Posted by Hava Volterra
My Favorite Cookbooks
I get my recipes from many sources - my mother, family, friends, the internet. But my most consistent and most reliable source of recipes is a small set of cookbooks I’ve collected over the years, and that I consider to be the best in class for their types of cuisine. I bought the first two over 30 years ago, when I was visiting London as a 16 year old. At that time the selection of cookbooks in Israel was limited, so London’s bookstores offered me a remarkable opportunity. I’ve added many more over the years, but here are my favorites:
A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden: I bought my first copy of this book during that visit to London when I was 16. The book had been written 10 years earlier, and it was already considered a classic, the book that introduced Middle Eastern cooking to the West. Claudia Roden grew up in a Jewish family in Cairo, and the book draws a lot on the dishes of her youth, but includes recipes from as far as Turkey, Greece, Morocco and Tunisia. Almost every cuisine of the region is well represented in it. She has since written an updated version, called The New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking, but my favorite is still my dog eared copy of the 1967 edition. With the wonders of Amazon you can still find used copies of the out-of-print first version, or get them both.
French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David, the 1970 edition: Another book I bought on that trip to England, and in this case I still have my original copy. Elizabeth David is largely credited with introducing continental cuisine to England – the Julia Child of the U.K. - and in this small paperback book you can find all the basics of regional French home cooking, from Paris and Brittany down to Nice. It’s my go-to book whenever there’s a classic French dish I want to cook.
Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking – by Marcella Hazan: This book consolidates Marcella Hazan’s two landmark books – The Classic Italian Cook Book and More Classic Italian Cooking. Considered the premier documenter of Italian cuisine, Marcella Hazan is very methodical and didactic in her descriptions, and I find this book to be excellent not only for its recipes, but for its superb descriptions of the basic techniques of Italian cooking.
The Classic Cuisine of the Jews of Italy – by Edda Servi Machlin: Italian Jewish cooking may seem like a small niche, but in fact Italian Jews, because of their affinity for travel and their broad family, social, and business connections, were great innovators of Italian cooking, and their cuisine held great variety. Add to that Edda Machlin’s extraordinary culinary skills and meticulously detailed recipes, and you have a book where virtually every recipe is a winner. Here too there are two versions. I prefer the 1981 original, but the newer 2005 version, titled Classic Italian Jewish Cooking, is good as well.
Vegetables by Alice Waters: If there’s one restaurant I’d like to be able to emulate, it’s Chez Panisse. I’ve been there only a few times, but each time I’ve been amazed by the quality of the ingredients and the precision and pristine execution of the cooking. Alice Waters has published several cookbooks. This one is my go-to book when casting about for different ways to cook our abundance of local vegetables.
Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi – I feel a special closeness to this book. First of all because I, like Ottolenghi and Tamimi, was born in Jerusalem. Second, because Yotam Ottolenghi’s father, Michael, like my own father, emmigrated to Israel from Italy, part of a small and to me, endearing, community. But even without that connection, I admire their extraordinary ability to punch up the flavors of classic dishes, and the exceptional quality and precision they bring to their recipes. While I still find myself making changes – some of their dishes are overly flavored to my taste – this book, and Ottolenghi's other two books, Plenty, and Ottolenghi, are the source of many of my best recipes.
There are a few other books I occasionally draw upon. While they don’t have the consistent and exceptional quality of the ones above, I still have found some of my favorite recipes in them:
Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck - Syrian cooking from the city of Aleppo.
The Sultan’s Kitchen by Oczan Ozan - Turkish cooking.
Stella’s Sephardic Table by Stella Levi – Jewish cooking from the island of Rhodes.
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May 9, 2013 | 6:43 am
Posted by Hava Volterra
As someone that grew up in the Middle East, and counts herself as somewhat of an expert on Mediterranean cuisine, I’m at once thrilled, bemused, and cynical at the sudden popularity of the Mediterranean diet in health circles, and find it necessary to weigh in on the basic definition of Mediterranean food or a Mediterranean diet.
Here’s a definition from this week’s NYTimes article attributing brain benefits to the Mediterranean diet: "Rich in fish, poultry, vegetables and fruit, with minimal dairy foods and meat."
