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Cookbook Review

Not so precise recipes from the Eastern Mediterranean

London-based Silvena Rowe is the author of “Orient Express,” a recipe book of Eastern Mediterranean meals and sweets.

Ben Knight

London-based Silvena Rowe is the author of “Orient Express,” a recipe book of Eastern Mediterranean meals and sweets.

The terms “Orient” and “Oriental,” though still used pretty freely across the pond, elicit a cringe these days among politically correct Americans. When what’s meant is “East Asia,” we simply default to “Asia” and “Asian,” terms carrying less baggage. But the “Orient” of “Orient Express,” London-based food writer Silvena Rowe’s second book foray, is not East Asia. If anything, it’s Asia Minor, plus the Eastern Mediterranean. What this is is explained in the subtitle of “Orient Express”: “Fast Food From the Eastern Mediterranean.” Whew! If only that’s what it were called. (As Churchill said, the United States and England are “two nations divided by a common language.”)

Now to the subject of just how speedy “Orient Express” is. Our family loves borek, the Turkish filled-pastry rolls. Rowe’s version, stuffed with crab, saffron, and fennel, uses phyllo, and springlike notes of anise (tarragon and fennel) blended just fine with the crab. With what would turn out to be characteristic reticence, Rowe doesn’t mention how much filling goes in each roll, so I ended up with 18 instead of 12. No matter; they all disappeared anyway.

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Turkey and pine nut kebabs with saffron mayonnaise are easy to love, broiled instead of skewered on a grill. I hope you already know how to make mayonnaise, though, since Rowe’s 2-sentence whisking instructions give no hint of how much can go wrong. (Tip: It’s easier in a food processor, and even easier spooned out of the jar.)

Chickpea and cumin kofte with tahini and lemon sauce takes the familiar meatballs in a vegetarian direction — again, no indication how large or how many — and you’ll need a lot more than 2 tablespoons of oil to batch-fry the lot, even in a nonstick pan. Anchovy and parsley-stuffed veal meatballs with olive oil and garlic cream are brimming with umami, and not terribly fussy. Again, no instructions on how big a meatball you’re going for, or how many you should have at the end.

Sumac and pistachio dukkah shrimp comes with way too much sauce, which I thoughtlessly dumped in its full quantity onto the dish, ending up with something that looked nothing like the photograph. In moderation, though, the tahini beautifully pairs with the punctuation of ground nuts and spices that is a dukkah. Honey mashed fava beans with capers and scallions cooks up looking as sunny as polenta, with a beany, savory taste. But it doesn’t set up as it’s predicted to, even overnight, which renders meaningless the instruction to cut out shapes from the mash with a cookie cutter.

Sticky honey, pomegranate, and Ottoman-spiced chicken wings get the royal treatment: a long bath in garlicky pomegranate molasses and juice and a leisurely roasting till golden. Even without the suggested scattering of pomegranate seeds (now out of season), they steal the show.

For sweets, a cardamom and white chocolate mousse caused problems from the start, when one ingredient was listed only in metric. I had on hand a scale that measured both grams and ounces. The white chocolate, melted and thick and beaten with egg yolks, grew ropy as it hit the cold cream. It still tasted good, despite a questionable texture.

In the end, I had to conclude that “Orient Express” is one of those books that’s beautiful on the inside. Once you get past the title, the slips into metric-only, and the imprecision of the recipe prose, there are some truly innovative, progressive, and — yes — fairly swift riffs on classic Middle Eastern flavor combinations. To get there, though, you’ll need at least 100 grams (that’s almost a quarter-pound) of extra patience.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@tsusanchang.com.
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