Martha Rose Shulman's Mediterranean Harvest owes a large debt to many who have gone before her, including Diane Kochilas, noted expert on Greek cuisine, and Clifford Wright, James Beard award-winning Mediterranean cookbook author. Shulman is quick to give credit where credit is due, and borrows widely from other culinary experts such as Carol Field (The Italian Baker) in areas of local expertise.
With a glut of Mediterranean vegetarian cookbooks on the shelves such as The Greek Vegetarian: More Than 100 Recipes Inspired by the Traditional Dishes and Flavors of Greece (Diane Kochilas), Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World (Gil Marks), and The The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen and Vegan Italiano: Meat-free, Egg-free, Dairy-free Dishes from Sun-Drenched Italy by Donna Klein, why should you choose the pricey Mediterranean Harvest?
One word: love. Shulman's love of local culture, hidden culinary gems, geography, and regional tastes, her lovely travelogues disguised as recipe introductions, and diary entries from memorable stops along her Mediterranean odyssey, both personal vacations and working in Mediterranean kitchens while researching other cookbooks such as Provencal Light and Mediterranean Light: Delicious Recipes from the World's Healthiest Cuisine(Shulman is author of over 25 books). Also, she touches on some less-commonly-discussed cuisines such as Bosnia, Croatia, and Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, and North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia). There is also a handy index arranged by region.
Shulman's rundown of kitchen equipment and the Mediterranean Pantry (spices, olives and olive oil, cheeses, yogurt, wine, herbs, spice blends, nuts and seeds) is a miracle of compactness, yet provides ample information for the home cook without overwhelming. After a brief section on aperitifs, the all-important topic of breads, pizza, and panini is covered first, since bread serves as the base for many common Mediterranean delicacies such as fattoush (Lebanese bread salad), panzanella (Italian tomato and bread salad), and Castilian garlic soup. Most households couldn't afford to waste stale bread (Tuscan bread was traditionally made without salt), so it was given new life as a base for soups, strata, and vegetable salads (the juices would soften the bread).
The list of sauces and dressings includes such favorites as Salsa Romesco from Spain (almonds, bread, spices, and tomatoes), aioli (garlic mayonnaise) several variations of Italian pesto (basil, olive oil, cheese, and nuts), and yogurt-based sauces common in Greece and the Middle East (tzatziki, skordalia, tahini dressing, chermoula, harissa, and preserved lemons). Tapas / meze (finger food) are given a respectable spread befitting their social importance in the Mediterranean, including Tunisian carrot salad, tabbouleh, several variations of marinated cold veggies, hummus, bean and legume salads, and greens.
The eggs and cheese section captured my heart from its introduction; Shulman recalls a Velazquez painting from 1618 of an old woman cooking eggs, with the simple garnish of onion and olive oil, melon, and wine. Such staples as frittata, Spanish tortilla, omelets, strata, and several varieties of scrambled eggs delight, along with a recipe for homemade ricotta cheese.
The "small catalogue of pasta" (if this is the small catalogue, I'd love to see the large one!) is a chef's dream, and there are numerous sidebars to aid you in properly cooking pasta, making homemade pasta dough, and shaping homemade ravioli and garganelli.
The rest of the book is dedicated to savory pies, gratins, vegetables and beans (stews, sauteed/ pan-fried veggies, potatoes), rice, couscous, and grains (risotto, polenta, pilaf) and topped off on a sweet note with sweets and desserts (biscotti, clafouti, granitas, fruit compotes, ricotta cheesecake, baklava, and dessert couscous). A brief page of online resources for Mediterranean ingredients is included, as well as a select bibliography. Thankfully, sidebars are also included in the index as they are numerous and enlightening.
Overall, this may be the most complete look at Mediterranean cuisine that I've had the pleasure to read, vegetarian or not. Shulman's obvious respect and love for the region and its varied, healthful cuisine shines through every page, and her down-to-earth instructions and informative sidebars add to the experience. The visual design is simple and uncluttered (no photos or line drawings), with the focus appropriately on the magical recipes that transport you around the globe. The recipes are generally straightforward and simple, take advantage of fresh produce (although some shortcuts such as canned tomatoes and canned beans are used), and are delicious. If you're looking for one cookbook that combines the charms of Italian, French, Spanish, Greek, and Middle Eastern cuisine along with delightful commentaries on local culture and dining, Mediterranean Harvest is the book for you.