Thursday, April 15, 2010

MAGNIFICENT MEDITERRANEAN CUISINE FROM MARIN COUNTY



I've got two stories to tell here. There's a charming and very stylish boutique in the Sellwood neighborhood of SE Portland, not too far from where I live. It's called Ste. Maine, and I discovered it last summer when I moved to Portland. They were having a sale of these beautiful porcelain bowls perfect for soup or pasta. When I walked into the store, two things impressed me. The two very chic young women who own it have amazing taste and they sell books. There's a handsome, round table center-stage in the middle of the shop stacked with cookbooks, coffee table art, fashion and design books. The ladies are friendly in a way that you rarely see in retail these days. I recently received an e-mail announcing they were moving. Worried, I dropped by the store to investigate. Elizabeth quickly assured me they were moving around the corner and that it was a good opportunity for the shop. Then she hauled me over to the book table and put into my hands one of the most attractive, oversized cookbooks I've ever seen. INSALATA'S MEDITERRANEAN TABLE (Laura Parker Studio; $32.00; ISBN: 978-0-615-31453) is a privately published book, which you probably will be able to find in a few stores in San Francisco, but for everyone else, it will probably be easiest to find it at Amazon.com. It only took a quick thumbing through its beautiful pages to convince me to buy the book. The author is Heidi Insalata Krahling, the owner/chef of Insalata, a justifably popular restaurant in San Anselmo, in Marin county. The book's visual look is the collaborative vision of the author and the inspired artist/publisher, Laura Parker, whose stunning still life paintings of fruit and vegetables not only illuminate the book, but also hang in the restaurant.

Chef Krahling, influences include legendary San Franciscan-based Joyce Goldstein, owner/chef of Square One (now closed) and Mary Risely, founder, Tante Marie's Cooking School, also in San Francisco, as huge influences on her cooking. She presents a really attractive collection of recipes that represent the entire Mediterranean area from Syria, Morocco, Spain, Italy, and France to Turkey, Greece, Portugal and points beyond. Unlike many collections from restaurant chefs which are unnecessarily complicated and inappropriate for home cooking these recipes are ideal for the home cook.

I wrote to a friend who lives in Mill Valley because of something called a Fattoush Salad, may be the most popular item on the menu. My friend wrote back telling me they have dined at Insalata many times, and that her husband had bought the book. Indeed, she wrote, the Fattoush Salad is one of their favorites and they often make it at home. I decided to try it and let me tell you, I may never make a Caesar salad again after digging into this addictive combination of romaine lettuce, English cucumber, cherry tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, thinly sliced red onion, and finely chopped cilantro and mint. To this you add crisply baked bite-sized wedges of pita bread, and a refreshing vinaigrette of two different oils, garlic, squeezed lemon juice, kosher salt, toasted and ground cumin seed and black pepper. The garlic is warmed in oil and the whole thing gets tossed together in a big bowl.

We ate that salad at my house last Thursday. It was so good, I made it again for Friday night's supper, with nothing else other than a glass of wine. When I called the artist to obtain a jpeg of the salad for this review, she told me that if Heidi stops making this salad, there would be a revolt in the restaurant. I believe it. It's that good.

Poring over the recipes in this readable book makes me want to cook and eat. There are so many mouth-watering recipes, such as Lamb Riblets with Za'atar and Cumin Yogurt. A spice rub of harissa powder, papricka, oregano, caraway, cumin, pepper and sugar is dusted over racks of lamb riblets, baked and then grilled on the barbecue and served with Za'atar, a flavorful sauce of spices, parskley, shallot, sumac, thyme, olive oil and other ingredients "for drizzling," and cumin yogurt for serving. What a bright alternative to regular pork ribs. I love beets and the Beets with Tahini Yogurt offers another terrific way to enjoy them. Halibut with Yellow Tomato Vinaigrette can be put together in a few minutes. Grill the fish, ladle the made-in-seconds vinaigrette (with only four ingredients), and serve with a side of Picholine-Olive Salsa Verde. It's an astoundingly simple dish to execute. Cataplana is a Portugese clam, chorizo and tomato saute that uses a few choice ingredients that deliver big flavor benefits. There are more elaborate recipes for company such as the Pork Stew with Tomatillas and Purslane, Tunisian Seven-Vegetable Tagine, or the voluptuous Fettucine with Chanterelle Mushrooms and Corn with a goat cheese butter added for richness and more flavor. Chef Krahling loves grains, so recipes for bulgar, Israeli couscous, fregula, quinoa get star treatment here.

