The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean
by Paula Wolfert
1994. 429 pages, 215 recipes.
-Georgian Home-Style Cheese Bread Pie
-An Arabian Stew of Chickpeas, Eggplant, and Tomatoes
I want Paula Wolfert to pack me in her suitcase next time she takes off on one of her culinary adventures. She goes to fascinating places and meets fascinating people. In researching The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, she traveled to the remote Turkish countryside to see how women make breads in the traditional way (in earthen pits and igloo-shaped ovens). In Damascus she visited a museum, struck up a conversation with its director; the next evening she and her husband dined on Syrian specialties at the director's home. In Northern Greece she was directed to the forested hinterlands to learn the art of making phyllo. (Although Wolfert includes an extensive recipe for phyllo here, I'll stick stick to the advice I got from the owner of the Greek bakery I used to frequent in New York: "Better you should go to the moon than try to make your own filo dough!")
Since Wolfert began writing cookbooks two decades ago, her "beat" has been the Mediterranean, usually the geographic corners most Western travellers and cookbook authors have overlooked. Just as the stamp "Parmigiano-Reggiano" on a chunk of Parmesan guarantees that you are getting the Real Thing and not an inferior approximation, a cookbook by Paula Wolfert guarantees that the recipes will be replicate the authentic flavors of a cuisine. What she writes in the introduction of Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean could apply to her other books too: "I'll go out on a limb; you won't find a dishonest dish in this book. The food here is the real food of real people." You can count on Wolfert to bring back exciting unfamiliar flavors from her travels. But she is emphatically not searching out the unusual simply to bring back new thrills for jaded foodies. She wants to us to see an accurate picture of the foods, the women who shared them, and their culture. For Wolfert the real "joy is the encounters with the people".
The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean contains dishes whose names have become familiar to us like moussaka, baba ganouj and baklava. But you can be sure Wolfert's recipes aren't Americanized versions, but resonate with authenticity. (She even made a pilgrimage to the Turkish town famous for its backlava to learn at the skills first hand.) Most of the recipes are less familiar to Western taste buds. I love the element of the unexpected when I make one of these for the first time. I would never have guessed that the Georgian (as in Russia, not America) Home-Style Cheese Bread Pie would look like a gigantic, golden cheese-filled biscuit and taste, paradoxically, like exotic comfort food. The Turkish Poached Apricots stuffed with yogurt cheese proved to be wonderful slightly sweet, slightly tart tidbits, the perfect fillip at the end of substantial dinner.
Lots of these recipes are great dinner-party fare; their uniqeness is bound to be remarked on. When I served Rolled Breast of Chicken with Pomegranate Sauce, everyone agreed it was delicious and then asked, "What's in it?" The magic was in the unlikely combination of mellow mozarella within the chicken and tart sparkly pomegranate sauce coating it. (Pomegranate molasses is well worth searching out at a Middle-Eastern market.) One of the few disappointing recipes was the casserole-type dish, Chicken with Lavosh. Even when I cut back on the amount of lavosh called for, it was still too dry; my efforts to douse it with a little more broth than called just made it gummy. (The chicken-and-spices part would have been tastier on its own.)
Wolfert stimulates the palate as well as the intellect. She's got a scholar's curiosity and rounds out her recipes with notes on the region's culinary and cultural traditions. As Wolfert weaves her many travel stories among the recipes I can conjure up images of her adventures: I can see the women in Macedonia who she met as they were taking a break from their grape-picking labors and who "vied with one another to share their kitchen secrets"; I try to imagine the swank dinner party in an Art Deco apartment overlooking the Aegean Sea as she sampled northern Greek cuisine. Here's the problem: I want to know more! The abundance of tantalizing thumbnail sketches makes me wish Wolfert would write a companion volume to Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, one in which she would recount in detail the saga of her "five years in search of good food and the people who prepare it."