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What’s Cooking?

Mediterranean gems from Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Tyler Florence’s book debut.

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Ever wondered about the origins of fleur de sel, the location of the world’s oldest bakery or which explorer discovered peppers? The answers lie within Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ latest book, "The Essential Mediterranean," which catalogues in crisp prose the 10 essential ingredients of the region’s cooking. The esteemed food writer, who penned "The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook," has written the kind of tome that satisfies foodies, literary types — and any combination of the two.

In addition to essays that explore the historical significance of salt, olive oil, bread, wine and vinegar; dairy, legumes, pasta and couscous; the family pig, and tomatoes and peppers in Mediterranean cooking, each chapter features relevant recipes, over 170 in all.

"It’s definitely not for a novice," admits Jenkins, who divides her seasons between Tuscany and Maine. "But the book is also for people who don’t care about cooking and can’t bear standing in front of a stove."

A chapter on olive oil, for example, not only describes the process of creating a virgin press, but offers a profile of Majid Mahjoub, known as the "Shakespeare of olive oil" in Italy, and a passage on the symbolism of the olive tree — as well as recipes for garlic mayonnaise, French mustardy vinaigrette, gazpacho and oil-poached salmon fillet.

Since 1966, Jenkins has lived all over the Mediterranean, cooking, eating and writing. Their way of life, she says, is a model Americans should espouse. "The quality of ingredients is crucial to the quality of what you’re eating or cooking," she says, pointing out the first tip Americans should address. Valuing life over work is the second. "Americans think they’re virtuous because they work so much," she adds. "But they’re missing out on their lives."

While Jenkins book will satisfy the M.F.K. Fisher types, Tyler Florence’s debut cookbook, "Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen," is for those who don’t know dicing from mincing. Devotees of the Food Network will recognize Florence from his "Food 911" series, in which he hopscotches like a madman from city to city, rescuing home cooks from food emergencies. To promote the book, the energetic and voluble 32-year-old chef is making a whirlwind 43 appearances in 20 cities in 20 days. The book, which features more than 150 of his favorite recipes tailored to specific occasions such as Dinner with Friends or One-Pot Wonders, is a reflection of Florence — easy, approachable and speedy.
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It’s also flying off the shelves.

In just two weeks, more than 65,000 copies have been sold. Florence and his basic approach to food, it seems, are more popular than he ever imagined.

"You never understand the power of TV until you do something like this," says the chef, who also is enjoying his new status as a pinup. At a book signing on Monday in San Francisco, 550 fans showed up to watch him cook stir-fried beef with tangerine and green beans. The demographic he appeals to most — the ladies — came in droves. They screamed and some even cried. In Chicago, more than 450 mobbed Borders Books for his appearance. "It’s amazing to hear applause while you’re cooking. People come up afterward to say that they cook because of the show."

In addition to launching a new show, "Tyler’s Ultimate," on the Food Network, he is also filming 65 new episodes of "Food 911." At this rate, isn’t he in danger of burnout? "People get enjoyment out of what I do," he says, seemingly amazed by his celebrity, "so in that way, it’s kind of rock-star like."
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