The Mediterranean Sea unites Africa, Asia and Europe. Each region has their own specialties, but they also share certain common themes – olive oil, citrus fruits, fish both fresh and dried, fresh herbs, ancient grains, and plenty of garlic. Even if you’ve never been there, you can get a taste for Mediterranean foodways by working your way through one of these ten standout cookbooks.
Start here for the grand tour of the entire region. Some dishes are quick and easy, others more labor-intensive. (If you want a real challenge, try Wadi’s 21-ingredient recipe for the spice mix known as ras el hanout.) The photos are gorgeous, too, capturing the vivid hues of supremed blood oranges and the fine details of a branch of thyme. Start with the chapter entitled “The Larder” and learn to make the building blocks of Mediterranean food: preserved lemons, pita chips, pickles and stocks.
Speaking of small plates, British food writer Ghilli Basan has happily dedicated a whole book to mezze, the Arabic term for the appetizer course. The food is meant to be shared, and sometimes there’s no main dish to follow – the entire meal consists of little nibbles of delicious food. Try your hand at cinnamon-flavored meatballs or the fish balls with turmeric and sunflower seeds. If all that sounds too complicated, though, you could also simply sprinkle some cucumber spears with salt – that recipe is included here, too.
Now you’re ready for a deep plunge into one of the most delicious regional cuisines of the Mediterranean region. Maureen Abood grew up in the largest Lebanese-American community in the United States before becoming a professional chef. Her exploration of Lebanon’s culinary delights manages to combine depth and reverence with fresh new ideas, like adding avocado to a version of tabbouleh. If you love kibbeh, the little meaty dumplings that almost define Lebanese cuisine, Abood provides six different recipes to test-drive here.
The copy for this book is a little confusing – on the front, it says it contains “the best Middle Eastern home cooking,” while on the back it proclaims that the recipes are “from the acclaimed restaurant Tanoreen.” Well, which is it, home cooking or restaurant fare? A little bit of both, as Bishara’s restaurant specializes in homestyle Palestinian-Lebanese dishes. For those who are wondering what za’atar is, by the way, it’s a mixture of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt, often sprinkled on bread for breakfast; the breakfast chapter in this cookbook is a standout.
Considering the strict import limits on cured meat from abroad, writing a book like Charcuteria almost seems cruel. James Beard nominee Jeffrey Weiss feels your pain, though, so he’ll happily tell you how to cure meat at home in the Spanish style, all while telling you about the history of Spanish ham- and sausage-making. Considering the complexity of the processes, not to mention the long aging time for some of these delicacies, it’s unlikely that you will actually try much of any of this at home. But you sure will learn a lot just browsing the pages.
My Kitchen in Rome lets you live vicariously through food blogger Roddy as she spends a year cooking and eating in the Testaccio district of Italy’s capital city. Roman food may not have the cachet of some of its neighbors, but Roddy showcases the best the city has to offer, from deep-fried artichokes and pasta carbonara to the simplest combination: tiny fresh fava beans and cubes of pecorino romano cheese. Even better, she conveys her love for her quirky, food-centered neighborhood through numerous anecdotes and notes.
Turkish food is highly sophisticated and not nearly as well-known as it should be. Istanbul, Turkey’s capital, is a showcase destination for regional specialties and high-end cookery. Eat Istanbul’s lovely photography is its strongest point, but you’ll also learn how to cook delicacies such as a chicken and rice dish known as perdeli pilav, which Harris calls his favorite.
Ikaros is best-known to outsiders as that island in Greece “where people forget to die.” Eating like an Ikarian will not guarantee you longevity, but it’s still a pretty splendid way to pass the time. Greek food expert Diane Kochilas runs a cooking school on Ikaros, so there is nobody better suited to showcase the rustic cuisine and unique culture of this fiercely self-sufficient island.
Mediterranean food is highly vegetarian-friendly. It emphasizes seasonal produce, simple grains and plentiful helpings of beans and legumes. Aglaia Kremezi is not, herself, strictly vegetarian but she has nonetheless assembled a lovely cookbook full of recipes for the meat-free. Kremezi is a particular advocate for utilizing as much of the vegetable as possible, which she cheekily terms “nose to tail vegetarian.”
If you’re looking for an addictive hummus recipe, look no further. Michael Solomonov’s garlicky spread is already justly famous. Zahav the cookbook is named after Solomonov’s Philadelphia restaurant, which is in turn named for the Hebrew word for gold. The “modern Israeli” food found in these pages isn’t fussy, but it’s definitely flavorful. The author devotes an entire chapter to tehina, or sesame paste, and he laces his recipes with intimate autobiographical tidbits as well.
Main photo by Heather Cowper a.k.a. heatheronhertravels CC BY