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From Barnes & NobleA Cooking Class with Paula Wolfert
Famed cookbook author Paula Wolfert first opened our eyes to the culinary pleasures of the Mediterranean more than 20 years ago with her very first book on the cooking of Morocco. That groundbreaking cookbook was followed by four more award-winning efforts that covered the cuisines of every region of this sun-drenched part of the world, including southwest France and the eastern Mediterranean. Now Wolfert has returned with her sixth book, a wonderful, wide-ranging work inspired by two of the Mediterranean's most essential ingredients: grains and greens. She came to New York cooking school De Gustibus at Macy's to demonstrate recipes from the new book, to share her contagious passion for all things Mediterranean, and to regale the audience with her unique brand of frank and funny charm.
About Paula Wolfert and Mediterranean Grains and Greens
Paula Wolfert has been roaming the Mediterranean and poking her wooden spoon into the pots of home cooks in every country in the region for nearly 30 years. It was through her award-winning cookbooks that most American food lovers first discovered the exotic traditional dishes, from couscous to pilaf, that have become almost commonplace today. "I remember coming to De Gustibus in its first season, when I'd just written my Moroccan cookbook, and teaching the class about preserved lemons," Wolfert recalled. "No one had ever heard of such a thing!" she said with a laugh. In Mediterranean Grains and Greens, her sixth cookbook, Wolfert uses those two seminal Mediterranean ingredients as a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging collection of fascinating recipes. "I've always seen the Mediterranean in terms of ingredients rather than countries," she says. "I thought of writing about grains and greens because they were ingredients that would take me all around the region—I could meander around and go wherever I wanted to go, and do good food wherever I found it."
So we get Sardinian Flatbread made with semolina flour alongside soup from Greece made with wheat berries, lentils, rice, and fresh herbs; Moroccan Mixed Wild Greens Salad with Preserved Lemons and Olives coexisting with a Gratin of Leafy Greens and Crispy Potatoes with Smoky Paprika and Whipped Eggs from Spain; or Tunisian Spring Lamb Stew with Fresh Favas in the same chapter as a Provençal "Meat Loaf" with Cabbage, Artichokes, Chard, Spinach, and Ground Pork. Throughout the book, Wolfert tells anecdotes from her adventures, explains the fascinating cultural and historical background of each dish, and offers traditional preparation techniques, bringing the culinary world of the Mediterranean to life. As always, Wolfert also includes complete information on any unusual ingredients and a list of mail-order sources.
About the Menu
We started with two delicious appetizers from Turkey, both layered with complex flavors designed to awaken and entice the palate. The first, a Parsley, Basturma, and Kasseri Börek, was made by rolling chopped parsley, creamy kasseri cheese, and thin strips of basturma (an eastern Mediterranean spicy preserved meat) in sheets of lovely, delicate fresh phyllo dough to form a log, which was baked and sliced. The second blended the sweet flavors of cinnamon and apricots with savory ground lamb, rice, and black pepper for an utterly luscious bite perfect for the buffet. We drank an appropriately celebratory dry, delicate sparkling wine from Taittinger's California estate, Domaine Carneros. Next came an unctuous dish of long, slow-cooked leeks, flavored with carrots, parsley, lemon juice, and just a pinch of sugar, that had a taste and texture approaching butter. A Mersault from Louis Jadot, made with Chardonnay grapes, proved a perfect partner.
The centerpiece of the class followed—a stunningly gorgeous black rice from Spain made with mussels, shrimp, and squid, served with pungent garlic aioli drizzled on top. Wolfert sautéed squid, a bit of sausage, and onions in large flat paella pans, and then stirred in a sofrito of roasted tomatoes, saffron, and dried mild red chiles. Next came the special Spanish rice and fish stock colored with squid ink (actually the liquid from canned Spanish calamari—a money-saving trick, since little squid ink packets can cost up to $5 each). The shrimp and mussels cooked in the residual heat after the dish was taken off the burner, and the resulting dish had wonderful, deep layers of flavor and a beautiful chocolate-brown color. We drank an elegant, cru Beaujolais from Château des Jacques in Moulin-à-Vent with the rice. The sweet finale was a simple, delicious dish of sliced bananas drizzled with pungent pine honey and sprinkled with pine nuts, with a spoonful of fresh cookies.
Tips from Paula Wolfert
- Wolfert loves a gadget that recently appeared in kitchen stores: the rolling garlic peeler, a simple plastic tube that magically removes the peels of garlic cloves when they are rolled inside. She says it has been the recent favorite of the gifts she brings to the many home cooks around the Mediterranean who share their recipes with her: "Do you know how small the garlic is in the Mediterranean? The cloves are tiny! They love the rolling peeler," she says with a laugh.
- For making an authentic aioli without eggs, Wolfert recommends using a bit of boiled potato as a thickener to achieve a sauce with the texture of loose mayonnaise. And if that doesn't work, forget about holding it together: "Do what the chefs do, and drizzle it beautifully over the top," she says. "You're just looking for that bite of fresh garlic taste."
- Even high-quality saffron threads can lose their punch if they're not stored in an airtight container—they absorb moisture from the air and their flavor becomes diluted. Wolfert recommends drying them out over heat and then grinding them into a powder before adding them to a dish, but finds it's too easy to burn them in a low oven. Her solution: Cover a small pot of boiling water with a heat-proof plate and place the saffron on top. The gentle heat will slowly dry the threads.
- When precooking mussels to add to a dish like the black rice that calls for fish stock, it's nice to add the flavorful mussel steaming juices to the pot. Wolfert has a tip for cutting out the step of straining the steaming juices to remove any sand: Crumple a bit of cheesecloth in the bottom of a sieve and put the mussels on top; then let the sieve rest in the simmering stock so the mussels are just covered. Their juices will be released into the stock as they cook and any sand will stay caught in the cheesecloth.