From Tapas to Meze: Small Plates from the Mediterranean

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Ten Speed Press
Have you ever read a cookbook and said to yourself, "that's the one I wish I had written?"
       For me that honor belongs to the revised edition of JoAnne Weir's From Tapas To Meze. Apparently, I'm not alone in this. When the original was published, a decade before the revised edition, Julia Child recognized it as one of her 12 favorite books.
      For me, the book appeals on numerous levels. First, of course, is the subject matter. I have always been fascinated with small bites. Long before the "small plates" phenomenon swept America, I was into serving little tastes. Those who know me are well aware that I would rather cater a party with a diversity of little bites then to serve just a few main courses. So the subject of Weir's book resonates.
      Then there is the region. I love the foods of the coastal Mediterranean. It bugs me, however, that when most cookbook authors say "Mediterranean," they mean just the northern shore. Somehow or other, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Egypt and the other North African countries drop off their radar. I've always enjoyed Mid-Eastern cuisines. And lately I've been on a North African kick.
      "I realized my book wouldn't be complete without the foods of Turkey and the Middle East," Weir notes in her introduction. "Nor could I ignore the exotic countries of North Africa that I'd longed to visit ever since reading Paula Wolfert's books years earlier."
      Obviously, a girl after my own heart.
      Where we are different, though, is in physicality. While researching the book, Weir made numerous trips to the countries of the Mediterranean, to sample the cuisines first hand. This is something that remains on my to-do list. So I can only experience these lands vicariously.
      Not only has Weir been there, she is able to capture, in words, a feeling for the place. The book reeks with the very aroma of sun-drenched herbs and spices, all awash in a sea of olive oil, garlic, and bitter lemons. 
      Something else I share is Weir's idea of what a small plate should be. At so-called small-plate restaurants in this country---whether actually called small-plate, tapas, dim-sum, or what have you---portions are too big. Apparently, in order to justify the prices charged, small-plates in America are smaller than regular main courses, but larger than appetizers. And, considering that appetizers at most restaurants are, themselves, overly generous, I miss the point.
      But Weir doesn't. In the Mediterranean, she stresses, "first courses are meant to stimulate the appetite, not satiate it. The host often prepares them ahead of time to avoid being trapped in the kitchen and missing all the fun. First courses are often served at room temperature, so that the flavors aren't dulled by extremes of hot and cold, and so that they can be consumed at leisure.
      From Tapas to Meze is an exploration of that thesis. Weir  roamed the region, sampling the small plates of the Mediterranean, collecting recipes, and absorbing the culture and mores that led to these cuisines.
      Much of what she learned along the way is shared in the book.
      From Tapas to Meze first introduces us to the people, customs, history, and food of the coastal Med. This is followed by a separate chapter for each country or geographic locale, including: Spain, Southern France, Italy, Greece, The Levant, and North Africa. Even though the book starts with an introduction to the region and the general theme, each chapter is preceded by it's own introduction, giving details and specifics of the cuisine and its development, and then a group of recipes for that country.
      Some of the recipes are regional classics, such as the Albonigas of Spain. Some are done "in the style of," such as the Lentil Salad with Red Peppers, Red Onions, Feta, and Mint found in the Greek chapter. Some, like the Rice Olives of the Italian chapter are from restaurants. Still other, such as the Warm Spiced Lentils of North Africa, and the Hot Spiced Cheese Puree of Turkey, were collected from home cooks.
      What they have in common is that they are all good. And they all meet the criteria that "the first course of a meal is to be savored, and the memories of these small plates linger long after the table has been cleared.
      Reviewers here at ChefTalk operate with a guideline that at least two recipes be sampled from each book. I found that impossible with From Tapas to Meze. Indeed, I couldn't even limit it to two from each chapter. And I still keep dipping into it for more ideas, more tastes to whet the appetite. 
      There's yet another appeal to From Tapas to Meze, the wonderful food porn produced by Caren Alpert's lens. While not every recipe is illustrated, there are enough of Alpert's photos to keep you drooling . Indeed, the styling and arrangement, along with the color rendition, makes the photos seem edible themselves. You would expect Gnocchi with Roquefort Cream (from France, actually, rather than the more expected Italy) to be a sensation in your mouth. But who'd have thought it could be a feast for the eye as well. It is, after all, just gnocchi. Caren Albert makes even gnocchi a visual treat.
       As should be obvious by now, I can't recommend this book highly enough. From home cooks to executive chefs, there are things to be learned, combinations to try, insights to be gained. And inspiration found on every page.
       While you go order your copy, I think I'll make some  Moroccan Carrot, Radish, and Orange Salad to get tonight's dinner started.
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