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The San Francisco Examiner Sunday Magazine Review of Mediterranean Grains and Greens
On Food:  Great Grains and Greens
By Patricia Unterman

For people who love to cook there is no greater pleasure than following a recipe for an unfamiliar dish and ending up with something wonderful. It's as if a door has opened and the cook, having walked through, now understands what a whole class of dishes means.

     Despite thousands of cookbooks currently in publication, very few of their writers can deliver this experience. I can think of two: Julia Child, who so clearly and meticulously translated French technique for the American kitchen, and Paula Wolfert, who has done something as authentic with the food of the Mediterranean.

     In her five ground-breaking volumes, each the fruit of an obsessive amount of travel, note-taking, hands-on cooking in home kitchens, endless testing, writing and rewriting, we lucky readers obtain access to food that most of us otherwise would never be able to taste: dishes that are disappearing, along with the traditional societies that cook them; dishes, handed down from one generation to the next, that have never been written down; dishes imbued with soul, sense of place and complex cultural history.

     What separates Wolfert from, say, a cultural anthropologist, is motive. She is an eater (and I say that as a proud member of the same clan), a lover of food, a sensualist, an ardent cook who was drawn to the Mediterranean - Tangier, Morocco - as a young woman. In a sense, she never left its shores, circling the rim many times in her travels and writings. But most important to us, she singles out dishes to translate that she likes to eat. Having chosen for pleasure, she brings her formal culinary training to the task. Any dish that appears in a Paula Wolfert volume will be doable if you follow her instructions, and will taste astoundingly luscious. Above all, Wolfert understands the importance of flavor - deep, rich, layered flavor - and she doesn't stop working on a recipe until it delivers that in full.

     I read her just-published volume, Mediterranean Grains and Greens (HarperCollins, 1998), cover to cover, and as usual I learned, in-depth, about regional, exotic, ingredients. This book is inspired by ingredients both timely and timeless - timely in the sense that grains and greens are recommended by nutritionists as the key to a healthy diet; timeless because the grains and greens written about here are foods that traditional societies around the Mediterranean have been eating for centuries. This crosscurrent makes this Wolfert volume particularly seductive.

     She talks about unusual Mediterranean grains, like bulgar, through illuminating short essays that explain everything you need to know about them as an American cook. Then she delivers a series of recipes for them scattered throughout the book. In the case of bulgar, she works it into meatballs, salads, pilafs, soups, stuffings and desserts. Rice, couscous, barley, spelt (in Italian, farro) and cornmeal, among others, get similar treatment. When grains are at the center of a cuisine - as they are throughout the Mediterranean - their preparations are multi-faceted, drawing on a wide spectrum of other foods - meats, nuts, legumes, fruits, cheeses, spices and pastes - all of which she makes sure you can find locally or through mail order.

     The population in all of the countries in this region - southern Spain, Provence, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Tunisia, Morocco, Greece and others - eat greens, wild and domesticated, sweet and bitter, cooked and raw. People grow up foraging for them, mixing them in certain ways with each season for beloved traditional preparations. Greens in America seem to be a new discovery, though Southerners have been eating them for generations, especially when the larder was empty and they could be harvested from the backyard. They have become almost an addiction for some of us in other regions. I can't get enough of them, especially those with a bitter edge. While the rest of my family watches, I consume huge mounds of braised kale, chard and broccoli rabe. Grains and Greens expands the possibilities with a treasure trove of dishes that use them. A revelation!

     When you first read a Wolfert recipe you think you'll never be able to make it. First you have to collect the ingredients, which often involves a seriousshopping foray. It may include the farmers' market, an ethnic market, mail order and making spice blends or pastes yourself. Getting your hands on the right ingredients is essential to the outcome of these recipes, though Wolfert makes sure you can or offers substitutions. In the process you discover fantastic new foods - like the Turkish red pepper paste called Selim, which I purchased at Haig's on Clement (where I found the fine bulgar) for the Harpout Köfte; or frozen fish fumet I bought at Whole Foods on California Street, which greatly simplified the preparation of the scrumptious Caldero Murciano. Having cooked with these new ingredients once, you see a world of possibilities.

     The lively personal introductory notes put the recipes in context, pointing out the absolute, non-negotiable essentials, whether they be an ingredient or a cooking pot. Most important, the introductions tell you where you're going, and what the finished product should taste like. Now you're ready to follow instructions, step by step. They are understandable, exact, infallible. Every question has been anticipated and answered, either in the recipe itself, the notes, or an essay somewhere else in the book. At the end you have the pleasure of putting a dish on the table that transports people in many different ways.

     Grains and Greens, like all of Wolfert's volumes, is a complete and mature work; the voluptuous food you get a reflection of her thoroughness, her integrity and her continuing wonder.

Patricia Unterman's "On Food" column runs biweekly in the Examiner Magazine;
her restaurant reviews run biweekly in the Weekend section.
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