Buon appetito: A harvest of country Italian cookbooks
December 21, 1999
By Randall H. Harber
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Just in time for that last-minute Christmas gift shopping, it's a crop of new cookbooks, almost all celebrating country Italian cooking.
And it's no wonder that suddenly everyone is writing about rustic Italian cuisine. Lying at the very soul of Italian cooking is the idea that tasty, flavorful meals can be prepared by purchasing the freshest ingredients and preparing them simply. Eating flavorful food, and food that's good for you, isn't something that has to be put aside for a trip to a restaurant -- nor does it have to be the result of a daylong adventure in the kitchen.
With any of these books, it's possible to prepare a "restaurant quality" meal packed with flavor in the time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta.
'The Italian Country Table'
As Lynne Rossetto Kasper notes in "The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking From Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens" (Scribner, 384 pages, hardcover, $35), the cuisine of Italy is based on la cucina povera -- poor people's cooking.
For example, no one knows who or when, but it was apparently a person living near Genoa -- someone who had no meat (and probably no prospect of having any) -- , who decided to make do with what she had. She mixed pine nuts from the trees in her yard with basil, garlic, olive oil and Romano cheese to make one of the most brilliantly pungent sauces anyone has ever tasted: pesto. The history of Italian cuisine is replete with stories like this.
Kasper's book is a celebration of them. One entry, Puglia Streetwalker's Pasta, is a good example.
A Puglia farmer makes a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Naples, Kasper writes. There, he tastes Pasta Puttanesca, the pasta made with anchovies, black olives and tomatoes by the streetwalkers who like it because it's easy to fix and allows them more time to make money. The farmer goes home "and tells his wife about the dish, but probably not where he ate it." The Puglia housewife dresses it up a bit, adding the wild arugula that grows free in her yard.
This cookbook skims the length of Italy. It doesn't pause long in any region, but gives you the highlights. But after all, when you skim the cream, what you end up with is a lot of cream.
Kasper's range is from the simple to the decadent. Learn how to oven-roast canned tomatoes with garlic, rosemary, onion and olive oil for a couple of hours to intensify their flavors. Then turn to the dessert section for Chocolate Polenta Pudding Cake, a concoction from "Italy's corn country" -- a dark, interestingly textured cake with a moist center, laced with orange, cinnamon, and black pepper. With this, she recommends a nice peppery-red Valpolicella.
Other stops on this tour of Italy include a Sicilian grilled chicken with mint sauce and a Tyrolean Pot Roast from Trentino-Alto Adige -- it's spiced with cumin, coriander, fennel and bay.
Even though Kasper's family is from Lucca in Tuscany, she proves there's much more to Italian cuisine than Tuscan style dishes.
As with many of these books, there are wonderful family photos here. You see pictures of her cousin Edda and learn about Edda's father, Clementino. He went away to the United States, but when he returned to marry the girl of his dreams -- the woman who was to be Edda's mother -- she wouldn't leave the hills around Lucca. So, he stayed.
Kasper won a James Beard award for her previous book, "The Splendid Table." She's a good storyteller and this book is full of little details to help the home chef.
'Every Night Italian'
Another volume that's perhaps less celebratory but more functional is Giuliano Hazan's "Every Night Italian: 120 Simple, Delicious Recipes You Can Make in 45 Minutes or Less" (Scribner, 256 pages, hardcover, $25).
Hazan set out with these 120 recipes to prove that delicious Italian meals can be prepared, often in just a few minutes, night after night.
Each recipe includes a countdown. Savoy Cabbage and Sausage Soup, a nourishing dish for a cold winter day, takes 20 minutes' preparation time, 80 minutes start to finish. Onion and sausage are browned; shredded savoy cabbage is added; then comes beef broth; and at last, short-grain Italian rice, the kind used to make risotto.
A pasta dish features tomatoes, garlic, a pinch of hot pepper, a pound of medium shrimp and a half-cup of cream to feed six people. Total time: 30 minutes.
