Nancy Harmon Jenkins, The Essential Mediterranean (HarperCollins, 2003)

Nationally known food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins once again reveals to us the culture she knows so well in her latest cookbook, The Essential Mediterranean: How Regional Cooks Transform Key Ingredients into the World's Favorite Cuisines. Published almost ten years after her highly acclaimed Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, Jenkins takes an in-depth look at a few carefully selected ingredients that she believes are essential to this increasingly popular cuisine.

Jenkins' understanding of the Mediterranean culture and its food comes from years of living and working in the region. In a thoughtfully written introduction, she clearly outlines the goal of her latest endeavor. "More than a collection of delicious and unusual recipes from here-there-and-everywhere, this book, I hope, shows how the food of the Mediterranean, the cooking of the Mediterranean, begins — not with formulaic recipes, butů[with] the primary ingredients without which the cuisine simply does not and cannot exist." Jenkins not only achieves this goal, but also attempts to fundamentally change the way we think about food preparation by encouraging us to spend more time in the market than in the kitchen.

In this innovative cookbook, Jenkins carefully selected her ingredients and chose to explore salt, olives and olive oil, wheat, pasta and couscous, wine and vinegar, legumes, peppers and tomatoes, pork, fish, and dairy products. Each chapter, dedicated to one of these ingredients, begins with an essay that skillfully combines interesting history with the author's first-hand account of visits with local craftsmen. From a family-run olive orchard in the Mejerda Valley of west Tunis to a cheesemaker in eastern Provence, conversations with these families reveal the respect for the land and the food it produces that is so characteristic of the Mediterranean people.

While these individual ingredients are essential to all Mediterranean cultures, how they are used varies from region to region. The combination of peppers and tomatoes with eggplant and sometimes zucchini, cooked in olive oil with onions and garlic, is seen all over the Mediterranean, but with slight variations and under different names. From ratatouille in Southern France to caponate in Southern Italy, such intricacies within the culture itself are yet another layer to this book.

Although Jenkins focuses on a select number of ingredients, the 170 recipes she shares leaves the home cook feeling far from limited. Very detailed and with steps that are clearly explained, recipes like Oven Roasted Sea Bass or Snapper, Tuscan Bread Soup and Tarte au Chevre are easy to reproduce at home. Sidebars entitled "Cook's Notes" give more practical advice on everything from soaking beans to what wine to use in cooking.

The amount of information in this 413 page book may at times seem overwhelming. However, the research necessary to produce such a thorough and enticing look at Mediterranean cuisine is commendable. Jenkins has once again produced a book that showcases her vast knowledge and continues to truly make her an authority on Mediterranean cuisine.

[Stacy Troubh]