The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert
First Edition - October 4, 2011
Published by Ecco (a division of HarperCollins Publishers)
529 pages, $45 Hardcover
When I began my own exploration of Moroccan cooking some 18 years ago, my Moroccan in-laws and friends convinced me that no Moroccan cookbook in English could possibly be of use to me. Proper Moroccan cooking, they assured me, was learned by watching. And so that’s what I did for many years, until I finally began collecting Moroccan cookbooks as part of my work for About.com.
The first book I acquired, Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (1973), was an epiphany for me. Not only was I genuinely surprised that good, authentic Moroccan recipes could indeed be found in print, but I was fascinated that Paula’s anecdotal accounts of life in Morocco rang true to some of my own experiences in Morocco some 40 years later. When I moved beyond the stories, there was a wealth of information to digest – so much, in fact, that I keep my now-worn copy of Couscous and Other Good Food on my desk and use it as a reference book.
So it was with much anticipation that I waited for the release of Paula Wolfert’s brand new The Food of Morocco. When my review copy finally arrived by courier, I immediately set about reading it.
There is much to like, even upon initial inspection. Beautifully designed, the book contains 500-plus pages of appealing layout that invites both page-turning and page-lingering. Stunning color photographs by Quentin Bacon – almost every spread has them – are works of art that capture the very essence of Moroccan culture and cuisine. As a food writer close to the subject matter, I was especially drawn to the food styling; the pictures show Moroccan food as it really is served in so many Moroccan homes – sometimes on slightly chipped plates, other times alongside imperfect teapots and cutlery, and more often than not with sauce not wiped perfectly clean along the edges of a much-used serving vessel. This is not a five-star restaurant’s lavish take on an ever-evolving cuisine, but an authentic representation of what Moroccan food means to the people who eat it regularly.
Although The Food of Morocco is pretty enough to leave on your coffee table, you’ll find countless reasons to bring it into your kitchen. The heart of any cookbook is the recipe collection, and Paula has provided hundreds of them. They run the gamut from comfort food like Berber Fava Bean Puree (p. 436) and White Beans with Saffron and Meat Confit (p.425) to more refined dishes such as a modern Seafood, Spinach and Noodle Bastila (p. 142). In between, entire sections are devoted to not only predictable favorites such as couscous, tagines and flatbreads, but also to cooking techniques, cooking equipment and essential spices and pantry items. Sidebars and intros provide adequate space for Paula to weave in culinary tales, divulge regional and historical contexts, and share poignant quotes from the literary giants who helped shape her own Moroccan experiences. All the while, she dishes out ample cooking advice while graciously acknowledging sources.
For those already intimate with Moroccan cuisine, there are plenty of dishes to court your palate or inspire a sidestep from your usual repertoire, such as Fish Smothered with Onion Jam (p. 264), Steamed Calamari with Preserved Lemon and Argan Oil (p. 262) and Chicken with Eggplant-Tomato Jam (p. 290). And, for kindred spirits keen on culinary perfection, Paula offers suggestions for elevating flavor even in simple, everyday dishes. In her Roasted Beet Salad with Cinnamon Recipe (p.74), for example, she promotes slow roasting the root vegetable (she goes so far as to suggest a dry roast in a Chinese sand pot) in order to draw out an intense sweetness that boiling simply can’t achieve. It’s this attention to detail, perhaps, that has helped earn Paula a loyal following from critics and home cooks alike; it’s also the kind of advice, if followed, that will help you to transform an ordinary salad into something you’ll yearn for time and again.
The Food of Morocco certainly builds upon Paula’s previous work, yet it can hardly be called a follow-up or revision to Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, as it feels and reads like its own unique masterpiece; nor can it simply be labeled Paula Wolfert’s “latest” cookbook (she’s written eight others, a journey which has led the author to garner a James Beard award, a Julia Child Award, a Tastemaker Award and other accolades). What The Food of Morocco really is, is a lifetime achievement, a culmination of almost 50 years spent in pursuit of good Moroccan food. During this time she mastered not only the cuisine, but how to make it accessible to those who’d never heard of it. She’s hunted down details, stayed true to her own standards of perfection, and delivers passion and culinary wisdom in a way which invites the reader to cook and to explore, all while getting to know the writer.
It's a book well worth owning, and one you're unlikely to part ways with once you do.