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Hartford Courant Review of "Grains and Greens"
Getting the Best From Home Cooks
by Nancy Pappas
October 14, 1998

    I finally understand how Paula Wolfert has been so phenomenally successful at coaxing  recipes and food lore out of some of the best home cooks in the Mediterranean. Her six cookbooks and hundreds of articles have introduced the English-speaking world to those who prepare Tunisian barley with chard, lamb and pepper paste; Kurdish baked eggplant and tomatoes seasoned with tart sumac powder; or squid and aromatic greens from the Ligurian region of Italy. Recipes are framed with vignettes about the people Wolfert met and the processes of collecting the dishes.

     But today -- for the first time in our four-year acquaintance -- I truly grasp how she does her field work. Although I've been delayed in Boston's notorious morning rush hour, and she's got less than an hour before she leaves for a radio broadcast, Wolfert insists that we set aside five minutes --the first five minutes -- to bring each other up to date on our personal and family news.

     Of course, she wants to talk about her new book, Mediterranean Grains and Greens (HarperCollins, $27.50). But what's immediately important is that we "reconnect as  women," she says. She leans forward on her elbows and -- although we've spent less than 20 hours together in our entire lives -- asks pertinent questions about my kids and career. She remembers more about me than any of my neighbors do. Is it any wonder that Sara from northern Israel, Bahriye from central Turkey and hundreds of other women have become comfortable with Wolfert, inviting her into their homes, sharing the traditional culinary wisdom which has been passed along through a matrilineal heritage?

     Wolfert, who lived for four years in a large farmhouse in Newtown, moved to San Francisco two years ago. "It was a tough adjustment. It took quite a while to sift through the invitations and figure out who was really interested in being friends with us, and who was doing the 'meet-and-greet' because we arrived as pseudo-celebrities," says Wolfert, whose husband, William Bayer, is an award-winning mystery writer. Of course, the San Francisco food, restaurant and cookbook scene is far more active than the foodie life in the Newtown-Danbury area, although Wolfert insists that she misses her contacts in western Connecticut, including her buddies at Shallah Importing Co., a Middle Eastern market in Danbury.

     One considerable disadvantage of living on the West Coast is a logistical one: It adds three hours to each of her trips to Europe and the Middle East. But this hasn't prevented Wolfert from focusing her intense gaze on the home cooks who prepare village specialties. Traveling from Spain in the west to Armenia and the Georgian Republic in the east, she goes out into the countryside to observe, take notes, plunge her hands into dough or watch a crop being harvested. Through it all, she's on a quest for the most flavorful, authentic food and the most consistently successful methods to prepare that food.

     This has never been more important than in her latest book, on greens and grains, because often the greens in question are being gathered in skirt pockets and aprons by village women. "This must have been woman's earliest job -- foraging," Wolfert says.  "Thrusting her hands into the earth and pulling things out. Not things she planted, but  wonderful things that are offered to us through the bounty of nature.There is a reverence  that develops when you are able to feed, to nurture your family, from plants that  volunteer, that spring up from the earth."

     The book calls upon American cooks to look at greens in a new way. Whereas we may  have previously shopped for "salad greens" as if they were interchangeable, we purchase all the others as specific vegetables: spinach to stuff mushrooms, kale for a soup, collards for stewing with ham hocks.

     But Wolfert asks cooks to gather the greens that are in season -- in supermarkets,  farmers' markets or nearby meadows -- and use them nearly interchangeably. She takes into account that some (like beet greens, spinach, Swiss chard and others) are basically sweet tasting, while others (like broccoli rabe, chicory, curly endive and radicchio) are much more bitter. According to the book, there are still many women throughout the Mediterranean who go foraging wearing aprons with three pockets -- one for bitter greens, one for sweet and the third for roots or mushrooms. Mixing of plants is not only accepted, it's expected.

     For those just beginning to blend greens, Wolfert offers some ideas that start with flat-leafed spinach (sold by the bunch in supermarkets). Add chard, watercress and (optionally) a little bitter dandelion or endive. Add chard, mustard greens and (if you can get them) some nettle tops. Add salad burnet, which Wolfert suggests growing in a  window box.

