If you’re of the mind that dried parsley can replace fresh cilantro in a recipe, Paula Wolfert is not your girl. Wolfert — who has racked up the James Beard Award, Julia Child Award, M.F.K. Fisher Award, and others — doesn’t write mere cookbooks. Her eight works are culinary and cultural explorations lovingly tracing each region’s cooking back to its roots. As the title of her 2004 book The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook makes clear, Wolfert doesn’t go the quick-and-dirty Rachel Ray route.
“I’m trying to reproduce things as they were,” she says, whether that’s the traditional cuisine of Catalonia, Languedoc, Sicily, or Tangier.
Wolfert’s recipes tend to be more time-consuming and ingredient-intensive than those of the perpetually grinning Ray, but for passionate cooks like Wolfert, there’s no comparison. The names of the dishes — Beef Short Ribs Simmered in Red Wine with Fennel, Black Olives, and Anchovies in the Style of the Camargue; Double-Cooked Red Chicken Marrakech-Style; Night-and-Day Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder — evoke rich, layered flavors and sensual melting textures. And, she points out, slow-cooked food is more forgiving than a dish that must come together in minutes or die in the pan.
Wolfert strives for authenticity, but she’s no Luddite. She loves her Cuisinart and, in 2005, updated her book The Cooking of Southwest France, which first came out in 1983. Her lavish, luscious confit and cassoulet recipes are still there, but she streamlined preparation. In 1994, she also lightened up or dropped some of the heavier recipes in her 1976 book Mediterranean Cooking.
The romance of what Wolfert does comes as she stands in the kitchens of France, Italy, Spain, and Morocco, inhaling the perfume of sautéed garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, wine, and gently braised meats. She tastes amazing morsels, watches chefs and home cooks at work, and preserves recipes passed down for generations.
The science and obsession comes back in her own sumptuous Sonoma kitchen, where she standardizes the recipes for contemporary cooks. “Cut into pieces as long as a woman’s finger” may have made sense or at least sounded poetic back in someone’s cozy Catalonian kitchen, but what does that actually mean? Whose finger? Which finger? How big a finger?
Wolfert prepares the recipes again and again, adjusting amounts and techniques, using the cheap handmade clay pots of the region, then her indestructible Le Creuset casseroles, until the recipe she presents on the page will be as delectable as it was where it was first made.
“If you give the logical steps to making something, you can be pretty successful, especially now, with all the ingredients available today,” she says.
It was not always so. When Wolfert introduced America to Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco in 1973, the dishes seemed as exotic as the country itself. Wolfert herself was not born into a Cordon Bleu family.
“I came from boiled and broiled,” says the Brooklyn-born author. “My mother was on her diet her whole life. She lived to 94 eating cottage cheese and salad.”
In the late 1950s, Wolfert moved to Paris as a young bride and student.
French cuisine “was an awakening,” she says. “It was an unveiling. It was fabulous. I never ate cream and butter and rich food like that before. Who wouldn’t love it?” She loved it so much, she recalls, “I had to have my gall bladder removed. I wasn’t even 20 years old.”
She rebounded quickly and blissfully ate her way through Paris. But in her own kitchen, she was “a totally useless person,” she says. She signed up for a six-week course at the Cordon Bleu, fell in love with cooking, dropped out of college, and went to work for the famed culinary school’s instructor, Dione Lucas.
After eight years in Paris, she moved to Tangier with her husband and their two young children. “I was a beatnik,” she recalls. Perhaps, but a beatnik “bowled over by Moroccan food.” Even so, writing a Moroccan cookbook wasn’t part of her plan until the Moroccan government approached her, promising her access to the best cooks in the country — home cooks and servants rather than restaurant chefs, people who knew the secrets of the country and the cuisine. Wolfert took off with a chauffeur-driven government car on a culinary safari. The result, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, is still in print more than 30 years later.
Wolfert returned to the United States and in 1970 married her current husband, thriller writer William Bayer.
As with cooking, Wolfert doesn’t rush the writing process. A cookbook, she says, takes her five years. She doesn’t just barge into strangers’ kitchens. She builds relationships long in advance of her visit. When she went to Sicily in 1981, she would first meet Sicilians in New York. They’d say, ‘Oh, write my cousin Mary; she’s a wonderful chef.’ I’d write letters. I started to teach myself not Italian, but Sicilian. I did the same thing in Catalonia. I learned the Catalonian words for food. I’m not a linguist,” Wolfert says, “but if you make an effort, do that little extra, people are always touched.”
She also comes bearing gifts, usually something uniquely American. One year, she recalls, “I was lugging around cans of maple syrup. God, was that heavy.”
In her travels, Wolfert had a bad Mexican worm experience, but it hasn’t dimmed her passion for food, whether the dish is confit of pigs’ tongue (“one of the most divine dishes ever made”) or her home must-haves of bread, butter, and yogurt.
Between gathering recipes abroad and teaching cooking classes around the country, Wolfert has been a globetrotter for much of her career. She dashes around the kitchen like a demon, but she admits, “I’m going to be 70 in April.” She’s had a hip replaced, and she has a little arthritis. Cooking classes are fewer by far and much closer to home, like the small hands-on class at Sonoma’s Ramekins cooking school, where she initiated a dozen acolytes into the ways of Moroccan cuisine.
Wolfert is devoting her time to finishing a new cookbook — new for her, yet it dates back to the dawn of man. “Clay-pot cooking is the earliest artifact of man dealing with food,” she says. While she has nothing against progress, All-Clad, and the Internet, slow-cooking food in a clay pot really make a difference in taste, she says. Due out next year, her tentatively titled Confessions of a Clay Pot Junkie includes recipes from the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East that do more than please the stomach.
“It’s got the most spiritual dimension of anything I’ve ever talked about,” Wolfert says. “If you like to serve people, to cook for people, it’s that standing there, holding the pot in your hand, thrusting it toward people — that imagery is very important to me.”
She’ll always be enamored of tradition, but she also is excited about the future — right here in Fast Food Nation. We’ve come a long way from boiled and broiled, and Wolfert credits the Food Network and food blogs.
“Everybody wants to be a food writer,” she says. “There’s some terrific food writing out there. But in the blogs, there’s a lot of running at the mouth. You have to have that extra dimension. You have to soar.
“We’re on the cusp of something exciting,” she says. “We finally have the right ingredients. With good ingredients, you’re going to have good food.”
No Visa Required
Paula Wolfert has traveled the world and sampled its most exotic eats. Here are a few places she likes closer to home.
Sonoma: Harvest Moon
Napa: Don Giovanni, Angele’s, The French Laundry
Berkeley: Chez Panisse
San Francisco: Zuni Café, Aziza
Not all Wolfert’s recipes are long on labor or ingredients. This recipe, adapted from Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, is a favorite at her cooking classes. It’s easy, quick, and bright with flavor. The cinnamon and cumin give the dish the rosy glow known as Marrakech red.
1 pound carrots
1 clove garlic
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika or Aleppo pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
1/8 teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste
Olive oil and chopped parsley for garnish
Wash and peel carrots. Boil whole in water with garlic clove until barley tender, about 10 minutes. Drain. Discard garlic. Let carrots cool, then slice or dice and place in a large bowl.
Combine spices, lemon juice, sugar and salt. Pour over carrots. Toss to combine.
Chill. Toss again before serving and top with a drizzle of olive oil and chopped parsley.