'Unforgettable' cookbook a biography of culinary explorer Paula Wolfert

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“Unforgettable,” the life story of Mediterranean food maven Paula Wolfert of Sonoma, was released this week with a title and a format that are as multidimensional as Wolfert herself. The narrative of Wolfert’s life is punctuated by 50-some recipes and mouth-watering photos, ranging from childhood favorites made from eggplant and peppers by Wolfert’s grandmother to brain-healthy dishes like the Avocado and Sardine Toasts inspired by Catalan chef Ferran Adrià.

Biographer Emily Kaiser Thelin hand-picked the recipes, not as a compendium of “greatest hits,’ but as a reflection of Wolfert’s life as a maverick with a penchant for bold flavors.

“We wanted to show above all how modern and contemporary and avant-garde and accessible some of her recipes are,” Thelin said in a phone interview from her Berkeley home. “We wanted to showcase the dishes that make you think, ‘Oh my god, I want to make that right now.’”

Still, there was “fresh heartbreak” whenever Thelin had to whittle the choices down to just a handful of recipes that Wolfert wrote in her cookbooks at the height of her career, between 1973 and 2011.

“That was the most stressful part of the process,” said Thelin, 41. “We just picked the recipes that helped tell the story and propel the narrative.”

There’s more heartbreak to the story than just the editing process. Thelin first launched the ambitious project back in 2010, and four years into the project, Wolfert was diagnosed with dementia, perhaps an early form of Alzheimer’s. This week, more trim and youthful looking than ever, Wolfert will turn 79.

Those who know the self-effacing writer and culinary adventurer will not be surprised to learn that she initially tried to talk Thelin out of writing the biography. Famous for taking the path less traveled in the food world, the cookbook author was not interested in retracing the steps of her own life story, despite its often exotic locales and dramatic plot twists.

“The only way I got her to cooperate was to do some oral histories,” said Thelin, who served as Wolfert’s editor at Food & Wine magazine for a few years. “Even then, she had started to think something was wrong with her cognitive abilities. That helped grant me access.”

Once she got her foot in the door of Wolfert’s life, however, Thelin was able to coax the pioneering cookbook writer to open up about her early years as a beatnik living in Tangier, Morocco, and Paris as well as her days as “Indiana Jones” romancing the recipes out of Mediterranean home cooks from Alicante to Athens.

As time went on, however, Wolfert’s stories started to fray at the edges.

“When we started in 2010, her memory was incredible. ... She had a real steel-trap mind,” Thelin said. “But the end, she couldn’t remember as much and could not articulate it as clearly and beautifully. For someone who’s passionate about good writing, that’s the hardest part of the illness for her.”

Wolfert was never one to feel sorry for herself, however. Since her diagnosis, she has been fighting back against her condition, not only as an activist urging others to avoid denial and get their brains tested, but by tweaking her own diet with cutting-edge techniques like moderate fasting and the butter-laden, “bulletproof” coffee that she hopes will stall the progressive brain disorder.

“Since I’ve been on the diet, I feel fantastic,” Wolfert said in a phone interview from her home in Sonoma. “Does it work? There’s no proof, but people feel good. If I can stay like this, and die of something else in 10 or 20 years, great.”

Meanwhile, Thelin ran up against a few challenges of her own while shopping the book idea back in 2013, Publishers told her that Wolfert’s era had passed, and they were not interested.

“I had done proposals and gotten all these rejections,” Thelin said. “In January 2014, I ended up putting off the book. It was too much, too risky.”

But taking a cue from Wolfert’s defiant attitude toward her disease, Thelin ended up assembling a crack team of talented collaborators, including photographer Eric Wolfinger, designer Toni Tajima and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, who served as the book’s editor.

Then, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the 329-page, hardcover book. More than 1,100 people donated, from chefs and long-time fans of Wolfert’s to folks who simply wanted to support Kickstarter.

“It took a lot of planning, and we were terrified to set our goal at $45,000,” Thelin said. “But we met our goal in four days, and we ended up raising over $90,000.”

Thelin, who works as editorial director of recipes for the meal delivery company Sunbasket of San Francisco, said the team assembled the book with three kinds of readers in mind.

“We wanted to tell ‘Paula fans’ the incredible stories behind her books that nobody knew,” Thelin said. “We also wanted to introduce her to a new generation of food lovers ... and we wanted to help people who are fighting illness themselves.”

One of the more obscure stories from Wolfert’s childhood was the fact that she suffered from amblyopia, also known as lazy eye. The sight disorder is due to the eye and brain not working well together.