     For those planning a foraging excursion, Wolfert suggests purchasing a guide book, such as "Wild Edible Greens of New England" (out of print but available in libraries) and hooking up with a knowledgable expert for the first time out, since various edible and inedible greens look quite similar. Some "wild" greens are cultivated, and may be  purchased through farms and farmers' markets, or grown at home.

     But Wolfert also points out that common supermarket vegetables may be changed -- and she believes, improved -- when they're handled in new ways:

*To increase the depth of flavor coaxed from romaine lettuce, shred very finely --pieces should be only as wide as one or two toothpicks -- and combine with equally slim bits of cabbage and mixed baby leafy greens.

*Slow cooking can bring out the excellent flavor of celery hearts. Cut into 1-inch lengths, soak in lemon juice-spiked water for an hour; drain but do not pat and cook with a tablespoon of oil over low heat for 40 minutes. She seasons with chopped scallions, garlic, tomato paste and European bacon, pancetta.

*Wash large spinach leaves sold in sealed plastic bags (which Wolfert calls "flinty tasting") plunge into a large pot of water at a full boil, and stir until tender. Drain well, press out excess moisture, then saute in olive oil or use in a recipe.

    Throughout this tour, Wolfert's motto is that greens and grains are nothing more than a  canvas -- albeit a very nutritious one. "It's up to the cook to paint a picture on the  canvas, to learn the wonderful flavors and techniques that can make the picture a masterpiece."

    Wolfert says that the dish below is "perfect with grilled poultry or meat."  Coarse-grained bulgur is available in Middle Eastern and some health-food stores. Note: The amount of salt is not a mistake. It is used to draw out excess moisture and intensify the flavor, she says


 (From Cyprus)



pounds butternut, banana or red-kuri squash, or pumpkin


cup salt (not a mistake)


medium onion, diced


cup extra-virgin olive oil


cup coarse grained bulgur wheat
 (see note below)



tablespoons sugar


cup golden raisins


teaspoon ground cinnamon


teaspoon finely ground black pepper


Peel and finely dice the squash. It should yield 3 cups. Toss squash with  all of the salt; let stand for 3 to 4 hours. This draws out excess moistures and intensifies the flavor, so do not skip this step. Transfer to a large sieve; wash thoroughly, and let drain. Pat dry with kitchen toweling.

     In a wide skillet, saute the onion and squash in the olive oil until soft and golden.  Meanwhile, place bulgur in a fine sieve. Shake to remove dust, but do not wash.

    Add bulgur and 1-1/2 cups boiling water to the skillet; bring to a boil; stir once, cover pan, lower heat and cook 20 minutes, or until all liquid has been absorbed.

    Stir in sugar, raisins, cinnamon, black pepper and salt to taste. Remove from heat, and let stand 5 minutes before serving. Serves four to six as an accompaniment to a roast chicken.

    This is fabulously hearty vegetable "hash." Serve with a meat such as salami or ham; alone as a light meal; or add eggs and turn it into a frittata.


 (From Italy)



pound mixed winter greens, such as chard, leaves from broccoli rabe,  spinach or fresh-looking beet greens


medium boiling potato, preferably Yukon Gold, unskinned (about 1/3  pound)




tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 3/4

ounces very lean pancetta (European bacon), rinsed, patted dry and finely shredded to make about 1/4 cup



teaspoon fresh rosemary or more, to taste


teaspoon minced garlic


Pinch red pepper


Freshly ground black pepper


Pickled green peppers for garnish

     Bring a large saucepan of water to a rapid boil. Meanwhile, strip greens and discard stems and tough parts. Wash leaves in several changes of water. If using broccoli rabe, cut into 1-inch chunks to make about 10 cups.

     Add salt to the water, add greens and potato and cook until both are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander; press on the greens to express moisture.

    When potato is cool enough to handle, peel and crush with the back of a fork, lubricating with 1 teaspoon olive oil. Finely chop greens or crush broccoli rabe with the back of a fork.

     Heat remaining olive oil and pancetta in an 8-inch nonstick skillet, and cook very gently, until pancetta melts or at least becomes softened. Add rosemary, garlic, red pepper, greens and potato, and cook over medium-high heat, turning contents often with a spatula so they blend as they are ``dragged'' through the oil, about five minutes. Season with salt and black pepper. Serve hot with a sprinkling of coarse salt and freshly ground pepper on top. Pass a dish of pickled peppers. Serves 2.

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