Food & dining

Cookbook Review

Dishes may sound familiar, but Melia Marden’s riffs lift them

Melia Marden is chef at the New York restaurant The Smile.
Melia Marden is chef at the New York restaurant The Smile.

Just when you thought (or rather, 20 years after you first thought) there was nothing more to say about Mediterranean cooking, along comes a vibrant, youthful-looking volume of retooled classics: pizza with pomegranate and goat cheese, turkey roasted with harissa. “Modern Mediterranean: Easy, Flavorful Home Cooking” is the work of Melia Marden, chef-owner of The Smile restaurant in New York. And although the recipes seem vaguely familiar, it’s as though someone took a list of the usual ingredients and techniques and hit “shuffle.”

I shaved asparagus into strips with a vegetable peeler — and wished I’d discovered the technique earlier in the season. The ribbons make a fast saute that retains a bit of crunch and provides a clingy vehicle for butter. Green beans are charred in the pan and topped with fried shallots. They turn out, not unexpectedly, to be mostly about grabbing as many fried shallots as you can, though shreds of basil and crumbles of pecorino are nice too.

Couscous with currants and pistachios is a good idea, though it could use a whole lot more nuts and fruit. You’ll have to do some turning (not called for in the recipe) to get the browned and blistered effect pictured in a pan of lemony roasted potatoes, but it’s worth it for the way the crust plays off the shriveled, supersweet grapes.


Some recipes don’t rise above their components. Sauteed summer squash is just what you’d expect and no more, the squash rounds unbrowned, floppy, and garlicky. A plate of fusilli with shredded zucchini is equally dull, because it takes a lot more than a bit of aromatics and Parmesan to make watery zucchini shreds come to life. In rosemary and oregano pork chops, the marinade doesn’t penetrate the meat, but the sear and bake technique works well (for further streamlining, use a skillet like cast iron, which you can pop in the oven).

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Chicken paillard looks attractive and tasty with its piccata-style accouterments (capers and lemons), but it doesn’t quite pull together. Maybe it needs a coating of flour or some butter, or both, to seal the deal. Lamb shanks look east of the Mediterranean with their sweet spicing (coriander, cinnamon). Dates and preserved lemons nicely balance the rich, unctuous flavor of the meat. A similar palate informs a platter of Moroccan meatballs, swaddled in tomato and mint.

But a rhubarb crumble is one of those sloppy desserts that take little time to make and satisfy a crowd. It’s no beauty, but a sexy dollop of cardamom cream makes that irrelevant. Skip the extra liquid if you want it to cook through expeditiously.

It’s been done before, and it will be done again. But with its splashy graphics and larger-than-life photographs, “Modern Mediterranean” works hard to persuade you that you can mine the past for flavor and make it over new. And though not every recipe reinvents the form, the book is still a good place to turn to for some capable riffs on tried-and-true ideas.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at