Another side of the Med

RESTAURANT CRITIC

When the London restaurant Moro opened in 1997, I remember reading that to research Muslim Mediterranean cuisine, the chef-couple -- Samuel and Samantha Clark -- spent some months traveling around Spain and Morocco in an old camper van. They simply drove around and went to markets and cooked with people they met along the way.

I loved the idea of such a direct experience of the cuisine. So when I happened to see "Moro: The Cookbook" at the Spanish Table store in Seattle a few years ago, I grabbed a copy. Published in Britain in 2001 by Ebury Press, the book can be hard to find. The late great Cook's Library used to carry it, but now your best bet is probably online. According to Amazon, the original hardback is now out of print, but you can find it used there and on various other online booksellers for $50 and up. Or you can buy a paperback version published in 2003 (which is what I have) for less than $20. And if all else fails, try Amazon.co.uk, the British Amazon site, which will ship to the U.S.

The fact that two chefs were both called Sam and so became Sam and Sam Clark makes their story all the more delicious. Like Jamie Oliver, they'd both come out of River Cafe, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers' wildly popular riverfront Italian in London.

Writing in the introduction, the Clarks explained that "the idea was to learn about as many flavours and techniques as possible and to try to discover details that really make food taste of where it comes from and not seem cooked by an Anglo-Saxon." Hear, hear.

I cooked from "Moro" the book on the weekends, bought copies as presents for friends and found this and their next two books had become cult cookbooks among passionate home cooks in England and, less often, in this country.

For me, the appeal is the sensuality and unpretentiousness of their food. Everything is very direct and faithful to the cuisine -- call it Moorish or Muslim Mediterranean. I love, too, the way the back photo in the book is not just the usual posed picture of the authors, but a group shot of the entire restaurant crew, babies in laps. And the acknowledgments thank the whole restaurant team past and present.

Their second book, "Casa Moro," came out in 2004, and I have that too (a hardcover import, this book is easily available online). It is more about home cooking, specifically the kinds of things the couple like to cook at their country house in the Alpujarras, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Andalusia, Spain. Some of it is outdoor cooking, but we're not talking firing up the Weber on the balcony. They'll hike to a river bank to cook a rabbit paella over wood and gather the rosemary from the hillsides to season it. The photos of the paella cooking, their two kids frolicking in the river or helping add ingredients to the rice, are a dream. Or what about the recipe for revueltos (soft scrambled eggs) with wild garlic and wild asparagus?

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Shared recipes

Their most recent book is "Moro East," which from the title sounds as if it would be Middle Eastern or Turkish food. But it's not. This book is a tribute to the seven years the couple enjoyed an allotment, or community garden, in London's East End. It's an informal journal of the seasons in that garden with their own recipes and those collected from their neighbors there. It is an import, too, though again it is easily available online.

Leafing through the book, I come across a recipe for an ancient cold soup of grated cucumbers, yogurt and mint called cacik, "perfect for a hot summer's day." They're not precious about it: "Our cucumbers were particularly ugly this year, due to drought and neglect. When used in this soup however, they tasted divine and all their physical imperfections were forgiven." That's followed by a recipe from their allotment neighbor Hassan for celery and white bean soup with tomato and caraway. And on through feta, endive and orange salad to bulgur with celery and pomegranates to a sardine tagine from Fatima, the wife of their Moroccan-born chef.

At the allotment, people not only garden, they seem to cook right there, or at least grill over charcoal. Once you come to know the Cypriots, Kurds and Turks the couple befriended through stories and recipes, it breaks your heart to learn that the century-old treasure in this scruffy part of London has been swept away by the grand Olympics 2012 project and will be the site of a hockey stadium.

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When I'm thinking about cooking Sunday dinner, I'll leaf through the books to come up with much of the menu. The recipes are almost foolproof -- very few complicated techniques, but shopping for the best, and tastiest, ingredients is essential. For me, that means a trip to any of the local farmers markets, and also, Super King, a giant Armenian market in Los Angeles, where I can count on finding great labne (yogurt cheese), feta, lahvosh and produce such as peppers, cilantro and Persian cucumbers at a good price.

My husband always has a jar of preserved lemons going, so when I've got a good chicken, roasting it rubbed with harissa and preserved lemons is a natural (and is one way of infusing flavor into a chicken that may not inherently have that much flavor). We've tried it with Cornish hens too. The mingled aromas of harissa and lemon are sensational. And any leftovers are beautiful the next day.

If I get a good buy on red bell peppers, I'll roast them and serve them drizzled with olive oil and scattered with garlic and capers. And since I'm a big fan of feta and get tired of always making the same Greek salad, I've zeroed in on the salad of feta with Belgian endive, oranges (blood oranges when I can get them) and red onions. I've made the lovely yogurt cake with pistachios and labne for my book group and for a Mediterranean potluck.

