Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Prologue: My Favorite Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Cookbooks

Here is a list of my six favorite cookbook authors (in alphabetical order in Part I below) whose cookbooks focus on the Middle East and the Mediterranean. I own and have used all of them, both those highlighted and those listed as “other.” All of them are interesting, great fun to use, and generally trustworthy. They would all make great presents. Recipes from three of the books follow in Part II below.

When I fall in love with a cookbook writer, I basically buy and use every cookbook that he or she writes. Maybe I like their aesthetic,their way of writing a recipe, their congeniality, their honesty, or their reliability. Something draws me to them and I am a devoted follower from then on.

These authors have differing takes on authenticity. If they are purists (Paula Wolfert, for example), you are assured of an authentic dish but you’ll also have to hunt high and low or order from an on-line food purveyor to get the ingredients you need. There are others (Alford and Duguid, for example) who want to make their recipes as accessible as possible for American cooks and hence offer substitutions, allowing the cook some discretion. I value both approaches. I love approximating as true to the original a taste as possible. I also don’t want to be misled into thinking that I am making an authentic dish when in fact it is not. But I also don’t want to have to struggle to gather exotic ingredients or cook ware, especially if an easy substitution is available. The rest of these authors fall somewhere in between these two poles.

Most of these cookbooks are incredibly beautiful. Full of photographs of both the food and the countries of origin. The recipes are integrated into the culture in a way I find completely absorbing. Many are also quite expensive, some as much as $50. I figure I amortize the price every time I use it. But $50 is still a lot, amortized or not. I always check if Pegasus or Half-Price Books in Berkeley have used copies. If they don’t, I try my favorite independent bookstores, Readers in Sonoma and Books, Inc. in Berkeley on Fourth Street before resorting to Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

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