I own an embarrassingly large number of cookbooks, but like many things, I have a few favorites that I find myself reaching for time after time...my desert island cookbooks if you will. This is a series of posts that will describe these books that make up my core collection. I hope that you find them and the recipes they contain as enjoyable and useful as I do.
Paula Wolfert is one of those wonderful, old school west coast food enthusiasts who came up during the 60s. She seems to focus almost exclusively on the book side of the business, and as a result her books are impeccably researched and the recipes strike me as having been tested quite extensively. Which means it's pretty difficult to screw them up. Thus, with a Paula Wolfert cookbook you really get your money's worth.
She tends to specialize in Mediterranean food (both the European side and the north African side), and since she spent many years living in the region (see what I mean about impeccable research?) she offers up quite a few dishes that you probably aren't familiar with. We're not just talking tagines and cassoulets here folks. Rather it's the kind of stuff that you end up eating when you go on one of those blissfully exotic vacations...you can't quite figure out what it is, you can't ever find it when you come home, and you continue to fantasize about it long after you've tasted it.
Now I'm told that all of her books (I believe there are nine) are true classics. But I must admit that I am partial to The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen.
I like the ethos of the book as a whole...that part of the joy of cooking comes with the time it takes to make a dish...not to say that the recipes are complex, simply that they are not fast. For instance, there is a pork shoulder recipe that cooks for twelves hours but only requires about fifteen minutes of prep time. It's quite a special dish, and feels languorous and luxurious somehow, despite the rather plebian cut of meat that it features.
In fact most of her recipes require fairly inexpensive ingredients. They're just cooked long low and slow, and with the addition of a few bright, slightly unexpected ingredients, become a dish that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Lazy Lady Bulgar With Lamb, Walnuts, and Pistachios
From The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert
1/2 pound ground lamb with some fat
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup chopped onion
1/3 cup pistachios, peeled
1/4 chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon Aleppo or Turkish red pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of ground allspice
1/2 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 tablespoon Turkish red pepper paste
1 cup large-grain bulgur
1 tablespoon clarified butter, warmed
To prepare the filling: Place the lamb, olive oil, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt in a heavy 3-quart saucepan. Cook, uncovered, over medium-high heat until the meat begins to exude its own moisture. Add the onion, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the liquid is absorbed by the meat and onion. At this point the meat and onion should begin to saute. Mix in the pistachios, walnuts, Aleppo pepper, black pepper, and allspice. Remove to a side dish. Do not wash out the saucepan.
To prepare the pilaf, place 1 1/2 cups water in the same saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir in the tomato paste, Turkish pepper paste, and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Stir in the bulgur. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook over medium heat for 15 to 16 minutes, or until the bulgur is tender. Stir in the warm clarified butter.
Make a well in the bulgur. Spoon in the lamb filling and scrape some of the bulgur on top. Cover tightly and set in a warm place for 15 minutes, or until the bulgur is completely swollen. Use a long fork to stir and fluff the bulgur and filling.
Turkish Red Lentil Soup With Paprika and Mint Sizzle
From the Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert
1 cup red lentils
1/3 cup grated onion
1/2 teaspoon crushed garlic
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons white rice
1/2 canned tomatoes or 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups meat stock
1 teaspoons crushed dried mint, preferably Egyptian spearmint
2 teaspoons Turkish or Aleppo red pepper flakes
1 cup cubed bread croutons, fried in butter until golden
Rinse the lentils and drain. Place the onion, garlic, and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a deep saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring gently for 5 minutes. Add the lentils, rice, tomato and 1 1/2 quarts water. Cover, bring to a boil, and skim carefully. Cook, covered, over medium-low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. The soup should develop a creamy consistency. If desired, cool slightly, then press through a food mill. Correct the seasoning with salt to taste.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet or saucepan, make a roux with the flour and 2 tablespoons of the butter until it reaches the color of hazelnuts and has a delightful aroma. Gradually add the stock, stirring constantly until smooth. Scrape the roux and stock mixture into the soup and cook, whisking, for 5 minutes. Add salt to taste and cook for a few minutes longer.
Just before serving, make the paprika and mint sizzle. Press the mint and pepper flakes through a fine sieve or whirl in a spice grinder to a fine powder. In the same small skillet, melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Add the powdered aromatics and heat until just sizzling. Pour over the soup in swirls. Cover and bring to the table. Fold in the aromatic swirls just before ladling the soup into serving bowls. Serve with croutons.