Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

February 20, 2012 at 6:44 pm


If you could invite any living cookbook author to dinner who would it be? I don’t need to think twice about my answer: Paula Wolfert. Possessed with many of the qualities I most admire—curiosity, an adventurous spirit, a deeply compassionate intelligence and the ability to forge instant bonds across languages and cultures—how I’d love to spend a few hours with her at my table!

Wolfert’s first book, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, (1973, revised edition 2010) introduced Americans to the exotic ingredients and flavors of this ancient North African cuisine. Her meticulous research, conducted over several years while living in Morocco, yielded exciting authentic recipes accessible even to newly adventurous home cooks in the early 1970s. Wolfert’s stories animate its pages with the aroma of charcoal smoke and spice, the crush of vendors in the medina, and daily calls to prayer echoing through narrow, winding streets. Through these stories she sketches the contours of Marrakesh, Fez, and Tangiers with bold, romantic strokes. Even 39 years later, the recipes have a remarkable allure. Couscous was the inspiration for our 2011 New Year’s Eve dinner party and again for a wine-tasting dinner we hosted in February.

Couscous was followed by seven more cookbooks about the local food and regional traditions of the Mediterranean basin. With the warmth, humor, and passion of a true amateur (in the best sense of that word) Wolfert has spent four decades in home kitchens carefully documenting dishes passed by memory through generations from mother to daughter. In a 2010 article in Food and Wine magazine, she says the secret to coaxing recipes from locals is “hugging, kissing, and measuring spoons.” Her near-forensic investigation of ingredients, flavors, and techniques and tenacious pursuit of authentic cooking has left a profound mark on the current generation of chefs. In the same article, Mario Batali says “Paula is perhaps the single most influential cook and author among the professional chefs of my generation. . . . Her relentless search for authenticity has led the chefs I love to accept no compromises, and to create real food for an American market that, up until 25 years ago, wanted none of that. She’s a lot of fun to have a drink with, too.”

Each of the six Wolfert cookbooks in my library (she has written eight, in all) has taught me something important. Her second cookbook, Mediterranean Cooking, (1977, revised edition 1999) is, I think, where she defined her vision and laid out the roadmap for all of the cookbooks that followed. It offers a splendid array of dishes from the countries lining the Mediterranean, from the Iberian Peninsula to southern France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East and Northern Africa. I bought my copy while a college student studying Spanish literature. At the time, I’d made one trip to Spain and was fascinated by southern Spain’s blend of Arab and European cultures. Wolfert’s book gave me some context, quite literally, to sink my teeth into and taught me to recognize how threads of influence from each culture are woven into that region’s cooking. The book’s recipes are arranged by primary ingredient instead of by course, a key concept at the heart of the Mediterranean culinary culture of fresh, local ingredients. It’s a common organizing principle in cookbooks today but an innovation well ahead of its time in the late 1970s.

From The Cooking of Southwest France (1983, revised edition 2005) I learned ingenious techniques that enhanced my confidence and kitchen skills. Delicate shellfish like scallops demand last-minute cooking, an anxiety-inducing exercise especially when entertaining guests. Wolfert offers a flawless method for cooking and holding scallops (for as long as 20 minutes!) while keeping them hot and retaining a tender interior texture and crusty exterior. The combination of tangerine juice and celery leaves in a sauce for the aforementioned scallops, while not a flavor pairing I would ever have conceived on my own, is brilliant. She also taught me to render and cook with duck fat, Southwest France’s versatile, flavorful alternative to olive oil or butter, a tasty lesson that may not carry my doctor’s seal of approval.

Mediterranean Grains and Greens (1998) was published just as my obsession with greens blossomed and over the 14 years I’ve meandered through its recipes, I always see something with new eyes. That, to me, is the mark of a genuinely creative author, one with depth and true culinary vision. The recipe for no-stir polenta is another one of her lifesaving dinner party tricks that’s now a standard in my repertoire. Simply butter a heavy oven-proof pan, stir together polenta, water, and salt and bake it for 1 hour and 20 minutes, remove from oven, stir once, correct the seasoning, and return to the oven for a final 10 minutes. Pure, simple genius. Wolfert steams common cultivated greens like spinach and chard with leafy herbs like cilantro, parsley, and even celery leaves to deepen their earthy savor, then sears the chopped, wilted greens in olive oil to remove excess moisture. She lightens the texture of this thick green “marmalade” with more oil, preserved lemon, and chopped black olives to produce an intense, meltingly tender and creamy condiment that tastes of wild greens and makes an addictive, gutsy spread for toasted flatbread. It keeps in the refrigerator for days and is fantastic with a glass of rustic red wine or good beer.

