"When we look back on newlywed life, Mark and I will recall it divided into two periods: the pre-Moro days, and the post-Moro days. It is no great exaggeration to say that your gift has changed our lives — or at least our kitchen."
That was the beginning of a thank-you card I wrote this week to my cousin-in-law and his wife, who recently gifted my husband and me with a series of cookbooks — Moro, Casa Moro and Moro East — by Samuel and Samantha Clark, the husband and wife behind the wildly successful London restaurant, Moro.
Their cooking is rooted in traditional recipes from the Moorish south of Spain (a country you know is dear to me), Morocco and the northern coast of Africa, Turkey (a country I fell in love with on a recent visit), and the Mediterranean countries of the Middle East.
The food is unassuming, unpretentious, rustic and uncomplicated. No one would call it art. It's too real for that. Too sincere. These are recipes that appeal to the cook who wants people to swoon from the flavors in their mouth, but doesn't need them to gasp when the plate is set before them:
Smoky eggplant salad with tahini dressing, fresh mint, sweet cherry tomato and the pop of juicy pomegranate seeds.
Cold yogurt soup with grated cucumber and mint, with a healthy drizzle of olive oil on top.
Spinach cooked with saffron and chickpeas, crowned with a golden heap of toasty migas — fried breadcrumbs, Spanish-style.
Or how about: fresh spinach salad, slick with sumac dressing, tossed with tangy feta and toasted pine nuts.
Moro's meals cry out to be served in chipped ceramic bowls -- lots of them -- with heaping piles of bread and shallow dishes filled with glistening olive oil surrounding damp islands of za'atar. These recipes are for feasting but never with your fancy bone china. It's the kind of food that wants to be eaten outdoors, communing with nature, or in a damp, dark tavern near the heat of a charcoal grill.
A quick glance at the recipes in Moro East (the newest book), with the beautiful blue patterned dust jacket, I felt my heart expand with a kind of palpable joy. I bit my lower lip, steadying the emotion that was poised to reveal itself in tears, and told my husband Mark that these were the recipes I've always wanted to make (though I'd never actually known them).
This is the way, I said, I've always longed to cook.
The recipes in Moro East are grouped by season — inspired by the vegetables and herbs the Clarks grew on their plot of land in the east end of London. I tend to read cookbooks like novels, from cover to cover, and with this one, I was completely rapt. By the end, when I learned the Clarks's allotment was bulldozed to make way for Olympic stadiums, I felt like an old friend had died. All that life — old fruit trees, asparagus that took years to grow, plants that were lovingly tended in neighboring plots by a rainbow of immigrants — are all gone.
When it comes to Moro, and the cookbooks, I'm frightfully late to the party. The restaurant opened in 1997 and has steadily stacked up awards from top food critics. The first cookbook came out in 2001, though they remain difficult to buy in the US.
Coincidentally, before I met him, Mark actually lived a stone's throw from Moro, in King's Cross.
Today we are back in London, and tomorrow, Thursday, I make a pilgrimage. I go to Moro — home of the recipes that have inspired my lunches and dinners of the past couple months.
We will arrive somewhere around the tail end of lunch. I want to take a seat at the bar with my husband and order a feast of tapas. I want to watch the faces of the cooks (the Clarks or otherwise) in the open kitchen as they make the food that inspires so much love in me — not to mention a great longing to move away from the city to the countryside, where I can grow my own vegetables and cook by the seasons.
Mark has, somewhat cheekily, cautioned me not to get too excited. "What if it's not as good as what you've already made?" he, so sweetly, suggests.
But I'm not expecting a life-changing experience — that already happened when I cracked open the Moro books. I only hope to feel the way I do when I eat Moro's food at home: deeply, and indescribably, satisfied.