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'Moro' cookbooks open up a world of Moorish flavors

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 Café, 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?

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.

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.

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.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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