Thelin, who also was diagnosed with lazy eye as a child, said the condition meant that one of Wolfert’s eyes was far-sighted and the other was near-sighted. Unfortunately, the doctors did not know how to correct it at the time.

“She didn’t get any treatments at all, so she came up with coping treatments,” Thelin said. “But she also had personality issues, anxiety and hypochondria. All of these elements of her story were so unique to her, and so human ... the obstacles that she experienced in trying to live her life.”

Yet it may have been her eyesight issues, which took away her depth perception and prevented her from driving, that inspired some of her greatest gifts to the world: her ability to see far away — trends she anticipated included whole animal cooking, preserving, sous vide, slow cooking, whole grains and healthy greens — and at the same time, her ability to get very close to people from other cultures.

“She sees the future and sees where she’s going, but she can also see really up close, so she’s very attuned to people around her,” Thelin said. “That meant she was able to bond with these home cooks and bring back recipes that got us closer to her future.”

In her 1998 book, “Paula Wolfert’s World of Food,” Wolfert introduced her theory about food and flavor — she called it “The Big Taste” — in a way that mirrored what neuroscientists have discovered about the way the brain actually processes flavor.

While reading “Neurogastronomy” by Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, Thelin was blown away by how much that book echoed what Wolfert had already said, including her theory about how two plus two ingredients can magically add up to five, amplifying the end flavor beyond the sum of the parts.

“The Big Taste sums up how our brains experience really good food,” Thelin said. “He (Shepherd) started with tastes and aromas and physical sensations and emotions and cultural settings. And that’s how she describes it.”

Wolfert’s most important accomplishment, however, may be her steady insistence that food needs to be grounded in tradition. During her career, she instinctively steered away from fads like Nouvelle cuisine and chased down authenticity and regionality wherever she could find them, from France and Morocco to Syria and Turkey.

“It’s hard for people to appreciate now, because that attitude is so taken for granted,” Thelin said. “It’s forgotten that we didn’t always think that way.”

Another revolution that Wolfert helped fuel was the sourcing of authentic ingredients from around the world. From Aleppo peppers to the Lacinato kale of Italy, she introduced Americans to a new world of ingredients that has now become part of everyday life.

“At Sunbasket, we ship so many ingredients that Paula had a direct role in popularizing,” Thelin said. “We love to use the Marash pepper flakes and preserved lemons. ... We’re also shipping a Paula Wolfert box, with a really simple salmon with chermoula and couscous, a skillet cassoulet and Leblebi, the Tunisian soup.”

Of all the cookbooks Wolfert wrote — there are a total of nine, including two re-issues — Thelin said her sentimental favorite is the first, “Couscous and other Good Food from Morocco.”

“That’s how I first discovered her,” she said. “It’s a magic book and such an immersive thing to read and cook from.”

Wolfert’s most recent cookbook, “The Food of Morocco,” not only updated the first tome but vastly amplified upon it, adding a raft of fresh recipes, a source guide and a chapter on cooking essentials, along with sumptuous photographs of the North African country from one end to the other.

In a similar manner, Wolfert’s move with her husband, novelist William Bayer, from the East Coast to the West, and eventually to the small town of Sonoma in 1998, has brought her full circle, back to the life she lived in Tangier, where she was out of the spotlight but able to mingle with writers like expatriate Paul Bowles while enjoying the warmth and light of the Mediterranean climate.

“Sonoma has been a really happy ending for her in a lot of ways,” Thelin said. “She has friends there who love her for who she is, not because she’s some food star. And she lives on top of a mountain where you could be in the Spanish or Tangier hills. It feels so incredibly Mediterranean.”

Wolfert, who enjoys talking politics with her “lunch bunch” pals every Tuesday and seeks regular support through the Dementia Alliance International, now talks as passionately about the ketogenic diet and sporadic fasting as she once talked about France’s cassoulet and Morocco’s bastilla.

“I was lucky ... I had a wonderful life,” she said, “And it’s not over yet.”

___

The following recipes highlights the creative and geographic range of Wolfert’s most personal book, “Paula Wolfert’s World of Food.” (Harper & Row, 1988) “The main courses work best for an intimate date night at home for two,” Thelin writes.

Mushroom Caps Stuffed with Olives and Porcini

Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

1 cup hot water

— Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

16-20 firm fresh white mushrooms, caps about 1 1/2 inches wide

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled

— Juice of 1/2 lemon

10-15 pitted cracked green olives, rinsed and finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. 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 slat 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 degrees.

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 slowy 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.