Use a scale or a calculator to translate grams into ounces. And since herbs and spices, or any ingredient for that matter, can vary in intensity or effect, it's always a good idea to taste as you go along and make small adjustments.

I have by no means cooked my way through all three of the books. But I do carry a list of recipes on my iPhone that I'd like to try, just to jiggle my memory when I'm at the market. I'm saving the heartier soups and braised dishes for fall and winter.

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Restaurant visit

When I had the chance to be in London recently, the first time in years, the first reservation I made -- weeks ahead of time -- was at Moro. With two friends and high anticipation, I set off for dinner at Moro. I wasn't disappointed.

It is a welcoming, unpretentious place, with big windows that open out onto a pedestrian street. There's a bar where you can sit and eat, too, and at the back, a workaday semi-open kitchen with wood burning oven and charcoal grill. It's tiny, hot and steamy, but sending out happy smells of garlic and hot pepper and onions.

We squeezed into a table in front of the window. The menu was a one-page paper affair, and I didn't get very far into it before I wanted to order practically everything. We reveled in dark speckled olives, slicked with oil, and incredible little peppers, the skins slightly shriveled, sprinkled with salt. I remember eating these in Galicia in Spain.

We dug into gorgeous deep crimson roasted peppers, fleshy and deeply sweet, strewn with capers and accompanied by raw salt cod. Grilled spring onions with bright orange romesco sauce draped across the ends. Wood-roasted mackerel, crisp and browned at the edges, served with a glistening warm beet, onion and potato salad in yogurt perfumed with dill. Then fat strips of caramelized pork belly and some truly great charcoal-grilled venison. '

We moved outside for dessert, the fantastic yogurt cake like a bite of cloud strewn with roughly chopped pistachios and served with a dollop of thick labne. Followed by small cups of espresso. I could have eaten here the next night and the next. And in a way I can, by rifling through their cookbooks and making dishes collected there in the inimitable Sam and Sam spirit, each with a touch of the wild and the authentic.--

Moro, 34-36 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QE; 020-7833-8336; www.moro.co.uk.

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irene.virbila@latimes.com

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Feta, endive and orange salad

Total time: 20 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: Adapted from "Moro East" by Sam and Sam Clark. They write, "This salad is particularly good and colourful made with blood oranges when they are in season. A simpler version, omitting the feta and walnuts, makes a tasty side dish to accompany grilled fish and duck."

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Salt

Pepper

Superfine sugar, if desired

2 large oranges, or 3 blood oranges

3 heads of Belgian endive, any damaged outer leaves removed, whole leaves or sliced crosswise into 3/4 -inch pieces

1 cup loosely packed flat-leaf parsley leaves (from 1 small bunch)

1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, coarsely chopped if large

1/2 very small red onion, sliced as thinly as possible

1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese

Scant 2 cups walnut halves

1/3 cup drained oil-cured black olives

1. Make the dressing: In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil with the red wine vinegar until they have more or less emulsified, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Add a pinch of sugar if needed to soften the acidity. This makes about one-fourth cup dressing. Set aside. 2. With a small sharp knife, preferably serrated, cut the rind and all the pith off the oranges, keeping the oranges whole. Slice the oranges crosswise into one-fourth-inch slices and place them in a large salad or mixing bowl. Gently toss in the endive, parsley, oregano and onion.

3. Pour the dressing over the salad and gently toss to coat. Crumble the feta over the top of the salad, then sprinkle the walnuts and olives over the salad. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 659 calories; 16 grams protein; 35 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams fiber; 54 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 11 mg. cholesterol; 482 mg. sodium.

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Yogurt cake with pistachios

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from "Moro" by Sam and Sam Clark. They write, "This Lebanese pudding is delicious warm or chilled. Some fruit on the side, although not necessary, is a nice addition.

3 eggs, separated

1/4 cup plus 3 1/2 tablespoons superfine sugar, divided

2 vanilla pods, split in half lengthwise

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt, plus extra for serving

Finely grated zest 1/2 orange

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

2 1/2 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup coarsely chopped pistachio nuts

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch round cake pan (solid, not a springform) and line the base with parchment paper. Grease the parchment paper and set aside.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with 5 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons of the sugar until thick and pale, about 5 minutes. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pods and beat into the egg mixture. Beat in the yogurt, orange and lemon zest, lemon juice and flour until incorporated.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites with the remaining sugar until soft peaks form. Gently and evenly, fold the whites into the yogurt mixture. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared cake pan.

4. Place the cake pan in a larger roasting pan, allowing for at least 1 inch clearance on all sides. Place the roasting pan in the oven and pour in boiling water halfway up the filled tin.

