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Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Cookbook Review: Mediterranean Fresh

A Cookbook Review by Victoria Challancin  

Can you ever have too many Mediterranean cookbooks?  Not in my house.  So when I read that Joyce Goldstein, a favorite cookbook author [see Joyce Goldstein's Mediterranean the Beautiful Cookbook, Sephardic Flavors:  Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean, Enoteca: Simple, Delicious Recipes in the Italian Wine Bar Tradition, to name but a few] was coming out with a new cookbook, I immediately pre-ordered it.  And my faith in the author proved justified once again.  Mediterranean Fresh delivers. It is destined to become a staple in my repertory of cookbooks.  

Anyone who follows my classes/recipes or eats in my home can easily sense my Mediterranean bias.  The flavors of the Med just call to me:  olives, garlic, capers, tomatoes, pine nuts, chickpeas, olive oil, great vinegars, distinctive cheeses.  These ingredients make my heart sing.  When these same ingredients are put into the hands of a master cook and cookbook author such as Joyce Goldstein, who is both imaginative and has impeccable research skills, the end result is a cookbook that is bound to become a classic, well-worn and loved.

The book is broken down into two parts:  I) Mediterranean Salads and Small Plates and II) Mediterranean Vinaigrettes, Salad Dressings, and  Sauces.  Part I includes chapters on leafy salads, raw and cooked vegetable salads, fruit salads, classic and modern grain salads, and bean salads.  In addition, there are two chapters, one featuring seafood and another using poultry and meats to help the cook add protein to basic salads and turn them into main events.

The section on dressings includes chapters on Vinaigrettes, Citrus Dressings, Creamy Dressings that Double as Dips, and my favorite, a section dealing with Sauces with Multiple Personalities (i.e. sauces that can be used as marinades and condiments, as well as simple salad dressings).

With 146 different salad and small plate recipes and 30 mix-and-match dressings, there are salads for every taste.

The Fun Bits
Joyce Goldstein addresses the novice and the advanced cook alike. She asks the enticing question, borrowing from her friend the late Barbara Tropp, "Do you have a 'tart mouth' ?"  By tackling the age-old question of acid-to-oil ratio, she helps the reader understand that while tastes simply differ, there are ways to balance acidity and to develop your palate as you learn.

As always, her research is formidable.  History is explored (Did you know that while the Romans actually introduced the idea of salads into the Mediterranean Diet, it was the Arabs who created the tradition of beginning a meal with a salad?).  Tips are given. And Sidebars on techniques like preserving lemons, cooking dried beans properly, choosing your lettuce, and paring your dressings, all contribute to the cook's confidence in choosing and preparing the perfect salad.  They also add immeasurably to the book's undeniable charm.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this book aside from the luscious recipes, is the idea of mixing and matching dressings to create different salads, appropriate for menus featuring specific cuisines.  For example, a Roasted Pepper and Celery Salad with Tomato Vinaigrette becomes Spanish by simply switching dressings to an almond-orange juice-sherry vinegar-based Catalan dressing.  Or it moves into exotic Morocco with the addition of a Chermoula Vinaigrette which includes cilantro, cumin, paprika, and preserved lemons.  Do you want to use the salad as a part of an Italian menu?  Just trade the Tomato Vinaigrette for the Anchovy-Garlic version.  The possibilities are inspiring.

Wine and Salad?
Selecting a wine to accompany a salad with a potential acid conflict in the dressing is a common problem.  Evan Goldstein, a master sommelier, simplifies the matter in his excellent essay which is included in the book.

Health, Ingredient Selection, and Tips
Focusing on good fats such as olive oil, whole grains, and locally-grown fruits and vegetables makes this book a plus for health- and environment-conscious readers.  Using the famous Mediterranean dietary emphasis on eating less protein and more fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains, is a plus for those looking to loose weight and/or clean out their arteries.  Goldstein's explanation of basic ingredients is complete. The information about lettuces, including amaranth,  dandelion, and fennel fronds, is extensive.  She also includes tips on how to measure, prep, and even select the best ingredients.

The Recipes Themselves
In the section on Chopped Salads, we find a viariety of Beet Salads with as many as  nine different dressings to compliment  them, including Beets and Greens with Yogurt Dressing with a hint of cinnamon  and dill.  In  the Fruit Salad section, melon, cucumbers, watercress, and goat cheese find themselves dressed with a mint  vinaigrette. And the uses of Catalan Vianigrette, Tarator Dressing, and Romesco Dressings are simply mouth-watering examples of inspired creativity in the kitchen.

Other stand-out recipes are:
Cannelloni Beans with Oregano-Garlic Vinaigrette and Shrimp
Tunisian-Inspired Chickpea Salad with Peppers, Capers, and Harissa Dressing
Turkish Chicken Salad with Walnut-Tahini Dressing
Moroccan Salad of Raw Carrots with Citrus-Cinnamon Dressing
Couscous Salad with Almonds, Raisins, and Saffron Onions
Greek Parsley Salad with Tahini Dressing

In summary, this book is a gem.  Practical, entertaining, and creative, it makes a great read.  And for cooks, the recipes speak for themselves.  Traditional classics mingle with modern interpretations, history, personal anecdotes, and beautiful photos to provide something for the beginner and the advanced cook alike. This cookbook is truly not to be missed.  A winner in every way.

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