August 2008

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

Artichoke to Za’atar – Throwing Organization to the Wind

I’ve been writing this column for a year now. And I realize that I have some familiar themes -- okay, complaints -- I return to again and again. First, the writing. Please people, it’s cooking, not the culinary rewrite of Ulysses crossed with Bridges of Madison County. Save the overblown, incoherent, and maudlin stuff for your food memoir. Next theme: practicality. I actually use cookbooks. What I mean is, I open them, find a recipe and cook it. I have a family. I live in a pretty metropolitan place. I should be able to find most of the ingredients and if I can’t, well, then most others can’t either. And finally: organization. Remember about three sentences ago when I said the thing about using a cookbook? Well, if the organization sucks, that doesn’t bode well for the book.

Is it too much to ask? A cookbook written in plain language, with reasonable ingredients and organized in a fashion that makes it easy for me to find something to cook? After a year of reviewing cookbooks, I see that it might just be impossible.

Enter this month’s cookbook, Artichoke to Za’atar, a re-release of 1999’s Arabesque, by Greg Malouf and Lucy Malouf. The Maloufs have a lot going for them. Greg, the chef, is Australian. I love Donna Hay, who is Australian and a wonderful cookbook author, making me like all Australian cooks. And Lucy Malouf, is an actual writer.

Deep breath. And we’re off.

First thing’s first: the writing. The introduction is quite good and Greg Malouf says all the right things.

“This book is not intended for the superchef -- Middle Eastern food is, after all, largely just good home cooking.”

And:

“These days few people have the time or inclination to spend hours stuffing little exquisite morsels.”

And:

“Indeed, it seems as if the task of providing food every day for a family, partner, or oneself has become something of a chore. I firmly believe that one’s daily dinner should not be complicated, time-consuming and overworked.”

And:

“I am firmly against the sort of food fascism which dictates many people’s eating habits these days.”

As for practicality, well, it’s a Middle Eastern cookbook. It’s not like Italian food or Mexican food, two cuisines nicely ensconced in any American grocery store, as they should be because Mexican food = everything that’s right in the world. (Oddly, there’s a recipe for guacamole here. I’m not kidding. Page 171. The recipe is Preserved-Lemon Guacamole with Smoked Eel and Pine Nut Wafers. At what point is this guacamole and not… say…avocado salad, or better, avocado chutney?) So I’m willing to give a wide berth to the practical ingredients requirement. The book calls for lamb’s rump, which I know I’ll never cook and lamb’s brains, which I can promise you are not at my local market. But that’s forgivable.

And now we reach the organization. And here is where Greg and Lucy Malouf have, I don’t know what the word is, but imagine something like a slow-moving freight train hitting a brick wall. The organization just plain sucks. The chapters are organized by ingredient. Some of the ingredients are broad -- cheese, couscous, lamb -- and some are strangely specific -- pistachios, quinces, sesame seeds. I mean, who has sesame seeds on hand and thinks, god, all of these sesame seeds, what will I do with them? No one with a family who needs to eat dinner.

The Maloufs spend a whole chapter on Orange-Blossom Water, and another on Turkish Coffee.

The result is chapters of varying length and too much time flipping through to find something that will feed a group.

As for the food itself, I made the white bean soup with spicy merguez sausages. (Though the guacamole was tempting.) It was very good. Except I had no idea what merguez sausages are. And neither did the posh organic market that I went to. Turns out, they’re spicy sausages made from lamb and beef. I could have probably substituted chorizo. But I didn’t. I basically had a brain meltdown and for whatever reason, though hot coppa was the way to go. The result was actually okay. The recipe calls for lemon and hazelnuts, turning the soup into a nice, hearty surprise. One that will definitely take its place in the winter dinner rotation.

The cookbook will remain on my shelf, if for no other reason than I liked the introduction so much. It seemed very sincere and thoughtful, and I hope that as time goes on I’ll find a few more recipes that are too.