25 Books to Read Before You Die

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Saturday, February 28th, 2004


The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook

by Paula Wolfert

A review by Georgie Lewis

Blessed with Scottish and French grandmothers I have always had a soft spot for slow-cooked meals of meat and vegetables. Childhood dinners would often consist of roast legs of lamb, cauliflower and cheese sauce, and the best roast potatoes ever. But then again, probably most of us associate comfort food with what nowadays is known as "Slow Food." And, what rainy winter evening would be complete without a glass of red wine, a good book, and warm, enticing aromas emanating from a slow-cooking meal in the kitchen?

This winter two incredible cookbooks came my way which have vastly expanded my culinary repertoire: Tom Valenti's Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals and Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook. Oh, what an excess of delights for a slow food gourmand!

Wolfert's marvelous tome (her seventh cookbook) is as much a delight to slowly peruse while waiting for your dish to cook, as it is to eat the results. Beautifully packaged with mouthwatering photographs and filled with over 150 recipes, it also includes cooking advice that will serve both the novice and the professional. Wolfert is a wonderful teacher as much as anything. Her passion lies in the Mediterranean region she traveled and lived there most of her life and effortlessly intersperses anecdotes amongst her recipes, which range from Turkish to Italian, Spanish to Greek, French to Moroccan.

One recipe I will go back to again and again (if only to listen to my guests shower me with compliments) is Pot Roasted Pork Loin with Fall Fruits. It is just one of the many incredible meat dishes here along with some fine seafood dishes. But there is also much to enjoy for those who forgo meat. In a recipe for Leeks Simmered in Olive Oil, Wolfert explains, "I call this method of slow cooking vegetables, which enhances their flavor by forcing them to reabsorb their own moisture, Mediterranean alchemy." Like many of the recipes in this book, Wolfert advises, "Serve these leeks later in the day, or even better, the following day."

Tom Valenti's wonderful book provides 125 delicious recipes, and although they are presented in a more casual, chatty style than Wolfert's, they are no less satisfying. Valenti, the chef-owner of two New York restaurants, Ouest and 'Cesca, has been named one of the country's ten best chefs by Food & Wine magazine (the same magazine Wolfert writes a column for, incidentally). He begins Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals by stating what his book does not do this includes asking you to eat strange sea creatures, demanding hard-to-find ingredients, or "assume[ing] you can afford white truffles, caviar or Kobe beef." He goes on to state: "Its mission is to share recipes for home meals that are simply prepared most in a single vessel and a chef's tips for making them as delicious as possible."

Valenti's recipes span the sumptuous and exotic, like Portuguese-Style Pork Roast with Steamed Clams (ridiculously easy, despite its glamorous appearance on the table), to the comfort-food stylings of Lamb Pasticcio, which Valenti gleefully admits tastes like a "sophisticated version of the beefaroni they served you in your junior-high cafeteria." And, don't get me started on his light and fluffy Macaroni and Goats Cheese. Gourmet comfort food of the highest order.

Wolfert and Valenti share the same enthusiasm for the results one encounters with slow cooking: the longer you cook, the better it tastes; next day's leftovers taste even better; recipes rely on basic ingredients and minimum kitchen fuss; and, the room to improvise and personalize a recipe is endless. As Valenti says, "As far as I'm concerned, slow is one of the most evocative words in a food-lover's vocabulary; the mere mention of slow cooking starts my mouth watering."

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