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Dazzling, delicious

Claudia Roden shares fragrant treasures of the Moroccan, Turkish and Lebanese tables. Sophistication is simplified.

October 11, 2006|Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writer

CLAUDIA Roden's new cookbook, "Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon" ($35, Knopf), is a generous, warm, open-door invitation to explore the tenets and nuances of a rich culinary legacy. With recipes for such dishes as sophisticated tagines from Morocco, fragrant Turkish kebabs and a dazzling assortment of Lebanese mezes, she evokes the devotion to hospitality in a region where Muslims are, in this season, observing the holy month of Ramadan.

It's a time when the concerns of daily life are set aside, and fasting is required from sunup to sundown. But in cities such as Marrakech and Istanbul, gates and house doors are opened and cafes extend their evening hours so that friends and family can gather and talk over clattering dishes and tinkling glasses until the sun rises and the ritual of fasting begins again. It's a perfect time to explore Roden's book, as she's an excellent source for the tradition and history of Middle Eastern cuisine.

Roden's first book, "A Book of Middle Eastern Food," was published nearly 40 years ago, long before harissa or preserved lemons or sumac punctuated the menus of so many American chefs. With hundreds of recipes, it became a definitive primer of Arabic cooking; it's now in its third edition.

In "Arabesque," Roden manages to do what she had said seemed impossible in the earlier book: streamline the recipes she has culled from a vast Arab and Ottoman cuisine and neatly divide them into distinct geographical categories. The result is a book of about 250 recipes that's extremely manageable and easy to use. The three main sections -- Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon -- are further divided into starters, main courses and desserts.

I miss the tales, proverbs and riddles that are strewn throughout "Middle Eastern Food," but each section of "Arabesque" starts with an introduction that compresses personal and cultural history and some of the rituals and customs related to each region's food. It's not just recipes that she hands down but also a savoir-vivre, a nudge to enjoy the pleasures of the table.

She shows, for example, that savoring mezes -- the appetizers that developed as an accompaniment to the Lebanese national drink arrack (raki in Turkey and ouzo in Greece) -- reflects the value the community places on leisure and the gratification of sitting at home on a terrace or in a courtyard or at a cafe, sipping drinks and nibbling fattet hummus bi laban, chickpeas with toasted bread and yogurt.

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Eggplant for a party

AMONG her array of meze recipes are a batinjan raheb, a gorgeous eggplant salad limned with pomegranate seeds, scallions and diced tomatoes, and lahma bi ajeen, tiny meat pizzas made with a wonderful dough that contains yogurt and olive oil. The eggplant salad is easy to make but also impressive enough for a party.

That's what's great about so many of Roden's recipes. They're straightforward and often can be prepared in advance, but they also can be spectacularly impressive: exquisite stuffed quinces, grilled quails, piles of sweet extra-fine couscous studded with almonds and dates -- dishes that recall the courts of glamorous sultans.

Even during Ramadan, when religious contemplation takes precedence over, say, lunch, food takes on a profound significance. Iftar is the evening meal that breaks the fast; sometimes it starts with dates or olives and bread or a bowl of soup, such as the Moroccan stew harira.

Food prepared during the day is eaten at night, to be enjoyed in moderation. The holiday that closes the lunar month of Ramadan, Id-al-Fitr, is celebrated with three days of feasting and feting.

It's a time of festive desserts, and Roden offers plenty of appropriate recipes: pistachio cake; apricots stuffed with cream; pastries such as m'hencha, filled with ground almond paste and shaped into a stunning long coil.

Honeyed pastries filled with sweetened walnuts and orange zest and perfumed with orange blossom water are especially delicious. The filling is simply walnuts, a bit of sugar and orange zest, rolled up in sheaves of filo. Roden recommends store-bought filo and baking the pastries instead of frying them, so they're easy to make.

Roden, born in Cairo and educated in Paris and London, is Jewish but is fascinated with Islamic civilization, crediting the spread of Islam for the development of a gastronomy comparable to that of France and China. She has been archiving recipes from all over the Middle East for decades. Though she's well-versed in culinary history and tradition, she offers a lot of freedom in the preparation of her dishes. "Cooking does not stand still: It evolves," Roden says.

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