Saturday, November 01, 2008

"Artichoke to Za'atar"

Artichoke to Za'atar. Such a promising name for a book on Middle Eastern food. This work by Greg Malouf and Lucy Malouf has been on my amazon wish-list for quite a while, and so I've chosen it as the second of my current reading project.

For starters, check out the table of contents (left). The book is organized by basic ingredients, except the section on "Pastry." The first sections are "Almonds" and "Apricots." Third, not first, is "Artichokes." Look down towards the end of this list: the authors never actually get to "Za'atar" at all. OK, the publisher probably picked the title to make it catchier, never mind consistency.

Actually, inconsistency would be my word of choice for this book. Za'atar isn't omitted entirely, for example. The section titled "Thyme" claims that za'atar is simply a blend of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac -- which isn't exactly right. Like many of the sections of this erratic book, this information is not very reliable. Even in Wikipedia's entry on Za'atar, there's a much more nuanced description, including a reference to hyssop, the unique ingredient in this somewhat obscure Middle Eastern spice blend (a fact I learned some time ago by reading the back of the Za'atar box -- see Muhamarra.)

Some sections offer interesting tidbits of information in the overview of the individual ingredient. Cardamom is a member of the ginger family. Quinces grow sweeter in hot climates, and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Apricots originated in China. But I'm sorry to say I think you could easily find out this much by a little simple web browsing. And cliches abound: "Garlic shouldn't overpower every other flavor in a dish..." (p. 135); "Parsley can be added to and will improve just about every dish imaginable." (p. 208) For the most part, these introductions just aren't adequately focused on the detailed uses of the subject ingredient. The list sounds delicious: lemons, dates, orange blossom water (no oranges), rose water, saffron, pomegranates, sesame seeds: mostly pretty Middle Eastern. But the treatments are too trivial.

And there are real gaps. In a book like this, I'd expect to learn about the Moroccan spice blend ras al hanout. In the section on ginger, the reader learns that ginger is one of the primary ingredients in the blend, but the ras al hanout recipe on p. 80 doesn't call for ginger in its long list of spices. And to my disappointment, I didn't find a single recipe that called for this blend. Tagines, the book says, often use it, but among the indexed tagine recipes, not one calls for it. (The index is incomplete -- another annoying inconsistency.)

Some of the recipes sound good -- though I think if I wanted to make the more elaborate dishes, I'd go for a more trusted source, such as one of Paula Wolfert or Claudia Roden's books. The elaborate recipes in fact aren't even always possible. I'd like to make a tagine, for example, but it's not helpful to have a recipe that calls for a pigeon. I don't have a BB gun so where would I get one? Some of the simple recipes appear interesting, such as the tahini and yogurt dressing with garlic, lots of lemon juice, salt and pepper. I might try that soon.

I enjoyed reading through the narrative portions of this too-ambitious book and seeing the variety of recipes, but I'm glad I only got it out of the library. It just wouldn't be worth the shelf space for the shallow coverage it gives its subject.

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