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The Marvelous Claudia Roden
Middle Eastern home cooking wouldn't be what it is today without her
“I never thought there was Jewish food. None of us thought we had Jewish food. We just had the food we ate. And it was Syrian, Tunisian, Moroccan. Each family had theirs. But I just thought — I want to go and research elsewhere. I would go to embassies, like to the Persian embassy, and they would say, ‘do you want a visa,’ and I would say, ‘no, I'm looking for recipes.’“
In 1974, a friend had me over to her house for Middle Eastern food. I'm not sure anyone who wasn't a native of Armenia had ever cooked that kind of food for me before. (There had been one such person, a native of Armenia, who had done that.) The food was fabulous — stewed lamb with what I can only call melted spinach, the best pilaf I'd ever tasted up until then, a salad of dried fruit and nuts with rose water that completely blew my mind (I make that all the time).
“How the hell did you do this?” I demanded of her. She was about the same level of cook as I was at the time, which was not quite a rank beginner — but this food was just something new.
“A new cookbook,” she said, and handed me a copy of Claudia Roden's Book of Middle Eastern Food, just out in paperback. I still have that copy.
There were not then the number of authentic, really well done cookbooks with foods of other countries, other regions, as there are now; this was something different, and exciting. I became a fan of Claudia's, and I looked at, bought, even sometimes reviewed, most of the books she produced over the years. I was fascinated not only by her story, which we'll get into in today’s interview on Food with Mark Bittman, but by her ability to write recipes in a way that made it possible for the home cook to produce flavors we'd never imagined — or, at best, experienced in travel or in restaurants.
Claudia is a terrific cookbook author, among the best, and highly influential. Nor need you take my word for it — Yotam Ottolenghi is among the chefs who cite her as an influence. It sounds crazy to say this, but in 2013 — nearly 50 years after that first Claudia Roden experience, the meal that my friend cooked — I visited Claudia in London. We cooked together, and we chatted for hours. I wrote about it for the Times.
I wasn't intimidated by meeting a longtime idol; I was delighted. We had a wonderful time together, and have remained in touch. So it's with a great deal of pleasure that I present the Food with Mark Bittman version of a Hanukkah show with my friend, Claudia Roden.
Please listen and subscribe, and please review on Apple if you’re so inclined. Today’s podcast recipe is Mediterranean Pantry Salad from Claudia’s awesome new book, Claudia Roden's Mediterranean: Treasured Recipes from a Lifetime of Travel.
Thank you, as always. — Mark
Mediterranean Pantry Salad
This is a snack for when people visit unexpectedly and stay on. I make it as we sit in the kitchen with a drink. It is inspired by a bar in Barcelona that displayed a huge array of jars and cans and specialized in tapas made entirely from preserves. I’ve added fresh tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs and serve it with good bread. — Claudia Roden's Mediterranean: Treasured Recipes from a Lifetime of Travel
4 red piquillo peppers in oil, drained
One 7-oz / 200g can tuna, drained
One 2-oz / 55g can anchovies, drained
12 black olives
4 ripe plum tomatoes, cut into wedges
4 hard-boiled eggs, quartered lengthwise
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Salt and black pepper
Divide the piquillos, tuna, anchovies, olives, tomatoes, and eggs among four plates. In a medium bowl, beat together the olive oil and vinegar, season with salt and black pepper, and then drizzle over each helping.
— Reprinted with permission from Claudia Roden's Mediterranean: Treasured Recipes from a Lifetime of Travel by Claudia Roden, copyright © 2021. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House