___

“Although Paula lived in Paris for eight years, this lovely date-night bistro-style main course with an unforgettably good pan sauce is one of the few Parisian recipes she ever published,” Thelin writes.

Pan-Seared Pork Chops with Cornichon Butter

Serves 2

For marinade:

1 garlic clove, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon

1 shallot, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon olive oil]

For Pork and Butter Sauce:

2 bone-in loin or rib pork chops, each about 1 1/2 inches thick

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room tempearture

4-5 cornichons, rinsed and finely chopped (1 1/2 tablespoons)

2 teaspoons olive oil

— Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon

To make the marinade, in a shallow dish, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Add the pork chops and rub with the marinade to coat both sides evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours or refrigerate overnight and bring the pork back to room temperature before proceeding.

For the butter sauce, in a small bowl, using a fork, mash the butter with the cornichons. Set the butter aside in a cool place.

Pat the pork chops dry with paper towels. In a heavy 10- or 12-inch frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, swirling to coat the bottom. When the oil is hot, add the chops and cook, turning once, until browned on both sides but not yet cooked through, about 6 minutes total. Transfer the chops to a plate and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Pour off the fat in the pan and discard. Return the pan to medium-high heat. Add the vinegar and water to the pan and boil, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until reduced by half (2 tablespoons total). Add the cornichon butter and swirl to make an emulsion.

Return the pork chops to the pan, turn down the heat to low, and cook, basting with the pan sauce, until an instant-read thermometer inserted at the thickest part away from bone registers 140 degrees for medium, about 9 minutes.

Transfer to a platter and let rest for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the parsley and tarragon and serve.

___

“This is Paula’s brilliantly approachable take on one of the most iconic restaurant dishes ever invented, the gargouillou of chef Michel Bras of Laguiole, France,” Thelin writes. “In Paula’s home-cook adaptation, the vegetables are sequentially blanched in the same pot, starting with the ones that need the most water. The process yields a pleasingly intense vegetable stock for the sauce.”

Vegetables in the Style of Laguiole

Serves 4

2 quarts water, preferably filtered

— Flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Group A: Green Vegetables

4 slender inner celery ribs

4 ounces Swiss chard leaves, torn into 2-inch pieces

2 ounces haricots verts, or slender green beans, trimmed

2 ounces red cabbage leaves

Group B: Alliums

4 thin green onions or 2 young leeks, halved lengthwise

4 shallots, halved

Group C: Root Vegetables

2 small carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal into slices 1/4-inch thick

2 baby turnips, quartered

3 radishes, quartered

4 ounces pancetta, cut into slices 1/8-in thick

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs, such as tarragon, chives, flat-leaf parsley and chervil, snipped

In a deep 4-quart saucepan over high heat, bring the water and 2 teaspoons salt to a rolling boil. Working through each group in alphabetical and listed order (first Group A, then Group B, then Group C), blanch each vegetable until tender. Each vegetable should take 2 to 3 minutes, depending on its size. Use the same water for all of the vegetable groups. As the water evaporates, the heat can be lowered to medium-high or medium, as long as the water remains at a healthy simmer. As each vegetable is ready, use a slotted spoon or spider to transfer to a colander and then rinse under cool running water and let drain. Transfer to a sheet pan lined with paper towel or dishtowel to rest. Repeat with the remaining vegetables.

When all the vegetables are cooked, remove the saucepan from the heat and reserve 1/2 cup cooking liquid for the sauce. Reserve the remainder for soup or stock.

Set a 12-inch frying pan over medium heat. Add the pancetta slices and cook, turning once, just until crisp, about 10 minutes total. Pour off the fat in the pan and reserve for another use. Add the reserved 1/2 cup cooking liquid to the pancetta in the pan, raise the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits from the pan bottom. Boil until reduced to 1/4 cup.

Add the butter and swirl to form an emulsion. Immediately add the vegetables and cook, tossing, until heated through and glazed with the sauce, about 2 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, then remove the pancetta if you like.

Artfully arrange the vegetables on a platter, drizzle with the sauce, and sprinkle with the herbs. Serve hot.

Note: If you can’t find these exact vegetables Wolfert offered many alternatives: Group A: spinach, green cabbage leaves, Brussels sprout leaves, asparagus, snow peas, zucchini. Group B: green garlic, ramps. Group C: celery root, beets. Sturdier vegetables such as celery root or beets should be cut into 1/4-inch-thick matchsticks that can be cooked to tenderness within 2 to 3 minutes.

For a vegetarian version, omit the pancetta and in its stead, add about 1 teaspoon white or yellow miso paste with the butter at the final step.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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