Book Review by Appetite for Books

As we learn and our world expands into a larger place, it also becomes smaller. We are invited into the lives, histories of tiny corners of the globe only to find similarities and comfort. Suddenly, invited into a kitchen halfway around the world we find the familiarity of home.

In her book, Alba Johnson invites us into her family’s Maghreb kitchen, where the cooking is a particular melding of Southern Italian and North African flavors. This isn’t red sauce Italian, but subtly perfumed home cooking that reflected her family’s life in Tunis and Naples.

She recalls small kitchens in sunny climes, where they often cooked outdoors. And the regular rituals of trips to the market with her grandfather, an expert shopper and cook, Sunday lunches of pasta with sauce that had cooked low and slow. These repeated experiences gave Johnson the skills to cook, as she writes, like a Mahgrebian—intuitively, creatively, and with whatever ingredients are at hand.

Across the Mediterranean, these ingredients blend into signature flavors and techniques—olives, oranges, hot sauce, and garlic—in sauces and pizzas as well as flaky bric pastries and kebabs.

Of course, there are recipes for pasta—with mint pesto, with raw tomato sauce, with fried zucchini, or with tomatoes and sautéed breadcrumbs. But there are also recipes for couscous with vegetables and spices, a Tunisian Carrot Salad spices with cumin and coriander, and for dessert, coconut covered dates.

This is home cooking, and you’ll find the dishes can fit seamlessly into your kitchen. On a busy weeknight, call on a dish like Chackchouka with Poached Eggs for a quick and satisfying dinner. A simmer of onion, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes, makes a flavorful bed for eggs poached right in the sauce—a fresh dinner of real food in just about 15 minutes.

Save the weekends for more involved dishes like a slow simmered Beef in Wine and Spices or a baked Ziti al Forno, but remember, half the flavor comes from the family and friends who share the meal.

© 2010 Claudia Kousoulas

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