Author: Clifford A. Wright
Her reputation proceeded her when I first met Martha Rose in - of all places - Tunisia about fifteen years ago. We were both there for a moveable feast conference sponsored by the International Olive Oil Council and Oldways Preservation Trust. This award-winning cookbook author had written two books that I admired very much, Mediterranean Light and Provençal Light because she was able to transform traditional cooking into a language and cookery that would appeal to the increasingly overweight and diet-conscious American audience. This is no easy feat when you consider that there is a class of dishes in Greece and Turkey called “olive oil foods.” What Martha Rose realized is that the American public didn’t live the Mediterranean lifestyle on a daily basis, so they needed lower calorie dishes that still did not forsake the authentic tastes of the Middle Sea. But Martha has written over twenty-five cookbooks and she is a wealth of information and experience.
Over the years we’ve become fast friends and will often cook together, each cooking their own recipe test for whatever book we happen to be writing. If anyone can make cooking seem easy, it’s Martha and that’s why she’s such a popular cooking teacher as well.
Recently, while working on our new cooking school I had a chance to ask Martha how it all began. I asked Martha when she started cooking and what appealed to her. You’ve written several books on the Mediterranean. What was it about the Mediterranean that drew you to it?
>>“Those big flavors appealed to me. When I was a vegetarian in the early ‘70s, the few decent cookbooks I used were full of recipes from the Middle East and Italian food was easy to adapt to a vegetarian diet. These cuisines appealed to me because they were produce-centered”.
You’ve been able to combine two seemingly contradictory phenomena, namely, a light, low calorie style of cooking from a tradition that is not shy about using its olive oil? How are you able to do that and stay true to the original tradition?
>>“Some would say my recipes are not authentic, because I do use less olive oil than a Greek cook, say, would use. I always ask myself: How much oil do I need to cook this dish properly, and to bring out the maximum flavor? I’ve never been a teaspoon-of-oil kind of healthy cook; it’s usually a couple of tablespoons. And if I’m making a dish that requires more (like pesto, for example, or aioli), then I use more. It’s also a question of choosing what dishes to cook, to include in my repertoire. The choice in the Mediterranean is so wide; I can skip the dishes that are too heavy for my taste”.
The Mediterranean Diet has recently been taken as a paradigm for a healthful diet. What is appealing about this region for you in terms of food and cooking?
>>“I think that the Mediterranean Diet makes it very easy to eat a healthful diet, because the food tastes so good; it’s inherently flavorful, because of the basic ingredients”.
So if we think of the basic ingredients such, as say “tomatoes” and “olive oil” what pops into your mind in terms of cooked foods?
>>“Obviously, I think of marinara sauce and all of its variations, and all the Italian dishes that rely on it. But even before I said that, I had a vision of olive oil bathed, slow-cooked tomatoes in a gratin dish. I can see that dish in a display in a Greek taverna or Italian trattoria”.
Apart from being the author of some of the finest recipes books available on Mediterranean cuisine, Martha Rose Shulman also writes for the Health and Fitness recipe section of the New York Times or you can visit her personal website. Please visit the recipe pages of this site for some of her tomato based favourites.