eight years, she says, she seems to dramatically change her life.
Most of her time is spent in "a fabulous kitchen" in the Sonoma country house she owns with her husband, William Bayer, a crime-fiction writer who also publishes as David Hunt. From her perch 3 miles outside of town, on the top of a mountain, Wolfert spent the last few years writing The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook, a volume of exotic tastes and flavors from Spain, the south of France, Turkey, Tunisia, Greece, and other places she knows well. Her fan base is so large that soon after the book was released this fall, it went into a third printing. In Wolfert's adopted hometown of San Francisco, restaurateurs Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe threw two separate parties to celebrate her new work.
Wolfert attributes the popularity of Slow Mediterranean, her seventh book, to the fact that her food "has a lushness, and it's real." The 65-year-old writer has made a career of searching the remote villages of a dozen countries to find home cooks stirring pots in modest surroundings.
This sort of all-day cooking, using vegetables and meats grown or raised nearby, is reflected in the "slow food" movement that has emerged in this country in the last few years. So, you might say that Wolfert came along at exactly the right time.
Except that she's always been there. She's been cooking with olive oil, Spanish sweet smoked paprika, sherry wine vinegar, saffron, the Middle Eastern spice sumac, and Aleppo red peppers for 30 years.
In all of her cooking, there is often a technique or a presentation that may be hundreds of years old but new to home cooks in this country. Finding those little nuggets wherever they are practiced has been Wolfert's signature. She might begin with something familiar enough, as in a classic recipe for French glazed carrots. In Slow Mediterranean, she lets the stubby orange roots cook with butter in an electric slow cooker for 2 to 3 hours, then tosses them with garlic and Provencal picholine olives.
Typical of Wolfert's cooking is the ordinary fare sold on streets. One is a Tunisian chickpea soup called leblebi, in which chickpeas are simmered with veal bones served with black olives, cumin, "medium-cooked" eggs, and spicy harissa sauce.
Not every recipe is slow. An appetizer of avocado and sardines on grilled country bread takes no time. The combination of rich fruit and salty fish has made it a standby in the Wolfert-Bayer household.
Wolfert's food has evolved in the most seamless way. "It's all a continuum," she says. "One book continues into another." After all, "my couscous book was slow cooking." In the intervening years, though many other writers have flocked to the Mediterranean, Wolfert says, "I go places other people don't."
When she travels, Wolfert usually has to hire a driver, because she never learned to drive. Surprisingly, it doesn't seem to restrict her life in Sonoma, where, she says, "I rely on the kindness of strangers."
She is relentless when she decides she wants to pursue something. A recipe for caneles de Bordeaux, the rich caramellike cakes made in slender, fluted molds, takes her five pages to explain. This is the triumphant version -- attained only after hundreds of poorly made confections emerged from her kitchen. Her cakes are coated with "white oil," made from beeswax and safflower oil. Before beginning, you need copper canele molds, which you must never wash or scrub but only wipe clean with paper towels. You also need 1 to 2 days in which to set the batter aside, 30 minutes to freeze the molds, and then 2 hours to bake the cakes.
Even if you never intend to make caneles, you will learn the history of this confection and hear the passion of its most enthusiastic baker. "I had to share it with the world," Wolfert says. "What do you cook for? To feed people."
The recipes here are adapted from The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook (John Wiley & Sons, 2003), by Paula Wolfert.
1 scant tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 cans (4 1/2 ounces each) Portuguese whole sardines in olive oil
1 large firm ripe Hass avocado
6 thin slices day-old country-style bread
Fresh chives (for sprinkling)
In a bowl, whisk together the vinegar, salt, and pepper. Whisk in the oil and parsley.
Drain the sardines and divide them into fillets. Add them to the vinegar mixture and let them sit for at least 1 hour.
Chill the avocado for 1 hour. Using a mandoline or another hand-held slicer, carefully slice the avocado paper-thin. Remove the skin and pit as you slice.
Turn on the broiler. Toast the bread, turning once, until it is nicely browned on both sides. Drain the sardine fillets, reserving the vinaigrette, and brush the toasts with the vinaigrette.
Top each toast with 3 slices of avocado, some sardines, and chives. Serve at once.
1 clove garlic
2 dried New Mexican chilies, stemmed, seeded, and torn into 2-inch pieces, softened in warm water and squeezed dry
1 sun-dried tomato half, softened in warm water and squeezed dry
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground caraway
Lemon juice (optional)
In a food processor, combine the garlic, chilies, tomato, salt, coriander, and caraway. Pulse the mixture until it is pasty. Add some oil by the teaspoon, pulsing the machine until the mixture is thick and spreadable.
Thin the harissa with enough warm water and olive oil to make it a saucy consistency. Add more salt, coriander, or caraway if you like and some lemon juice (if using) to round out the flavor.
MAKES ABOUT ONE-THIRD CUP
Chickpea Soup with Hot Chili Sauce
1/2 pound dried chickpeas, soaked overnight with a pinch of baking soda
2 cups rich veal or chicken stock
1 pound veal bones (optional)
4 cloves garlic, halved
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 cups cubed stale peasant-style bread
1/3 cup harissa (see recipe)
Ground cumin, to taste
24 cured black olives, pitted
1 heaping tablespoon small capers, drained
1 red bell pepper, roasted and finely chopped
Olive oil (for drizzling)
1 lemon, halved
Set the oven at 225 degrees. Drain the chickpeas and rinse them thoroughly. Place in a deep, heavy pot. Add the veal or chicken stock, veal bones (if using), garlic, oil, salt, and enough water to cover the chickpeas by 1 inch.
Bring the mixture to a boil, cover, and transfer the pot to the oven. Cook for 3 hours or until the chickpeas are tender.
Remove and discard the bones and garlic. Skim off the fat. Taste the cooking liquid and add salt and pepper if needed. Keep the chickpeas in the cooking liquid. (This may be made a day in advance. Cool, cover, and refrigerate, then reheat to simmering before continuing.)
Divide the stale bread among 8 deep soup bowls. Add a ladle of the chickpeas and some of the cooking liquid. Dribble 1 tablespoon of harissa onto each serving, dot with pinches of cumin, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add olives, capers, and red pepper to each bowl, and more cooking liquid if necessary. Drizzle each serving with olive oil and add a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve at once.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen : Recipes for the Passionate Cook
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