Mediterranean Grains and Greens
by Paula Wolfert

1998. 366 pages, 250 + recipes.

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"Throughout this book I've tried to present the great and true tastes of Mediterranean grains and greens dishes in recipes updated for the modern kitchen. Even in the few cases where the recipes are demanding, what strikes me most about these dishes is their elegant simplicity."

Tuscan Kale and Bread Soup

Warm Scrambled Eggs and Aromatic Herbs with Baby Lettuces and Crispy Croutons

•Lebanese Semolina Pancakes Stuffed with Cheese

•Stewed Greens with Tahini

•Caramelized Onions and Cheese Polenta


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Paula Wolfert is the adventure traveler of cookbook authors. She was the first to introduce many Americans (including me) to Moroccan food in the 1970's with her first - and now classic - Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. Ever since then, her cookbooks have taken us throughout the Mediterranean from the south of France to North Africa, from Tuscany to Turkey. Wherever she goes, she veers off the beaten path. This is also true for her most recent offering Mediterranean Grains and Greens in which she takes us to such exotic locales as a hill town overlooking the Euphrates, the suburbs of Tunis, a village in Galilee (famous for its good cooks), and the coastal Spanish province of Alicante.

Wolfert has never been just a recipe collector looking for offbeat tastes to bring back to novelty-hungry American foodies. She writes, "On one level this book is about meeting people, discovering places, and the good food I've eaten along the way. Ultimately, it's about Mediterranean life itself…" In her enthusiasm, I also sense she feels an urgency to witness and record the"old ways" and endangered traditions before they are subsumed by the modern world. Imagine what it must have been like for Wolfert to be in middle of the Sahara Desert, watching bread being baked in the Saharan sands (yes, in) much the same way it's been done for the past two thousand years. Her recipes become all the more vivid when she includes cultural or historical notes about a particular dish.

For a food lover, reading Wolfert's adventures definitely qualifies as vicarious living at its best. Her stories are woven throughout the book and add a vivid backdrop to the recipes. She learned "the secrets of one of the most difficult, demand breads of the Mediterranean" (a bread whose base is fermented chickpeas) from bakers Turkey's oldest city. When she was in Crete, her friend (a native of the island) took her to an overgrown vineyard where the best array of foraging greens grow. As I read these anecdotes, I kept thinking, "I want to be there! I want to meet these people! This is the way I wish I could travel!" I especially enjoy the glimpses of home life Wolfert shows us. One morning on a Tunisian island, she visited a family whose four little children were creating typical kid-generated havoc, as the good-natured but frazzled mother shared with Wolfert a mid-morning "pick-me-up" grain-based drink popular in Tunisia. I would gladly trade even the most exquisite four-star dinner from a Michelin Guide for an experience like that.

Grains and greens have become the nutritional superheroes in the fight against almost every ill from cancer to coronary disease to constipation. It's hard not to read a health article these days without being exhorted to eat more grains and greens, and we certainly know we should eat more of them. Wolfert makes you want to. Wolfert, while acknowledging their health benefits, is more interested in sharing their culinary appeal. Her Stewed Greens with Tahini is a case in point. This dish is so sensual and satisfying that you'd be glad to eat it even if it weren't loaded with antioxidants.

I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about grains and greens before I read this book. Hey, I know bulghur from buckwheat! I know what Tuscan kale is. But skinned wheat? Mallow leaves? Nettles? (And that's just for starters.) Although I knew what semolina was, I had never cooked with it until I made her Lebanese Crepes. They were wonderfully light and subtly tangy (they're made with yeast). Some of the recipes remind me of ambitious craft projects, which require you to search out arcane supplies that you may well never use again. I'm afraid the Turkish pepper paste I tracked down for a few of Wolfert's dishes will have the same dust-gathering fate as the hot glue gun, the fourteen Styrofoam balls, and the aduki beans I bought a few years ago for a Christmas project that I never actually did.

Wolfert believes that grains and greens "carry a sense of adventure". Well, I suppose I could describe my experience with Cretan Pasta Rustica as an adventure. This recipe called for goat's milk which needed four days sitting-time to be rendered suitably sour. The aforementioned skinned wheat needed soaking time before being ground in a blender. I was surprised by the ready availability of goat's milk (this was my first time buying it.). I blithely assumed that whole wheat kernels would be a suitable substitution for skinned wheat, so I brought some home from Whole Foods. I soaked them. I put them in the blender. I turned on the blender. The blender whirred. The kernels would not grind. With equal parts determination and frustration, I set out for the only Middle Eastern grocery for miles around. It didn't carry skinned wheat. I suppose I could have checked the back of Grains and Greens and called some of the Wolfert's mail-order sources. But I had this goat's milk just about to move past the perfect souring point to the point of no return, and I had to act fast. So I bought cracked wheat and hoped for the best. I read the next step of the recipe: …spread dollops on a nno-stic pan and dry in a dehydrator. Dehydrator? How could I have missed the fact that the recipe called for a dehydrator, not an oven, to dry the pasta? (I will write 100 times on the board, "I must always read a recipe carefully.") That was the point at which I gave up. Maybe someday…

Most recipes in Mediterranean Grains and Greens are not nearly as elaborate and time-consuming as the Cretan Pasta Rustica. The Warm Scrambled Eggs and Aromatic Herbs with Baby Lettuces and Crispy , despite its long-winded name, is a very simple dish. The contrast of the creamy, cozy eggs with the slightly sour greens makes this one of my favorite variations of scrambled eggs. She also has the polenta recipe that we've all been searching for: a no-stir polenta.

Since Mediterranean Grains and Greens was published a little over a year ago, grains and greens are beginning to have a new cachet in the food world. Four-star chefs are discovering the wonders of buckwheat groats and teff; they're rhapsodizing about borage and purslane and other foraged greens. Once again Wolfert was ahead of the pack.