Posts Tagged ‘Mediterranean Grains and Greens’

Unforgettable Paula Wolfert: A Tribute

When I was in my early 20s and becoming aware that I was by far my happiest in the kitchen and my interest in flavor and food was on a level that was not entirely normal, America was obsessing over classic French and Italian cuisine. Anxious cooks were obsessed with anything Julia. Later there was anything Marcella. But it was an oddly joyless time. If you went to a dinner party, you were expected to talk all evening about the food. Very little ever got said about anything but the food. There was a lot of competition involved, and the kitchen ethic that I grew up with in Louisiana, that of getting over yourself and cooking something good and inviting people in to enjoy themselves and each other, did not seem to be there.
Fortunately in Manhattan in the early 80s there was joyful food to be had. I would make the very long walk to Manhattan’s Chinatown, where there were basins full of wriggling seafood and strange vegetables all along the sidewalks, and ginger and wild-looking dried things that might be fungal or might be animal, and the elderly vendors would hand me unfamiliar vegetables with the invariable instruction “cook in soup.” There were the Indian markets on Lexington Avenue, full of wonderful spices with a combined aroma that seemed like Nirvana, where a passing shopper in a gleaming sari might easily stop and spent 20 minutes telling me how she cooked greens or chappati like the ones her grandmother made. There was a Greek market on Ninth Avenue that sold green coffee beans for roasting at home and olives from enormous barrels and where the proprietor might cheerfully pass me a shot of Greek brandy as he wrote up my modest purchases, for the pleasure of watching me gasp and sputter as I tried to swallow it.
And there was Paula Wolfert. Instead of the staid rhythms of a classic cuisine, she wrote about the bold, the unexpected, and the renegade food of the world.  Her recipes were long and extremely detailed and assumed that you loved to be in the kitchen and that spending a few extra hours there was nothing but a pleasure.  She wrote about food that was not for showing off, but intended to warm and nourish people and make them incredibly happy.   Her name became a kind of secret code among enthusiastic home cooks, and we might have long pleasurable arguments about which of her books was best.  I bought my first couscoussiere, a huge tin lined copper beauty that was the glory of my kitchen and astonishingly cheap at the time because few people in America wanted one.  I preserved lemons and cooked chickpeas  and developed a serious addiction to coriander leaves and toasted my own spices and longed for an exciting life like Paula’s.  As Paula went on through various Mediterranean cuisines, I went with her, loving every minute of the journey.  My Paula Wolfert cookbooks are ragged, broken backed, and splashed with food, which is as it should be. In some cases they look less blemished, because I wore out the original copy and got a new one.

In 2013 Paula was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and consistent with her personality, she not only tried every way she could to maintain her own health but became a spokesperson for others with the illness.

The cookbook Unforgettable, with the story of Paula’s life woven through recipes that she loves, has just been published through a Kickstarter campaign, and all diehard fans will want to own it. You can find it on Amazon. But don’t forget all the other books that chronicled her passionate interests through the years and gave us recipes that we will never forget.
Even though we never met, Paula was my constant kitchen companion for decades. My hat is off to her, now and always. And by the way; best Paula Wolfert cookbook ever? Mediterranean Grains and Greens. No question. Or if you aren’t convinced, meet me in the kitchen sometime and we can have a lovely argument about it.

The Greens of Summer: greens bruschetta

If you’re interested in making leafy greens an enjoyable part of your diet, I highly recommend Paula Wolfert’s book Mediterranean Grains and Greens. My favorite greens recipe, however, does not come from that book but from another of her books, Paul Wolfert’s World of Food. She calls it “marmalade of spring greens,” and it is intended as a spread for bread. I find it wonderful stuff to have tucked in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several days and makes great impromptu lunches and snacks. I have made it so often for so long that my recipe has morphed into something a little different from hers, as tends to happen with recipes that really work for me.

First, catch your greens. See my earlier blog post about greens options and about cleaning them. Right now I am mostly using mixtures of amaranth leaves ( the polite term for common pigweed), lambs quarters, purslane, sweet potato leaves, and New Zealand spinach, because those are the plants that are doing best in our summer heat. Gather about a pound of assorted greens. If you are using store bought, a mixture of Swiss chard or Tuscan kale and spinach will work well. I avoid the baby spinach that comes in cello bags. It doesn’t have enough flavor for use as a cooked green. If you enjoy bitter greens you can add several dandelion leaves (I am referring to the store bought kind, not the wild kind, which are too bitter to use at this time of year.) Or you can add a small bunch of watercress to add a little bit of snap. But don’t worry too much about this, because the seasonings will add the extra kick as long as the greens are good.

1 pound of mixed greens

One Shallot

Two cloves of garlic, fairly large

1/4 cup of olive oil

10 to 12 kalameta olives, finely chopped

2 tablespoons capers, preferably salt packed, washed of salt and soaked in cold water for an hour

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add the greens, and cook uncovered for one minute, just until they are thoroughly wilted. Drain and press out any excess moisture. Turn them out on the chopping board and chop them thoroughly in both directions, so that you retain some texture (you don’t want a paste) but all stems and leaf ribs are cut up into small pieces.

Chop the garlic and shallot quite finely over medium heat in the olive oil until cooked through but not brown. Add the chopped olives and the capers, either chopped or whole as you prefer. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the chopped greens, the red pepper, and a little salt. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until the greens are tender. Taste, season with salt and pepper as needed, and spread thickly on toasted or grilled bread. Top with some grated Parmesan cheese and a handful of toasted pine nuts.

Many variations are possible, and I seldom make this dish the same way twice. I may add several cloves of confited garlic instead of two cloves of fresh for a deep mellow flavor. A mashed filet of anchovy or a dash of colatura added at the saute’ stage give an especially rich flavor- this is very close to the Wolfert original. A generous spoonful of roasted tomato sauce added toward the beginning is a nice touch. A half teaspoon of Spanish smoked paprika, Pimenton de la Vera, gives a faint smoky edge as if you had cooked it over a wood fire.  A good sprinkling of fresh thyme or chopped oregano or marjoram leaves over the top just before serving gives a lovely whiff of its Mediterranean origin.  A poached or fried egg plopped on top makes it a hearty meal. You can serve the greens at room temp on a bed of fresh ricotta, drizzled with your best olive oil, and serve the bread on the side.

I should add that, like so many other things, it seems to taste best if cooked in clay. I tend to use either an unglazed clay bean pot or a Spanish cazuela, after doing the initial blanching of the greens in an ordinary pot. A Chinese sand pot works well too. If you’re curious, do read another of Ms. Wolfert’s books, Clay Pot Cookery, which contains everything you might want to know about cooking with clay.