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Restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila has her summer projects lined up

May 20, 2011 |  8:00 am

Stove 1 (1 of 1) Cleaning up my office, I found an old notebook from a few years ago in which I listed summer cooking projects — jams, granita, Santa Maria barbecue (I'd just purchased a Santa Maria-style grill from Santa Maria BBQ Grill Outfitters on the Central Coast).

Time to revive the idea of summer cooking projects.

This is what I'm thinking for this year (so far). I want to cook more Middle Eastern food. It's great for entertaining because mezze (all those lovely small dishes) can be served pretty much at room temperature. I remember going on a cooking jag in my 20s with a used copy of Claudia Roden's "Middle Eastern Food." I now have the updated tome called "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food." And I'm tempted by her recipes for tepsi boregi (creamy filo cheese pie), Tunisian brik, bulgur salads, flatbreads and saffron rice pudding.

But I have quite a few more cookbooks to explore. One of them is Rodin's “Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon” (Knopf, 2006, 352 pages, $37.50). Also, “Artichoke to Za’atar: Modern Middle Eastern Food” by Australian chef Greg Malouf. He’s also published several large-format books with gorgeous photography exploring Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and Syria. I’ve also cooked some from Boston chef Ana Sortun's “Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean" and want to do more.

I've laid in my spices -- za'atar, sumac, and more from Penzey's Spices in Santa Monica -- and planted Greek oregano, marjoram, and a bay laurel tree for bay leaves.

I'm remembering long-ago dinners in Istanbul where we'd nibble on mezze, smoke, taste a few more dishes between sips of raki, an anise-flavored spirit similar to pastis or ouzo. No more smoking for me, but my idea this summer is to get up and put on a record between rounds of mezze. Eat, listen, eat, look at the stars.

And what are your summer cooking projects?

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 -- S. Irene Virbila

Illustration: S. Irene Virbila / Los Angeles Times

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