I expected The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen (2003) to be a perfect cold-weather cookbook, full of slow-cooked, soulful soups and succulent stews and braises distinguished by Wolfert’s big flavors, and it is. “Moroccan Lamb, Quince, and Baby Okra Tagine” was a perfect way to use the last batch of Red Velvet okra that ripened in our garden in a late October warm spell. Along with a couple of Orianna Kruszewski’s quinces and a Pinn-Oak Ridge lamb shoulder, the beautiful thumb-sized burgundy pods made my okra-loving husband very happy. What I didn’t expect were the slow-cooked vegetable dishes. Wolfert rightly points out in the introduction to the vegetable chapter, “ . . . very few vegetables in the Mediterranean repertoire are prepared al dente, slow-cooking is pretty much the norm.” I admit I had doubts last May when I first tried “Asparagus Baked in Parchment with Caper Mayonnaise.” While I agree with her that fat asparagus spears trump skinny ones, I was skeptical about the 175° oven temperature and the 1½ to 2 hour cooking time. I should not have doubted her—the recipe produces deep flavor and silken texture, nothing stringy or mushy about those spears. “Glazed Carrots with Green Olives” and “Oven-Baked Cauliflower with Yogurt-Garlic Sauce” are equally satisfying winter vegetable dishes I make often. A few weeks ago, Paul Kahan was featured in the Wall Street Journal’s “Slow Food Fast” column. His recipe for a salad of bitter greens, apples, blue cheese and pecans got my attention, not because I’m a sucker for bitter greens (although I am), but because he softens the bite of a classic vinaigrette by stirring in a spoonful of melted membrillo, its subtle fruity perfume marrying the bitter greens with the apples. “Genius idea!” I thought. “What a creative mind! What an inventive palate!” I’d made a batch of homemade membrillo from the precious few quinces I could get from Orianna last Fall and was looking for new ways to use it. Fast-forward a few weeks later, as I’m flipping through The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen I spy this recipe: “Brine-Cured Green Olives with Quince Dressing.” Wolfert’s recipe directs us to “. . . melt quince paste over low heat with a little water, stir to dissolve, cool, add lemon, thyme, olive oil. . .” . Ah ha! Who’s the genius now? It certainly reinforces Batali’s point about Wolfert’s influence on today’s chefs, doesn’t it?

Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking (2009) brings me back to the Moroccan wine-tasting dinner I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I should note that the only thing I need less than another cookbook (according to Matt, anyway), is an excuse to acquire another piece of cooking equipment. I took one look at the frontispiece gracing the book’s opening pages, a photograph of a beautiful, hand-thrown pot, and was gripped with an overwhelming desire for cazuelas, chinese sandpots, and rustic Provençal earthenware. Wolfert fans those flames higher in the book’s introduction, waxing rhapsodic about food tasting better when cooked in clay and quoting a Provençal potter “with tender eyes and hair flowing to his shoulders” who asserts that “. . . pottery has a kind of ‘memory’ of the food it held, and only a clay pot can keep the memory of the love the cook put into it . . .” It’s like I’m reading the culinary equivalent of a romance novel. I take a deep breath. “Must get hold of self,” I muttered. Composure restored, I study the recipes with a more dispassionate eye but I’m still smitten. Wolfert covers the same geographic ground in each of her books but brings fresh insight, new approaches, and delicious variations on the region’s slow-cooked food without repeating herself. In “Moroccan Lamb Tagine with Winter Squash and Toasted Pine Nuts” she describes a novel method of grating butternut or kabocha squash, macerating it in sugar (instead of the salt you might expect) to remove excess liquid, concentrate its flavor, and improve its texture, then uses some of that reserved sugary liquid to caramelize the squash as it reduces to a thick jam. Suddenly, I’m swooning again. A “Casserole of Lentils, Eggplant, and Mint” slowly cooks sliced eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers in little more than their own moisture. The eggplant slices lining the bottom of the clay cooking vessel are ingeniously notched to ensure they absorb all of the slowly rendered vegetable goodness. Small details, remarkable results! Then I came to the recipes using the Romertopf. Romer-what, you ask? Well, many of us of a certain age have one of these two-piece clay cooking pots, probably received as a wedding gift, gathering dust in the basement along with fondue pots, bread machines, and other relics of a long-passed culinary fashion. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but there it was, sitting on a basement shelf covered in cobwebs, still in its original box. It looks something like a miniature sarcophagus, decorated with curious hieroglyphics of stylized chickens, pigs, fish, and wine glasses. I soaked it in a sink-full of cold water for the requisite 15 minutes, pulled the Gunthorp chicken I’d planned to roast for Sunday dinner from the refrigerator, and followed the recipe for “Romertopf Clay-Baked Chicken Stuffed with Serrano Ham and Olives.” Oh. My. Goodness. So began my Romertopf phase, culminating with the “Moroccan Mechoui” for our recent wine group dinner. A traditional mechoui involves burying a whole dressed lamb in an intensely hot, brick-lined pit, sealing the pit with a mix of mud and grass, and allowing the lamb to steam and self-baste for hours. Wolfert simulates this by steam-roasting a lamb shoulder, slathered with spiced butter, in a Romertopf. She begins by placing the water-soaked Romertopf containing the lamb in a cold oven and turns the heat to 475°. The lamb at first steams as the moisture evaporates from the clay, then crisps and browns as it roasts in the hot oven. We served the Pinn-Oak Ridge lamb shoulder with the harissa recipe from Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, the “marmalade” of greens from Mediterranean Grains and Greens prepared with chard from our garden and spinach from Green City Market, and the oven-roasted cauliflower and glazed carrots from The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen. It was a grand, exotic feast (and the Moroccan wines were remarkably good, too)!