Mediterranean journeys

Mediterranean journeys

I picked up a new book a couple weeks ago, A Mediterranean Feast, by Clifford Wright. It’s a combination history/cook book, and I can’t put it down. It traces the history of food through the Mediterranean. I’ve seen a number of other “cook the book” Web sites and I’m considering undertaking this one as a project. But the 500-recipe tome is intimidating.

For a few years now I have been interested in learning more about the ancient history of Portugal, primarily the Moorish and Arab influences on the architecture and religion of these other cultures. This has drawn me to an interest in Morocco, even though I’ve never been there. Combine this interest with my cooking hobby and now we’re on to something!

People always ask me what kind of food is my specialty. I have pretty vague answers, mostly concentrating on what some people call “wine country cuisine.” This means not only foods from my home in Napa Valley, but also foods from other countries where wine features prominently at the table.

While I’ve always loved foods from the Middle East — hummus, falafel, kebobs, etc., this last year my interest has increased. Yes, I am well aware that the cuisines of Muslim cultures are decidedly not “wine country” cuisine given their frowning upon alcohol.

Last night I threw a dinner party featuring what I’d learned so far…that the Arab influence over what we generally refer to as “Mediterranean cuisine” (including Greece, Italy, northern Africa, southern France and Spain) can not be overemphasized.

Last night:

Leg of lamb marinated overnight in ras el hanout, then chopped up to make a savory stew. The result was pretty tasty. In a later post I am going to discuss dry vs. wet cooking methods for meat and where I’m landing in terms of personal preference.

Hand-rolled couscous — I bought m’hamsa brand from tebourba for a try. It’s larger than the typical couscous you get at the supermarket, but it’s not quite the “Israeli-type” couscous you see.

Side note: a year ago a dear friend gave me a generous gift card to Sur La Table. I was paralyzed in my decision on what to buy. It was a toss-up between a huge paella pan and a couscousiere, two culinary indulgences I would never pay for myself. I went for the latter, pictured here:

I prepared the lamb stew in the bottom chamber and placed the couscous on top. After 1.5 hours of steaming, the couscous were not nearly ready for eating. I had to dump them into the ratatouille juices (after removing the vegetables) and added another 3 cups of water before they were edible.

Needless to say, my first attempt at this device did not yield the results I wanted. Granted, the couscous were dry, rather than freshly made from coarse semolina. I’ll try again with regular couscous (and cheesecloth so they don’t all fall through the perforations) and with home made, and report back.

Ratatouille — I bought gorgeous eggplants, peppers and tomatoes at the farmer’s market. I carefully followed Julia Child’s recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And I ended up with mush. I still have some raw ingredients left and I’m going to try roasting the vegetables in the oven, then tossing them with a little olive oil. Perhaps a drier version will be more to my liking. Like the lamb, this has inspired a missive on dry vs. wet cooking.

Falafel — I used a combination of recipes, from Greg Malouf’s Artichoke to Za’tar and Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. They’re virtually the same basic recipe: rehydrate dried fava and garbanzo beans (aka, chickpeas) overnight. Chop in a food processor with an assortment, in varying amounts, of spices, fresh parsley and cilantro. Add water until you get a paste. Set aside. Make uniform balls. I like to flatten then to make patties. Deep fry until golden brown. I like to use safflower oil for deep frying. Olive oil imparts too strong a flavor and burns easily. These were a huge hit. All gone and now part of my regular repertoire. They didn’t taste oily at all. The trick, ironically, is to use plenty of oil (hence the phrase deep frying) at the appropriate temperature. You’re not fooling anyone by trying to saute them in less oil. It takes longer to cook and you defeat the purpose because they absorb more oil.

Baba ganoush — I forget the source of my recipe. But this was also a huge hit. The key was to scorch the eggplants on the outdoor grill. There may have been a slight overemphasis on the lemon juice, but after letting it sit out for a few hours that seemed to have mellowed.

Caramelized almond tart — this was from Lynne Kaspar’s The Splendid Table. Technically, this was not a recipe from the Mediterranean, since Emilia-Romagna is in Northern Italy, closer to the Adriatic. But I wanted something that used honey and almonds, both decidedly Arabic. As the recipe goes, it did what I wanted…but I wasn’t wild about it. I’m also not a fan of pecan pie for Thanksgiving. I prefer custards, souffles, etc. for dessert.

Burnt honey ice cream — Greg Malouf’s book also had this recipe in it. It’s basically a caramel ice cream that uses honey instead of sugar to make the caramel. The recipe says it serves four. So I doubled it for our party of eight. Now I have enough ice cream to last a year. I have no idea what Greg was thinking when he suggested the serving. I should have known by the measurements. Also, he neglects to mention what a dangerous proposition it is to dump boiling caramel into a pot of hot cream and milk. I already knew this, but a less experienced cook might get a serious burn if he or she is not careful. Anyway, it was quite yummy and a nice accompaniment to the tart.

I had invited our guests to bring some Syrah wines for tasting and sharing. There are unsupported folklore stories that there is a connection between Shiraz, Iran and the Syrah grape. So I thought it would be an fun to pair with the menu. Here is what we drank:

  • Clos des Papes, Chateauneuf-du-pape, 2005
  • d’Arenbert, The Dead Arm Shiraz (McLaren Vale), 2001
  • Chateau d’Ampuis, Cote-Rotie (E.Guigal), 1999
  • Domain Jean-Louis Chave, Hermitage, 1990
  • Onda, Villa Creek, 2006
  • Clarendon Hills Syrah, Brookman Vineyard, 2002
Plus a couple bottles of bubbly to start…and for eight people. That’s pretty darn good!

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