From My Bookshelves is an occasional book review series – featuring my cookbook collection. A few years ago, I pared my burgeoning cookbook shelves back to just the essentials. It had to happen. No one likes a hoarder. If I recommend a book, it’s because I’ve cooked from it and love it – not because someone’s given me a free copy. Occasionally, I may review other types of food writing too.
Want to be a hero among your friends? Always volunteer to bring the salad. Much of the time, green salads are an afterthought – but they can be so much more. Salad opens the palate at the beginning of a meal, or provides a refreshing respite at the end.
My go-to salad evolved from a recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks.
My friend Lisa gave me Matthew Kenney’s Mediterranean Cooking for Christmas back in 1997, the year it was published. The book focuses on the flavors of the Mediterranean rim – in addition to recipes from Spain and Italy, the countries represented here include Morocco, Egypt and Turkey. Kenney states in the introduction that his recipes aren’t necessarily traditional in technique, or even ingredients. His goal is to bring traditional Mediterranean rim flavor profiles to American home cooks. And how did he succeed, at least in my kitchen.
This book taught me that lemon, olives and chicken belong together, (Lemon Chicken with Pine Nuts and Green Olives), that cooked carrots (Moroccan Spiced Carrots) can be lyrical, and that peeling fava beans is a task worth doing, (Shrimp Paella with Clams and Fava beans), and that fennel in dessert (Fennel Seed Cake with Candied Figs) is a good idea.
But my two favorite recipes in the collection are salad dressings. The Cilantro Dressing with orange juice and cumin is perfect harmony of sweet and acidity. And it’s every bit as tasty on pakoras or fresh corn, as it on the crab cakes it once adorned in Kenney’s restaurant. The walnut oil dressing that brings together the Bitter Greens with Spiced Almonds has never failed me. If you make it, try the leftover vinaigrette as a marinade for roasted beets. Serve the beets at room temperature after a few hours rest in the dressing, and sprinkle those spiced almonds (or spiced walnuts) on top. There’s an easy Thanksgiving side dish.
The book isn’t perfect. Fifteen years on from when I first cracked its spine, I find a few of the recipes a little too sweet for my taste, and I have learned that pine nuts don’t need to be quite so ubiquitous. When I made the fennel seed cake last week, it was a little dryer than I remembered. Next time, I’ll incorporate the roasted figs right into the cake.
These days, Kenney is raw food guru, with restaurants in Santa Monica, Chicago and Oklahoma City. (Think about that: a successful raw food restaurant in Oklahoma.)I’m kind of skeptical of the raw food movement, but, with his talent behind the concept, I’m not in the least bit surprised by the success of his restaurants, classes, and many raw food books. And I’d love to try out one of his restaurants; for now, though, I’ll happily keep cooking from this book.