In keeping with the Mediterranean traditions, desserts are simple but nobody will be able to resist the Chocolate Pecan Toffee (which Krahling suggests could be crumbled over ice cream or sprinkled on the Chocolate Budino) , a Pumpkin Roulade could be the center of your next Thanksgiving feast, and there's a fragrant Orange-Almond Olive Oil Cake.

I wallowed in the superb chapter with recipes for condiments in the Mediterranean kitchen such as Turkish Yogurt, a Pear and Ginger Chutney, Honey-Pomengranate Glaze, Preserved Lemons, and so much more. Having any or all of these delicious things on hand will only enhance your creativity. And the Mezze, Tapas and Antipasti chapter will turn you into a master of the small plate. I can't find fresh Taramasalata here in Portland of the same quality as can be found at the International Market on 9th Avenue in New York, so I'm thrilled to have a recipe for this favorite spread for crackers or vegetables.

INSALATA'S MEDITERRANEAN TABLE is a success as a cookbook and an art book on food because Heidi Insalata Krahling and Laura Parker had a vision for it that is completely theirs (which is one of the reasons they chose to publish it themselves). I will hate like hell to stain it when I cook, but I have a feeling it will only enhance the beauty of the book, which is a celebration of rustic, bold, earthy, heavenly and healthy flavors in this highly esteemed part of the world. Krahling's food begs to be made


FATTOUSH SALAD

Fattoush is a refreshing and crisp Middle Eastern bread salad with a bright lemony vinaigrette. At Insalata's, it has become one of the most popular items on the menu since we opened our doors. On any given day you can walk through the dining room and see dozens of people enjoying the addictive combination of cucumber and mint, Kalamata olives and sheep's milk .feta cheese. People crave this salad and are so loyal to it that I keep it on the menu year round. The ingredients are easy to find and assembling the dish is quite simple. The addition of poached or grilled chicken makes for a perfect lunch or a light supper.

Serves 6 as a side dish or 3 as a light lunch

2 pita breads

vinaigrette:

1/3 cup blended oil (2/3 parts canola, safflower, grapeseed or vegetable oil with 1/3 part extra virgin olive oil)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

salad:

3 hearts of romaine, torn roughly by hand (about six cups)
3/4 cup crumbled sheep's milk feta cheese
3/4 cup vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, halved
3/4 cup peeled, seeded and diced English cucumber
1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro
1/3 cup finely chopped mint

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

To make the pita chips: Trim the edges of the pita breads, keeping a circle shape; split horizontally into two halves. Cut each half into 6 triangles; arrange on a baking sheet. toast in the oven until golden, dried and crispy, about 12 minutes; let cool. Break he chips into large pieces.

To make the vinaigrette: In a small skillet, over low heat, gently warm the Blended Oil and garlic until fragrant. (This is an extra step but well worth it if you have time.) In a medium bowl, whisk together the oil and garlic mixture, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, cumin and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

To serve: In a large bowl, combine the romaine hearts, pita chips, feta, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, olives, red onion, cilantro, mint, and about 3/4 cup of the vinaigrette, toss well, adding more vinaigrette if needed to coat the leaves. Divide the salad among 3 or 6 chilled salad plates. Serve immediately.

If you are in Marin County, you can visit Insalata's in San Anselmo, California. For more details, visit their website at http://www.insalatas.com/.

You can view more of Laura Parker's superb work at lauraparkerstudio.com.

I'm grateful to Elizabeth at Ste. Maine in Portland for bringing INSALATA'S MEDITERRANEAN TABLE to my attention. The store is moving this month right around the corner on Milwaukee Avenue (next to Starrs Antiques). Please stop by to view the gorgeous home furnishings, exquisite tabletop items, handsome accent boxes, their impressive book display, and so much more.
http://www.saintmaine.com/welcome.html.


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