“Has it been 10 years?”
Paula Wolfert and I say this almost simultaneously when we spot each other in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel. We’ve both lost weight since we last spent an afternoon in San Francisco, near where she lives, walking around the city and eating Crab Louis Salad at the Swan Oyster Depot. So we had that to crow about. Paula’s trick: She prepares and eats her big meal at lunch with her husband, novelist William Bayer. Come dinner time, she has a glass of wine and a handful of trail mix. Whatever she’s doing, it’s working. She looks a decade younger than her 73 years.
I first met Wolfert as a fanboy, pure and simple. I introduced myself after seeing her prepare a Tunisian-style couscous with tomato paste and carrot fronds at a food show in Denver. Like many of her fans, I came of age as a cook through some of her early cookbooks, such as “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco” and “The Cooking of Southwest France.” Many of my earliest dinner parties came right from her books; the recipes were sometimes more complicated and involved than others I normally tackled, but they were so thoroughly explicated that I felt like she was standing over my shoulder giving encouragement. Her recipes were all the result of fieldwork with real home cooks in every corner of the Mediterranean ; they brought the real flavors of foreign lands to your kitchen.
Wolfert and I connected that day and we kept up an occasional correspondence. Soon after I moved to Atlanta in 1997, she came through on a book tour. We spent a hilarious day combing the city for the kinds of semolina flour we needed to make hand-rolled couscous. You have to roll the couscous in a large platter, which I didn’t have. So Paula talked me into buying a huge, ugly pressed-aluminum platter from a Chinese market, saying, “Trust me, you’ll use this over and over again.” She was right.
This time, however, Paula didn’t have the time to cook — from her latest book, “The Food of Morocco” (Ecco, $45) — so we met for lunch and paged through its pages, handsomely illustrated with photos of home cooks, spice markets and finished dishes. In one photo, a woman hovers over a breathtaking pile of purple crocuses, pulling the brilliantly hued saffron stamens out one by one.
This tome is an update of “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco,” the book Wolfert wrote after living in Morocco and on which she made her name. It includes more than 100 additional recipes , many from Berber traditions, distinct from Arab ones.
As long as I’ve known Wolfert, I’ve always seen her get excited by new cooking techniques. This time she can’t wait to tell me the way she learned to make warka — a gossamer Moroccan sheet pastry that’s similar to phyllo but more resilient — with a paintbrush dipped in the dough. She first learned the technique from a Moroccan cooking video on YouTube.
“I do not deal in invented dishes,” Wolfert says. “I learn everything from these women, most of whom I met and cooked with. I don’t do what chefs do.”
Wolfert realizes her focus on the primacy of real home cooking makes her a dinosaur in today’s food writing world. Today’s most successful writers either hitch their fortunes to famous chefs or become mediagenic personalities in their own right. But in her 10 cookbooks, Wolfert focuses squarely on the home cooks whose food tells the story of their homes and villages.
Indeed, San Francisco chef Mourad Lahlou is also making the publicity circuit with his Moroccan cookbook, called “Mourad: New Moroccan” (Artisan; $40). The handsome, tattooed Lahlou, who frequently doffs his shirt for photo ops, has parlayed the flavor of his native country into creative restaurant fare.
Wolfert takes issue with some of the coverage of their competing cookbooks that has suggested a competition between the authors. “We have very different approaches, but we’re friends, and he considers me a mentor,” she says. A lot of us do, Paula.
Chicken with Fennel, Preserved Lemon and Olives
(adapted slightly from “The Food of Morocco,” by Paula Wolfert)
Trim the chicken legs and thighs of excess fat. Soak in 1 quart water and then wait for up to 2 hours. Drain and pat dry.
Heat the oil in a large ovenproof skillet. Add the chicken skin side down and fry, without turning, until golden. Transfer the chicken to a side dish. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and cook over medium heat until tender.
Add the preserved lemon, the saffron water, an additional ¼ cup water, ginger and aniseed and stir once. Return the chicken to the pan and bring to a boil, the cover, lower the heat, and cook for 25 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Turn each piece of chicken over and bring the cooking juices to a boil. Add the fennel and olives, cover and place in the oven to cook for 25-30 minutes.
If the chicken is not brown enough, turn on the broiler and brown for a few minutes. Taste the sauce and correct the seasoning. Serve hot, sprinkled with the fennel fronds and parsley.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog