Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cookbook Review: "Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean"

If you happen to find yourself planning a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts any time soon, one of the many fantastic places at which you should eat is Oleana. My family and I went here last year and the meal we shared ranks as one of my all time most mind-blowingly awesome meals. To this day, I have no idea what I ate, but whatever it was, it engaged all five of my senses in a complete full-body experience.

So I decided to buy the cookbook. Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. 

For weeks I have been dying to try anything from this book; it is so neat. The book is organized by flavor combinations rather than courses. Given the increased likelihood of my spectacular failure when dealing with new flavors, I opted for the galette of tender pork with cumin and cider, which looked like the exact, right amount of effort for a Sunday afternoon cooking adventure. Armed with all the ingredients and a brand-spanking-new dutch oven, I set to it.

[Love note to my dutch oven: Hi, Gorgeous. Look at you, with your inviting, burnt red enameling. How could I resist? You idly glance over at me from the stove, like a giant cat dozing on a warm radiator. Well, hello. I just know we are going to have a long and filling relationship of meats, stews and casseroles. Welcome home. Let's try not to make the other cookware jealous].

Waiving my novice flag high, here, I'll admit that I have never worked with a multiple pound cut of pork before. I was nervous, but it wasn't too difficult once I decided to go all-in in cutting it up. Then I rubbed the pork down with a ton of salt, garlic and cumin and braised it in cider for several hours.  The worst and best part of braising is the smell. At first, all I could smell was the garlic and cumin, mostly because I was smelling myself. Having worked both into the meat somewhat vigorously, I inevitably rubbed it well into my own skin. Not that I have a problem with that. After about an hour of braising, the warm, spicy smell of cider began to waft through my apartment. YUM! I took the meat out to cool before I ripped it apart and reformed it into patties for pan frying. Believe it or not, I used to be afraid of touching raw meat and chicken. Embarrassing. Really. However, I have come a long way; I really enjoyed pulling the pork apart with my fingers, separating out the fat and other bits. Ah-ha! My inner germophobe knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, let me tell you!

I also tried my hand at the dolmas, which is just a grape (or other) leaf, stuffed with rice or other deliciousness. These little Swiss chard rice bombs were frakkin' amazing, despite the fact that I haven't quite figured out Swiss chard. Swiss chard has so much going on flavor-wise, but the leaves are huge. Every time I saute rather than blanch it, I feel like I am fighting lobsters into a pot. The giant leaves loll out the sides like legs or giant tongues trying to escape my skillet. "Ged in there!" ( I suppose I could tear/chop them up a bit, but where is the drama in that?) The dolmas, which were filled with spicy rice with onions, garlic, red pepper paste and a hint of mint, were surprisingly easy to make. I served everything with a side of greek yogurt to complement the spicy rice. Highly recommended.

Although a lot of the recipes in this book are somewhat labor intensive and certain ingredients may be difficult to find, (Hence my going with recipes that included ingredients with which I was already familiar.), it will be a great addition to my library, especially as my skill improves. So if you're looking to branch out into some exciting flavor combinations from Europe and the Mediterranean, check out this book.

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