This Mediterranean cruise explores Md. grocery aisles

January 04, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

Take a moment to savor the flavor notes in the symphony that is Mediterranean cuisine: tomato and fennel, couscous and lentils, olives and goat's milk cheese, dates and apricots, pomegranates and figs, saffron and dill.

If that luscious list makes you want to head for Spain, Italy or Tunisia, don't start packing yet. The wonderful, healthful foods of the Mediterranean region are as close as your nearest supermarket.

Take it from an expert, Paula Wolfert, author of numerous cookbooks about the region, including the latest, "Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean."

"It's all here!" Ms. Wolfert says, gesturing around a local grocery store on a recent visit to Baltimore to promote her book. Invited to find the Mediterranean in Maryland, she brings to an ordinary shopping trip a sense of the region's richness, exoticism and variety. Traveling around the store with her is an adventure, akin to prowling the souks, open-air markets and tiny shops of Algeria, Greece and Southern France.

She pauses in the produce aisle, caressing a small, fresh eggplant. "This is the world of eggplant, the Mediterranean. Every shape, size, some just this big" -- holding her fingers a few inches apart -- "some as long as your arm. In Turkey, you can find any shape." She moves on.

"Basil, you know, in most parts of the Mediterranean, people don't eat basil. In North Africa, people think it's for keeping insects out of the house. They put it in their windows. In France and in Italy, and in Turkey, they use it for cooking. But not in Greece, not in the Arab countries, and not in North Africa."

She takes a few more steps, puts her hand on the purple-red bulb of a beet. "Beets, very important," she says, in characteristically staccato style. She is brimming with information and anxious to share it. "In most markets in the Mediterranean, beets are roasted, and sold roasted. The greens are sold separately, and are used for all kinds of stews. You know, some cucumbers in the Mediterranean are so sweet that they're served for dessert."

Fennel she says, is a very important vegetable in the Mediterranean region. She picks up several bulbs and examines their ends. "You would make salads with this. . . . You always want a very wide bulb, a fat bulb, because it's more tender."

She walks on, ticking off the vegetables that would grace a Mediterranean table. Carrots, leeks, garlic, radicchio. "We have different mushrooms, but these can be used instead," she says. "And of course, all the different squashes. We have different peppers, and I think in a funny way, better and more fragrant peppers than you do here, in the North, even though peppers come from Mexico. The peppers of Tunisia, of Macedonia, of southern Turkey, the peppers of Aleppo, of Catalonia . . . these peppers have a fragrance. And it's the soil."

She picks up a slender, light-green pepper. "This is a cubanelle. This is a cooking pepper, and I use this a lot in cooking. It's very similar to mild peppers that you have in Tunisia and Spain. It's a wonderful pepper for frying. If you want to do fried green peppers, like veal and peppers, this is the pepper you use."

"If you can't get something like the delicious sour plums in the Eastern Mediterranean that they use a lot in cooking, you substitute cranberries," she advises. "Cranberries work very well."

It should come as no surprise that Western food works well in Mediterranean cuisine, for many of its staples originated in the New World, including potatoes, tomatoes and chili peppers.

She moves through the store, pouncing on likely items. Flour tortillas that could be used in place of Middle Eastern flat breads. Fresh pastas -- "The whole world is pasta crazy, it's not just Americans." Yogurt, used extensively in the eastern Mediterranean -- "But when they buy yogurt, it's usually drained, so all the water is out of it, and it's very thick."

In front of the milk section, she pauses. In the Mediterranean, she says, "you might have goat's milk as well as sheep's milk" -- and there it is on the shelf: Goat's milk from California. "Isn't that amazing?" she says.

In the gourmet section, she finds a treasure trove.

"Now here's couscous. . . . All couscous is precooked -- all couscous. Couscous has the ability to multiply seven times itself." She holds up a box and shakes it. "This is 2 1/2 cups. One pound is 2 1/2 cups. When people follow these directions, they get about 6 cups couscous. When they steam it, they get about 12 cups. Now what do you think happens to the couscous if you don't steam it? It grows in your stomach. It isn't so hard to steam couscous."

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