There are a handful of cookbook authors -- Diana Kennedy (hyper local Mexican cuisine), Maida Heatter (home baking), Paula Wolfert (Moroccan cuisine) -- whose personal obsession not only with cooking, but truly with a culinary culture, is so focused, so resolute, that when they finally release another cookbook, there really isn't much for us to review. Cookbooks like Wolfert's latest,The Food of Morocco, which hits stores tomorrow.
Yes, Wolfert has spent a lifetime digging up fresh carrots, grating them, and serving them with fresh oranges, orange flower water and cinnamon (p. 68). Not just to enjoy the salad herself, but to offer us a taste of Moroccan home cooking in our own kitchens.
But that's not why we aren't reviewing this book.
Nor is it because there are 13 chapters and 517 pages filled with pantry basics and cooking techniques, another on street breads and pastries, one dedicated entirely to couscous, and others filled with every imaginable Moroccan dinner table necessity (there are chapters on soups, fish, poultry, meats, beans, vegetables and desserts). Nor because we were so hypnotized by Quentin Bacon's photographs that flipping through them turned into an entire morning's "work-related" procrastination excuse. Or even the $45 price tag (less than $30 on Amazon), which required a double take when we saw it, as plenty of Food Network chefs pumping out two books a year charge hardly $10 less.
It is because, to borrow from a quote from Wolfert in the Introduction, The Food of Morocco "is a distillation of everything [she] know[s] about Moroccan cuisine." In other words, this is truly Wolfert's cookbook memoir -- what a really good culinary memoir should be -- and we simply want to enjoy every page, recipe and story. And it is a good story.
More than fifty years ago, Wolfert set foot for the first time in Morocco as a 19-year-old self-described "beatnik... who had read the amazing novels and stories of Paul Bowles set in Morocco." Since then, she has literally tasted thousands of Moroccan dishes, like that spicy chickpea bread with harissa a Tangier spice vendor first shared (p. 113), fish tangine with creamy onion charmoula (p.254) from visits to the North African coast, and chicken with preserved lemons and olives (p. 296) that she enjoyed at the homes of countless Moroccan friends (Wolfert lived in Morocco at various points in her career and now resides in Sonoma).
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Back home, she has cooked up enough batches of creamy fava bean soup with cumin and paprika (p. 180) and white beans with saffron and beef, or lamb, confit (p.425) to fill the pages of a dozen cookbooks. And she has already published that many cookbooks, from the 1973 classic that started it all, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, one focused on clay pot cookware (we largely have Wolfert to thank for making clay pots a Williams-Sonoma staple), as well as several that explored Mediterranean cuisine.
But as Wolfert also tells us in the Introduction, Moroccan cuisine has always been her true obsession, "and the more deeply I explored, the more intensely I came to feel that this was the cuisine for me."
We'd say that very same thing about The Food of Morocco: The more deeply we explored, the more we realized this is hardly the quintessential Paula Wolfert cookbook. This book is Paula Wolfert.