The Diva

Aug. 19 1998 3:30 AM

The Diva

Paula Wolfert is very high maintenance, but she's worth it.

Mediterranean Grains and Greens: A Book of Savory, Sun-Dried Recipes
By Paula Wolfert
HarperCollins; 400 pages; $27.50

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The dream of every artist is to be a genius who is also wildly popular, but the way it usually works out is that there is an inexact fit between giftedness and broad appeal. Every one of the arts has a spectrum of esteem with the rich and unrespected at one end, the difficult and audience-less at the other, and most people somewhere in between. This is no less true in cookbook writing than it is in literature or painting or music. In the foodie world, the William Gaddis, the Ad Reinhardt, the John Cage, the inaccessible deity, is Paula Wolfert.

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Wolfert burst upon the food scene 25 years ago with a book called Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco. There she unveiled a technique that a few other food writers (Colman Andrews, Diana Kennedy, Charles Perry) practice but which none equals: the fierce anthropological/reportorial quest for folkish recipes that are hiding in out-of-the-way, premodern places. In her cookbooks Wolfert is always traipsing up to some unelectrified mountain encampment and finding an old woman dressed all in black who has spent a lifetime perfecting one master dish whose ingredients she communicates to Wolfert using sign language.

If you aren't a cookbook consumer you may not know that in many of them, the recipes just don't work--their results are irreproducible. This isn't ever a problem with Wolfert, whose recipes never fail and are written clearly and (a minor miracle in any cookbook) unannoyingly. She doesn't project her feelings about sex and civilization all over the food. So what is it that makes her difficult? It is that, rather than endeavoring to achieve a compromise between the American palate and way of life and the cuisine she's writing about, she goes for total faithfulness. Since her eternal subject is the traditional food of ordinary people living in the countryside of the Mediterranean rim, this means that she presents American readers with many nearly unobtainable ingredients and a way of cooking invented by people who have nothing in their routine that makes it inconvenient to tend a stove all day.

Wolfert's second book, Mediterranean Cooking, was notorious for not having a chapter devoted to main courses, even though that's all the average American cook can be induced to make. In her third book, The Cooking of Southwest France, you really can't get all that far unless you put up substantial quantities of goose or duck confit, a basic building block ingredient that is used in many other recipes. This requires going through 14 detailed steps over two and a half days, and the end result contains four cups of rendered goose fat per three quarts of confit--and Wolfert brags that her confit recipe represents "a reasonable compromise with our less leisurely household rhythms." When The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean was published in 1994, Dean & DeLuca, the New York emporium, sold a special Wolfert ingredient package to make life a little easier for people who might not be able immediately to lay their hands on Aleppo pepper, fenugreek, marigold petals, pomegranate molasses, and other Georgian, Syrian, and Greek stock items that the book requires.

Iimagine the suits at Wolfert's publishing house calling her in and pleading with her: "Please, Paula, do diet! Do bistro! Do California! Do 30-minute!" But probably they know not to waste their breath. For the fall of 1998, Wolfert has a new entry demonstrating that her resolve not to go mainstream remains granitic. It's called Mediterranean Grains and Greens.

Wolfert makes most of her usual moves here. She displays a Faulknerian conviction that the same seemingly narrow band of material (Mediterranean countryside cooking) can be returned to again and again and will keep yielding new riches. Don't expect her to abandon her Yoknapatawpha County in the future, either: "I've come to understand how meagerly I've scratched the surface, how much more exploration remains to be done," she writes in the introduction to this, her sixth book on essentially the same subject. She retains her faith in obscure ingredients (some of which she advises us just to grow, because there isn't any place to buy them) and in labor-intensive cooking methods. Wolfert wrote a whole cookbook about Morocco in which the premise was that you were allowed to buy couscous in boxes at the grocery store--though you weren't allowed to use the instant recipe on the box and had to substitute a four step, 90 minute cooking process. Now, having thought it over, she'd really prefer you make your own couscous at home from semolina, "which is easy and fun."

If I haven't already made it clear, Wolfert's obsessiveness isn't unappealing. Every amateur cook, indeed every hobbyist, has a secret impulse, kept carefully in check, just to go all the way with the thing and descend into complete mania. Wolfert offers the thrill of watching somebody else do what you'd like to but can't let yourself. Actually to cook from her books without going on a leave of absence from work, though, requires adapting her recipes and selectively ignoring her advice, even though to do so is guilt inducing. She wants you to use Carnaroli rice, which is readily available by mail order, but I used Arborio rice from my local supermarket--there, I've admitted it! At least it wasn't Uncle Ben's.

Do you know how, when you go to the vegetable stand or the supermarket, there's a section you usually ignore that is devoted to mounds of cheap, unwieldy looking greens such as kale, chard, broccoli rabe, chicory, collard, and dandelion? Well, after you buy Mediterranean Grains and Greens you won't be ignoring them anymore. Most of the recipes involve some blend of these with a grain--rice or bulgur or bread or couscous or pasta--and some earthy variety of meat or fish. Although Wolfert is quick to inform us that many of the greatest greens of the Mediterranean are simply unobtainable anywhere else, and although many of her recipes call for greens that are hard to find, such as sorrel and purslane, if you're willing to substitute (forgive me, Paula) this is one of Wolfert's most accessible works.

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I t turns out that greens only look forbidding but are quite easy to handle--you just wash them and wilt them in a pot and a green haystack suddenly becomes a manageable couple of handfuls. It also turns out that their strong flavor mellows and creeps interestingly into other ingredients during cooking, and that their bitterness permits the use of a whole range of sweet ingredients, such as fruit, that would otherwise be cloying, and that each of those greens you've never tried has a unique, appealing flavor. The sense-memories that linger after a week of cooking from Mediterranean Grains and Greens are of an intensity, a range, and an unusualness of flavor that you just don't get from more conventional cookbooks. Try the squid smothered in greens with raisins, or the pork-and-artichoke meatloaf wrapped in cabbage leaves, both relatively easy to make, and you'll see what I mean. The ratio of Wolfert advantages (daring, refusal to compromise, authenticity, unconventionality) to Wolfert disadvantages (her tendency to induce an overwhelming feeling of "why bother?") is as high here as it has ever been.

It is the unfair fate of foodies (and even more so of winies) to have their preoccupation with the minutiae of their field taken for snobbery. Somehow when baseball fans invent arcane new statistics and bridge players fly all over the country to tournaments it's endearing, but the same slightly out of control search for the new comes across as motivated by an unsavory need to impress others when it involves eating. A cynic might take Wolfert, and Wolfert fans like me, for reverse snobs, down-homing to mask the fundamental one-upmanship. But this would be vile calumny. Wolfert is merely a perfectionist and a visionary, and such people should be our heroes.

Nicholas Lemann is national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly.