The Fourth Cookbook of Christmas: Mediterranean Harvest

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It’s Tuesday. I need to use up the two pounds of asparagus I bought at the market on Saturday. My plan to pickle it has been foiled by my inability to find dill seed in the Hutt Valley. (This year, I’ll remember to hang on to the end-of-summer dill flowers.) So, I just whipped up a batch of fresh pasta to make Asparagus Pasta with Herbed Béchamel, a recipe from one of my all-time favourite cookbook authors, Martha Rose Schulman. Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate that today’s cookbook recommendation is her Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes from the World’s Healthiest Cuisine (Rodale, 2007).

While I consider myself a culinary adventurer when it comes to trying new cuisines, I must confess that my heart lies in Italy. For me, food is merely a delivery system for olive oil and garlic. One of the very first cookbooks I ever bought was a Gilroy Garlic Festival cookbook. Schulman’s recipe for garlic broth — which, I promise, tastes almost exactly like chicken stock — is worth the price of the book all on its own. It’s my failsafe for when I need vegetable stock and the freezer is bare. It’s also a good way to use up slightly past its prime garlic. You know, the ones with the green shoots about an inch long. As my Dad used to quip, no one needs to worry about vampires at my house.

Come to think of it, though, I’m also quite fond of vampires. REAL vampires — Dracula, Lestat, Barnabus Collins, and Spike — not today’s domesticated, broody teenage angst vampires. Which reminds me, you must immediately get on Netflix and add What We Do in the Shadows to your watch list. It is the perfect marriage of old-world Vampires and new world New Zealand. Nosferatu meets The Flight of the Conchords. It will make you want to move here, just for the vampires. And the werewolves. And there really was a bar called The Big Kumara, but it’s closed now. Sorry.

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Now, where was I?

Mediterranean cuisine is among the most vegetarian-friendly in the world, given its emphasis on fresh ingredients and simple preparations. Mediterranean Harvest is by no means limited to the food of Italy. It includes recipes from around the greater Mediterranean region: Algeria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Greece, Iran, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey. The book is organised topically — Breads, Little Foods, Pasta, Sweets, etc. — rather than geographically, but there is a list of recipes by country in the back. The lion’s share of the recipes here are French, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish, but it does include some important outliers. Schulman includes a (slightly) slimmed-down version of one of my favourites, Persian Rice, that uses four tablespoons instead of the usual quarter pound. In my opinion, it needs fresh fava beans or baby limas mixed in, but you can do what you like.

My favourite chapter is “Little Foods: Starters, Snacks, Mezze, and More.” Here’s where you will find all those delicious little tapas and other tidbits that are such fun: filo pastries, dips, spreads, and marinated things. A few of these, a cold bottle of prosecco, and some lovely fresh strawberries and you have a party. Okay, maybe a few bottles of prosecco. I’ve been over hummus since 1993 when I traveled to Palestine and ate hummus every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for nearly three weeks. You’ll find traditional hummus here (if you really must), but also some nice alternatives: White Bean Brandade (a vegetarian version of the classic French white bean and salt cod puree), Turkish Hummus (spicier, with no tahini), and Fresh Fava Bean Puree. There is also a useful section of suggested toppings for bruschetta and crostini.

Do you love risotto but never make it for company because you don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen stirring over a hot stove during cocktails while your guests are snarfing up all antipasti? Schulman will tell you how to cook it part of the way in advance, reducing the final prep to 15 minutes. And her easy polenta will save you the ordeal of stirring polenta (in one direction only) for 30 minutes and blistering your thumb. Perhaps a purist could tell the difference, but I sure can’t. Except that I don’t have a painful blister on my thumb.

While I’m on the topic of polenta, a word about grits. If you adore grits as much as I do, and live outside the Southern US, polenta can be your saviour. You can do pretty much anything with polenta that you can do with grits. It’s not going to be the same as real, stone ground grits; but it will be way better than <gasp> instant grits. On Masterchef Australia last year, the eventual winner — Brent Owens — made grits out of popcorn. I’ve been meaning to try that. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Sadly, if hominy exists in New Zealand, I haven’t found it.

Martha Rose Schulman is also a food columnist for The New York Times. Her focus has long been on healthy eating, and her column, like Mediterranean Harvest, is replete with meatless, lower fat versions of classic international dishes. But don’t mistake healthy for worthy and boring. I have her recipe box bookmarked in the Times Cooking app on my iPad. (If you don’t have the Times Cooking app yet, download it immediately. Even if you aren’t a vegetarian.)

Every vegetarian cookbook collection should have at least one good Mediterranean cookbook, mine has several, including others by Schulman. Her newest, The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking (Rodale, 2014), is prettier — with loads of lovely colour photographs.  But in terms of culinary breadth and basic kitchen knowledge, Mediterranean Harvest is a must have.

And Remember: eat garlic every day to keep the vampires away.

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