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'Mediterranean': Good Stories, Good Food
By Amanda Hesser
September 2, 1998 New York Times
      Over the years, Paula Wolfert seems to have settled into her role as a tireless correspondent reporting on the Mediterranean's complex culinary cultures. Her latest dispatch is Mediterranean Grains and Greens (HarperCollins, $27.50), her sixth cookbook.

     Like any good correspondent, she tells a good story. There is the Israeli woman, Samira, who works like an alchemist with her toolbox of spices assembling tabbouleh salad. (It is more parsley than bulgur with distinct bellows of cinnamon, cumin and mint, and it is wonderful if you cut back on the salt a little.) She shares her discovery, in Anatolia, of an unusual rice pudding thickened with the starch of wheat berries. And she gives her thoughts on the pasta-based soups she has tasted or cooked all around the Mediterranean.

     Her research has led her to many home kitchens, where women in housedresses shared their secrets. It is a world in which rusks, bitter greens and farro are a part of the vocabulary.

     But as I discovered, it is nearly impossible to appreciate this world without going the extra mile and ordering by mail a few of the many imported ingredients she calls for. It is one of those cookbooks in which many of the recipes seem to have one ingredient you cannot find in your grocery store. And few of the recipes are for a novice cook.

     But once you have rose water, soft shelled wheat berries, Turkish red pepper and the like, you are well equipped to tackle Ms. Wolfert's clearly written, tantalizing and utterly delicious recipes.

     In fact, I couldn't stop cooking from this book. Creamy farro and chickpea soup is perfectly balanced, a little chewy, a little starchy and a little sweet. Musbacha -- parsley-tahini-smothered baby chickpeas from Israel -- is a nutty, garlicky fabulous snack, a perfect alternative to hummus and easy to make.

     Lamb soup with green garlic, leeks and yogurt came out creamy and tangy with tender lumps of lamb dispersed throughout the white broth. The garlic soup with leafy greens was brothy and sharp, a soup to clear your sinuses. It also had a hard, rustic esthetic, served with a thick slab of country bread and an egg, lightly poached in the broth, floating in the center of each bowl. All of these dishes added something to my culinary and taste repertories.

     Which is exactly what I liked about this book. For someone who has not spent her life crisscrossing the Mediterranean, I learned something on nearly every page.
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