Cookbook Review: Olives & Oranges

Foods Learned From A Mediterranean Childhood

Cookbook Review: Olives & Oranges

Foods Learned From A Mediterranean Childhood

Chef Sara Jenkins grew up in Spain, Lebanon, Italy, and other Mediterranean countries following her father, an American foreign correspondent. Her satisfying new cookbook, Olives & Oranges (Houghton Mifflin, $35.00 hardcover, with color photographs), written with food editor Mindy Fox, is a tribute to that childhood, one defined by the rustic foods of the Mediterranean.

Chef Jenkins has cooked in some much loved New York restaurants (50 Carmine, Patio, Il Buco and I Coppi) and is about to open her own restaurant (Porchetta, scheduled to open this fall in the East Village). But she writes of foods cooked at home, devoting chapters to salads, soup, pasta, fish, poultry, meats, sweets, and what she calls "small plates," a selection of recipes for what might be variously called mezze (Lebanon or Turkey), tapas (Spain), or antipasti (Italy).

Within these traditional classifications she assigns more than 140 recipes into one of two categories: quick-cook or slow-cook. For those of us who cook differently during the week than on weekends when time is more an option, these handy labels are very useful. She also cooks with seasonal ingredients which means there are recipes that are best to make at various times of the year (Cantaloupe Gazpacho in the summer or Peppery Braised Short Ribs mid-winter).

The book begins with Chef Jenkins personal kitchen memories and then gives us a primer on ingredients. I love that she's specific about which brand of pasta, capers and anchovies to buy; which spices are essential; the argument for homemade chicken stock; and the criteria for cheese, tomatoes and sweet and spicy flavors. She explains how these details will make us successful at creating authentic flavors -- without them, the technique of making the recipe will fall short and the flavors may disappoint.

If you have traveled to the parts of the world where Chef Jenkins grew up and you crave unforgettable meals that made a powerful impact on your sense memory, this book may give you the means to cook them for yourself.

The Recipes

If you are a fan of pan-Mediterranean cuisines and want to expand your knowledge of flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques, this appealing and accessible book is one that you'll reach for often. I want to cook nearly everything in it. Examples of the recipes include:

Small Plates:

 

Salads:

 

Soups:

 

Pasta:

 

Fish:

 

Chicken and Other Backyard Livestock:

 

Beef, Veal, Pork, Lamb, and Venison:

 

Sweets:

 

Test Driving the Recipes

In getting ready to review this book, I tried two recipes: Lemon Olive Oil Cake and Fresh Summer Tomato Sauce. I am insecure about my skill as a cake baker but I've always loved the simple cakes found throughout much of Italy. This recipe was so simple that I made it on a week-night when a friend was coming for an easy dinner. The oil made it tender, yogurt made it tangy and lots of lemon zest gave it fragrant flavor. Days later the crumb was still perfect and it was a treat with a handful of local blueberries.

I chose the Fresh Summer Tomato Sauce because I had somehow ended up with a rag-tag collection of some cherry tomatoes, a few gnarly heirlooms and one big local New Jersey beauty. Even though the recipe calls for plum tomatoes, my result was bright and flavorful. I also added a handful of diced fresh mozzarella and when the warm sauce and al dente rigatoni hit the serving bowl, the cheese got happily soft and stringy. Although the recipe says "Summer," I'm sure that even with mid-winter plum tomatoes, this recipe will be a comfort.

Besides giving us an inspiring and reliable collection of recipes, Chef Jenkins is an enabler. There is a constant message in the book about how you can make these recipes, these ingredients, these flavors your own. She writes, "The intent of this book is to show you how flavors work independently and together, so you can follow your own instincts and appetites, make the most out of the ingredients you have, cook without a recipe if you like, or change one to suit your needs and be a better, more confident cook."

And isn't that what we all want?

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