5. Bake the cake for 20 minutes. Quickly but gently sprinkle the pistachios evenly over the top of the cake, then continue baking until the top of the cake is lightly browned, about 20 more minutes. The correct consistency of the cake should be a light sponge on top with a moist custard below. Serve the cake with yogurt.

Each serving: 199 calories; 7 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 9 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 113 mg. cholesterol; 48 mg. sodium.

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Roast chicken with preserved lemon

Total time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, plus marinating time for the chicken

Servings: 4

Note: Adapted from "Casa Moro" by Sam and Sam Clark. Preserved lemons are generally available at Middle Eastern markets as well as Whole Foods. Serve the chicken with steamed couscous or fried potatoes or a simple pilaf or bulgur wheat and some salad.

2 medium or 3 small preserved lemons

2 garlic cloves

Salt

1/2 lemon, juiced (keep the squeezed lemon half to put inside the chicken)

3 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, roughly ground

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 (3 1/2 - to 4-pound) organic or free-range chicken

freshly ground black pepper

Scant 1/2 cup water

1. Rinse the preserved lemons well under cold water. Remove the inside pulp and discard.

2. Using a mortar and pestle, or in a small bowl with a sturdy spoon, grind the garlic cloves to a paste with one-fourth teaspoon salt. Place the garlic paste, preserved lemons, lemon juice, cilantro, cumin, paprika and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a food processor or large mortar and puree until smooth.

3. Smear the marinade all over the chicken and season lightly with pepper. (You will not need salt as the preserved lemons are already very salty.) Stuff the squeezed lemon half into the body cavity. Transfer the chicken to a dish and leave it to marinate in the fridge for about 6 hours, or overnight if you prefer.

4. When you are ready to roast the chicken, heat the oven to 350 degrees.

5. Oil a roasting pan with the remaining tablespoon oil. Place the chicken in the pan and roast until done, about 1 hour and 15 minutes, basting every 15 minutes or so with the juices in the pan. After about 1 hour, pierce the leg with a skewer or sharp knife; the chicken is ready if the juices run clear and will need a little more time if the juices are still pink. Or place a thermometer into the thigh, avoiding the bone; the chicken is done when the temperature reaches 165 degrees. Transfer the chicken to a board to relax for 10 minutes, loosely covered with foil.

6. To make some gravy, pour off most of the oil from the pan and place the pan on the stove over medium heat. Add the water and bring to a gentle simmer. Drain any juices from the chicken into the pan, and scrape the pan for any caramelized bits to season the gravy. Taste the gravy, and add a little water if desired to thin.

Each serving: 487 calories; 45 grams protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 32 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 178 mg. cholesterol; 318 mg. sodium.

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Saffron rice

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: Adapted from "Moro" by Sam and Sam Clark. Dried barberries generally can be found at Middle Eastern markets. To make caramelized crispy onions, peel and halve an onion, and slice each half thinly. Slowly fry the onion in about 1 cup oil in a large saucepan or frying pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion turns a rich mahogany color. Strain on paper towels. The oil, now infused with the onion flavor, can be saved for other uses.

Scant 1 cup basmati rice

Sea salt

5 1/2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cinnamon stick

5 whole green cardamom pods, cracked

3 whole black peppercorns

2 tablespoons roughly chopped pistachio nuts (optional)

2 tablespoons barberries (optional)

1 good pinch of saffron threads (about 100 threads) infused in 1/4 cup boiling water

3/4 cup Greek yogurt

1 clove garlic, crushed

Caramelized crispy onions

1. Wash the basmati rice, then soak it for 3 hours in 2 cups of water salted with one-half teaspoon salt.

2. In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the cinnamon, cardamom pods and black peppercorns and gently fry the spices until their aromas start to be released, about 4 minutes.

3. Drain the rice well, add it to the pan and stir to coat for a minute. Increase the heat to medium-high. If you are using pistachios, barberries or both, stir them in now. Pour enough water over the rice to cover it roughly by half an inch, and season with one-half teaspoon salt.

4. Cut a round of parchment paper that will fit over the surface of the water, and place it in the pan. Place a lid on the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to a simmer and continue to cook for 5 minutes, then lift the lid and paper off the pan and drizzle the saffron water evenly over the rice. Replace the paper and lid and continue to cook 4 to 5 minutes more until the rice is tender and the water is absorbed.

5. While the rice is cooking, whisk together the yogurt with the crushed garlic, 1/8 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper in a medium bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

6. Serve the rice with the caramelized onions sprinkled over the top and the seasoned yogurt on the side.

Each serving: 514 calories; 7 grams protein; 44 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 34 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 50 mg. cholesterol; 526 mg. sodium.

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