Everyone who knows Paula Wolfert seems to have a great Paula story. Here’s mine.
It was about 2 years ago. I was dropping off a good friend at the Marrakesh airport. After we said our goodbyes and parted ways, I glanced down at a counter and noticed a shiny credit card. I read the name, Paula Wolfert, and it sounded so familiar, like a household name, but I couldn’t quite pin it down. I looked around and spotted likely candidate. I ran up to her and asked if she’d dropped a credit card. She said she had and I handed it over and that was that. I walked away then it suddenly came to me who she was. Again I ran after her and asked, “wait, are you Paula Wolfert who wrote Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco?”. She said “Yes”. I was so excited, I told her how we’d grown up with that book in our kitchen.
It was that book, with its detailed description of how to shop for and prepare Moroccan food, that unraveled many mysteries for my mother and later for my sister and me. When my sister and I decided to make bastilla for Eid, we used the books detailed instructions on how to prepare each layer, the chicken cooked in saffron, the eggs and the sweetened ground almonds, all of it wrapped them in thin, crispy warqa dough. We did not have a Moroccan grandmother to pass on the old ways to us, but this book was often a good stand-in. Paula was not just another cookbook author, she was one of us, a foreigner who had come to Morocco, learned the ropes, and lived to tell the tale.
Already in my mind I couldn’t wait to tell my mother that I’d met the woman we’d sort of grown up with. Little did I know that Paula had gone on to write many, many other cookbooks, and that she had developed a loyal following. Her fans were people who enjoyed doing things the traditional way, cooking in clay pots, tracking down the best cumin and saffron, steaming couscous for hours…
Then Paula told me that she not been back to Morocco in 27 years! And that she had now come to find new (old) recipes that she hadn’t featured in her first book. Food and Wine Magazine was going to run an article on her journey re-discovering Morocco. She mentioned that one of the recipes she had come to pin down was Seffa, that steamed angel hair pasta with chicken dish that is my favorite.
It just so happens that we have a beloved housekeeper, Malika, who is an amazing Moroccan cook. I mean the kind of woman who, whatever she puts her hands into, turns out delicious. I told Paula about Malika, and the next thing you know I was inviting Paula and the magazine staff over for a cooking demonstration. Yikes!
I called my mother and gleefully exclaimed, “you’ll never guess who I just me at the airport…”. My mother was equally pleased, and she called up Paula at her hotel and the two of them talked for an hour. I’m sure they had many tales to tell. Both my mother and Paula came to Morocco at a very different time. I remember my mother with her jellaba and basket, headed to the markets to do battle, haggling in a foreign language for the purchase of each and every item that crossed our doorstep. Before the big chain supermarkets made everything easy and infinitely less interesting.
The day of the photo shoot came, and there we were, Malika, Paula, Emily Kaiser (the food editor), Quentin Bacon (world famous food photographer), his assistant whose name escapes me at the moment, and myself. Malika was dressed in a beautiful turquoise caftan. My daughter, who was then 7 years old, was so excited about the photo shoot and made sure she was wearing a beautiful gold caftan. (She kept asking, “do you think they’ll put me in the magazine?”).
Malika started to work her magic, turning the noodles, chicken and almonds into work of art. Quentin snapped away while his assistant wrote down information on every photo he took. I was so pleased that Malika was getting her chance to shine, she certainly deserves it. Making Seffa (or Chaariya medfouna) is a long process. Angel hair pasta only takes a few minutes to boil, but it takes about 3 hours of steaming to turn al dente. During this time, it absorbs the flavors of the chicken that is bubbling away in the bottom of the steamer. Malika showed how she gets the most flavor out of saffron: she heats up the threads in a pan and then crushes them between her fingers. She also demonstrated the steaming technique, skillfully turning the pasta onto a plate every 40 minutes or so to toss it and throw on more butter. Here’s a photo of the same dish, made at a later date:
The next day, my mother invited Paula and the crew out to her farm in the country. There we hired a couple of local ladies to demonstrate another rather labor intensive Moroccan dish called Treed. Emily told us to look for the magazine article 12 months later. ”We prepare articles 12 months in advance so that when we run them, it’s the same season as in the photos”.
Let me just say that we were all very comfortable with each other. Paula is extremely down to earth, real and loving. It all came together in the most serendipitous way.
So, 12 months later I began to look for the magazine article online. I did not see anything until a few months after that. Finally the article appeared, I showed it my daughter Karima and to Malika the great cook. Although Malika and Karima’s names had been switched, and the chicken had turned into lamb, it was fun to read about our cooking day together, it honored Malika and included a nice photo of her and Paula.
I thought that was the end of the story…until Paula published her highly-acclaimed newest cookbook. This one:
Well, then, a friend of ours who had spent 3 months in Morocco returned to the States and wrote us, “someone gave me a beautiful new Moroccan cookbook and I opened it up and there was Karima”. (Just so it’s clear, Karima is our daughter). She snapped a photo of the page and sent it to us. I don’t think I knew that Paula was also working on a cookbook when we saw each other, so this came as quite a surprise.
Soon after that, Paula sent 2 copies of the cookbook, one for me and one for my mom. It’s really beautiful, part coffee-table book, part cookbook. I’m amazed at the depth of Paula’s research into Morocco history, regional characteristics, obscure cooking tips and spice categorizing. There was a very dear picture of Karima in the book , as well as a few pictures taken from the cooking demo with Malika. (If you want to see the pictures of Karima, Malika, our steamer, and a very blurry me eating Seffa, you’ll have to get your hands on a copy). I showed the book to Malika and she was fascinated by all the different recipes. I asked her if she liked being in the book and she said “shweeya (a little), I like the other people’s recipes better”. Come on Malika, give yourself some credit!
I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the book, which ties in nicely with the blog post I wrote a few days ago. It sums up what I appreciate the most about Moroccan cooks, their ability to make something fabulous out of almost nothing
“Moroccans put much store in what they call baraka, which means good fortune. And in culinary terms, baraka can also refer to an ability to start cooking with very little in the way of ingredients and yet feed many people from the food pot.”
The photo of Malika and Paula Wolfert is by Quentin Bacon.