And here is a fuller definition, that came out when the first study showing the benefits of the diet came out earlier this year:
“The mainstays of the diet consisted of at least three servings a day of fruits and at least two servings of vegetables. Participants were to eat fish at least three times a week and legumes, which include beans, peas and lentils, at least three times a week. They were to eat white meat instead of red, and, for those accustomed to drinking, to have at least seven glasses of wine a week with meals. In addition, one group assigned to the diet was given extra-virgin olive oil each week and was instructed to use at least 4 four tablespoons a day. The other group got a combination of walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts and was instructed to eat about an ounce of the mix each day."
Ok, so here’s what I think of all this. First of all, to me, the hallmark of the Mediterranean diet is eating a lot of vegetables and fruits. I find that from childhood, people around the Mediterranean regard good vegetables as an everyday treat. Good tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers are relished. The start of the orange season, the first appearance of clementines, the first stone fruit, are all reasons for excitement.
The Mediterranean diet is not lowfat, but it is low in animal fat. The oil of choice, when available and affordable, is olive oil. In parts where it’s more difficult to find, other types of oil would be used. But animal fat is rarely the choice for a couple of reasons. One is that milk and milk products are less plentiful. And second, the animals themselves, when used for meat, are not of the type that yield much fat.
It's hot around the Mediterranean, so drinking milk straight up, as is common in northern European countries, is almost never done, it wouldn't keep very well. Which perhaps explains the propensity of Mediterraneans to be lactose intolerant as adults. But yogurt, and various light cheeses made from yogurt or from sheep's milk - Pecorino, Caciocavallo, Labneh - are eaten regularly although in moderation. Once fermented, cheese and yogurt can be kept much longer than raw milk, and there's that added advantage that the lactose in them has been broken down by fermentation.
Which brings me to a part of the definition that I object to. The idea that the Mediterranean diet focuses on white meat (i.e., chicken), over beef. No! Depending on where you travel around the Mediterranean, beef, lamb, or pork would be the meat of choice, not chicken. Around most of the Mediterranean, eating chicken was rare. For more affluent Italian households, chicken was reserved for Sunday dinner. And as my father once told me, the farmers around his hometown of Ancona used to say that if someone ate a chicken it was for one of two reasons. Either the person was sick, or the chicken was sick.
The reason for the confusion is most likely because traditional Mediterranean diets consist of only small amounts of meat. I found a wonderfully phrased explanation in Yotam Ottolenghi’s beautiful cookbook, Jerusalem. In it he says: “In a place where cooking whole cuts of meat was, for most of its history, considered a mad extravagance, meatballs, kebabs, and stuffed vegetables were a sensible alternative.” So in fact, while dark meat is usually the meat of choice, its quantities in the diet are relatively small. The idea of the 16oz steak is unheard of. And if you ate a piece of chicken, it would be the thigh, or the leg (those are considered the best) or a little piece of breast, but a quarter chicken would be considered exorbitant.
For many around the Mediterranean, this also means that everyday food often did not include meat. That’s the motivating element for such delicious street food as Falafel (made of chickpeas, and essentially vegan), hummus, babaganoush, tahini, mejadara (a lentil and rice dish). And all of these are served with generous helpings of salads and cooked vegetables.
And what about fish? In reality, fish was eaten mostly if you lived right by a port. Otherwise it was expensive and not readily available. Certainly it wasn’t eaten in the quantities suggested by the modern “Mediterranean diet”.
So what do I consider to be typical of the Mediterranean diet? An abundance and variety of vegetables and fruits. The use of oil instead of animal fat, with a specific love of olive oil. The embrace of legumes and seeds – chickpeas, lentils, sesame seeds. The love of nuts – almonds, walnuts, pinenuts – although these are used mostly for special occasions, they were expensive. The use of whole grains – spelt, bulgur wheat, barley. A moderate consumption of light cheeses and yogurt. And the complex and yet sparing use of meat – often ground up, mixed with vegetables and legumes, and prepared in delectable ways. All of this makes my mouth water.