Book review by Kristina Sepetys | Photos by Eric Wolfinger
Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life
By Emily Kaiser Thelin
Photography by Eric Wolfinger
Published by M & P. 2017
Berkeley resident and two-time James Beard finalist Emily Thelin has long earned my admiration as a reporter who brings detailed, colorful perspective to her writing and knows how to tell a good story. In her latest effort, she’s turned her skills to creating a beautiful memoir and collection of recipes recounting the life of legendary California cookbook writer Paula Wolfert.
If you’ve eaten and enjoyed couscous, preserved lemons, or cassoulet in the United States, you may owe a debt of gratitude to Paula Wolfert. Beginning in the 1970s, she traveled extensively throughout several Mediterranean regions—specifically Southwest France, Spanish Catalonia, Sicily, Morocco, and Turkey—writing up her culinary findings in numerous articles and nine cookbooks. She introduced to mainstream American cooking dishes like Moroccan tagines, French duck confit, and muhammara (a Syrian red bell pepper and walnut spread), along with Middle Eastern ingredients like sumac, pomegranate molasses, and mild red pepper flakes, including those from Aleppo, Marash, and Urfa.
Unforgettable explores that adventure-filled life and career, from Wolfert’s Brooklyn childhood, through her Mediterranean travels and life in New York and California, and up to her recent diagnosis with early dementia and Alzheimer’s. Thelin first met Wolfert in 2006 and was later assigned to profile Wolfert for Food & Wine magazine in 2008.
The cookbook shares the story of Wolfert and her many achievements, drawn from interviews with Wolfert and dozens of food writers and chefs, from Alice Waters and Thomas Keller to Jacques Pépin. In addition to extensive biographical detail, the book features more than 50 of Wolfert’s best recipes. Most are gluten- and sugar-free and rich with fresh produce and lean meats, providing examples of the way Wolfert is currently cooking to support her brain health.
While recipes in some of Wolfert’s earlier cookbooks may be considered complicated for the variety of ingredients and preparation required, recipes in Unforgettable involve ingredients readily available at local markets and easily prepared on a busy weekday. All exemplify Wolfert’s deeply satisfying and flavorful
style of cooking.
Dishes from various regions tie out to different parts of Wolfert’s life. Of Balkan heritage, Wolfert loves all things eggplant, and her Mediterranean travels revealed many options, including dishes that reminded her of the Balkan eggplant dishes of her youth. These show up in her books along with enticing combinations like shrimp suquet, a kind of Catalonian stir fry with ground almonds and a warm hit of cognac; leblebi, a rich and warming Tunisian soup made with runny eggs, briny olives, salty capers, and hot sauce, ladled over chickpeas and bread cubes; mussels steamed with fresh herbs, briny feta, and powdered mustard; a savory, creamy wild greens jam; mushroom caps stuffed with olives and porcini; and pan-seared pork chops with cornichon butter. Wolfert’s Greek butter-almond cookies with ouzo are made with low-gluten flours. Ample headnotes to each recipe and a section titled “Paula’s Tips for Dementia Worriers and Warriors” provides an extensive list of resources for living, cooking, and eating with dementia and memory challenges.
Remarkably, for all the valuable information the book presents, Unforgettable, a handsomely produced volume with photographs by Eric Wolfinger, might never have been published without Thelin’s persistence and commitment. In the introduction, Thelin relates how her book proposal was rejected by nearly a dozen publishers who all felt Wolfert’s “story was interesting but her time had passed.” Undaunted, Thelin found a supportive team and undertook a Kickstarter campaign to finance the effort, raising nearly double her original goal from dozens of Wolfert’s supporters. In Thelin’s words, “These are the recipes that celebrate Paula’s life and the ideas and foods she cherishes.”
On Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice
Excerpt from Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life by Emily Kaiser Thelin, copyright 2017 ©. Published by M & P. Reprinted with permission. unforgettablepaula.com
It was December 2008. I had come to Morocco on an assignment for Food & Wine to profile legendary cookbook author Paula Wolfert, a longtime contributor to the magazine whom I had edited as a staffer there since 2006. This was the culinary equivalent of a journey through the Arabian dunes with T. E. Lawrence or a trip to Kitty Hawk with the Wright Brothers—the chance to tour the place where a titan of my field first made her name. She and I had met in person only twice before, once at a food conference and then for lunch at her house in Sonoma. She had returned to Morocco because her publisher, HarperCollins, had suggested she update her first book, the 1973 landmark Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco.
In Couscous, Paula writes how Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, “occurs on the tenth day of the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar year and commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham. Every Moroccan tries to get hold of a sheep . . . a kid or, if he is very poor, a fowl. The point is to make a sacrifice and then enjoy it.” As a resident of Morocco in the late 1960s, she purchased and fattened her own live lamb for the holiday and, working from a cookbook published by House & Garden magazine—decades before DIY butchery—taught herself to cut up the carcass. Any odd bits that she’d butchered badly, she chopped to make kefte, delicious Moroccan meatballs.
Mushroom Caps Stuffed with Olives and Porcini
Reprinted with permission from Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life by Emily Kaiser Thelin, copyright 2017 ©. Published by M & P. (unforgettablepaula.com)
These umami-packed mushrooms are both wonderfully modern and a throwback to the era of cocktail parties (excellent with martinis). “Greek green-cracked olives are large, dark, and sharp, with a hint of bitterness and a slightly smoky flavor that mingles well with dried wild mushrooms,” Paula wrote in World of Food.
True to Paula, the recipe is both specific and forgiving, requiring two kinds of mushrooms and both butter and olive oil, yet the whole thing can be assembled up to a day ahead of time and reheated just before serving. It makes a great first course
or side dish.
Serves 4 to 6
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¾ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup hot water
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 to 20 firm fresh white mushrooms, caps about 1½ inches wide (about 12 ounces total)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided into two equal portions and brought to room temperature
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
¼ teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
Juice of ½ lemon
10 to 15 pitted cracked green olives, rinsed and finely chopped
Preheat the oven to 325°. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with the oil.
In a small bowl, combine the dried mushrooms and hot water. Add a pinch of salt and let stand for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, wipe the white mushrooms clean. Trim off the stem ends, separate the stems from the caps, and finely chop the stems. You should have about 1 cup. Set aside (save any extra for another use).
Place the mushroom caps, gill side up, in the prepared baking dish. In a small bowl, mash 2 tablespoons of the butter with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Divide the butter evenly among the caps. Bake the caps for 10 minutes, until heated through and a little moisture is released. Remove from the oven and raise the oven temperature to 400°.
While the caps are baking, rub the dried mushrooms between your fingers in the soaking water to remove any grit, then lift out the mushrooms, squeeze them dry over the bowl, and finely chop them. Slowly pour the mushroom soaking liquid into a frying pan, stopping when you reach the grit at the bottom of the bowl. Add the chopped dried mushrooms and fresh mushroom stems to the frying pan and bring slowly to a simmer over medium-low heat. Turn down the heat to low and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid has evaporated and the mushroom stems are tender, about 15 minutes.
Transfer the mushroom mixture to a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, the parsley, oregano, lemon juice, and olives and work together with a fork until evenly mixed. Season with salt and pepper, then stuff each mushroom cap with about 1 tablespoon of the mixture. (At this point, the stuffed mushroom caps can be covered and refrigerated overnight before continuing.)
Bake the caps until tender when pierced with a toothpick and sizzling, 10 to 15 minutes.
Serve hot or lukewarm.
Edible East Bay book editor Kristina Sepetys is a writer and consultant living in Berkeley. Her work focuses on the intersection of food, farming, energy, land, water, and sustainable resource use. She can be reached at kmsepetys(at)yahoo.com.