There are more challenging and, perhaps, more delectable dishes here -- Grilled Chicken Breasts Stuffed With Asparagus and Fontina Cheese; Fish Baked in Foil With Juniper Berries; and Rack of Lamb Encrusted With Parmesan Cheese.
At least for the foreseeable future, Giuliano may continue to be overshadowed by his mother, Marcella, whose own book (see below) is a current bible of Italian cuisine. But with dishes like Osso Buco in Agrodolce -- veal shanks cooked in a sweet-and-sour sauce flavored with golden raisins for sweetness and red wine vinegar for the sour -- he shows a flourish all his own.
Going to the market every day would be preferable, but Hazan knows Americans aren't likely to do that. Go three times a week, he counsels, and use your freezer for ice cream not food you intend to cook someday.
Hazan is a teacher and restaurant consultant. He says his principal concern is helping raise the standard of American eating. Particularly useful here is a chapter of suggested menus and ways preparations can be kept to a minimum.
Another chef who finds no end in the delights of real Italians is Antonio Carluccio whose "Italian Feast" (West 175, 208 pages, paperback, $17) accompanies his BBC and PBS cooking series. In Umbria, he stops to talk with a woman named Perla Amelia, who's busy sifting lentils. "My goodness," he says, "what a lovely name."
And the dish is lovely, too -- Castelluccio Lentils With Sausage. Pork sausages are boiled in water for about 30 minutes, then stripped of their casings. Lentils are also put to boil with celery leaves, a clove of garlic and enough water to cover. Sun-dried tomatoes are fried in a little olive oil with more garlic and little hot pepper. Then everything goes into the pot with the lentils for 10 minutes, producing a wonderful one-pot meal served with crusty bread.
Another lovely and simple recipe is for Baked Fennel. Bulbs of fennel are quartered and simmered in salted water until tender. They're drained and added to a baking dish with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. A clove of crushed garlic is infused in butter and poured over the fennel. Last comes a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and the fennel is baked for 15 minutes.
While Carluccio owns a restaurant in London, his recipes reflect the traditional way of doing things. Umbrian cooking, he maintains, is the purest of Italian cooking today because it hasn't been tainted by what he terms "modern catering methods." The result is a straightforward book with many classics.
'Cucina and Famiglia'
With "Cucina and Famiglia: Two Italian Families Share Their Stories, Recipes and Traditions" (William Morrow, 337 pages, hardcover, $25) Joan Tropiano Tucci and Gianni Scappin (with Mimi Shanley Taf) make you wonder what took them so long.
After all, the film "The Big Night" came out in the fall of 1996. Tucci is the mother of actor Stanley Tucci and this book is probably worth the price for the recipe for timpano -- the large, dome-shaped pasta dish packed with goodies that you saw in that film.
Scappin is the chef who tutored Stanley Tucci on food preparation for the movie. Together Joan Tucci and Scappin tell you about their families, the holidays, the way they've eaten over the years.
The timpano recipe isn't as intimidating as the finished product looks, and there's even a vegetarian version with eggplant substituting for the outer layer of pasta.
But this book is about more than a big dish for a film. Consider this little jewel, Insalata di Carote. Two large carrots are peeled. Then a vegetable peeler is used to slice them into long, thin, curled strips. These are tossed with 1/4 cup of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. That's it. Simply delicious.
Joan Tucci's family was from Calabria at the tip of the Italian boot. Scappin is from Veneto in northern Italy. Together, they offer 200 recipes, many of them simply family favorites, others dishes refined by Scappin in restaurant kitchens.
This book also has lengthy sections on Tucci's family -- how they immigrated, where they lived, their traditions. Scappin recounts his past and confesses he went back and opened a restaurant in Italy only to find that the Italians didn't want him to be creative. They wanted traditional dishes done the traditional way. So he returned to the United States.
'The Campagna Table'
Another restaurant chef with a new Italian cookbook is Mark Strausman with his "The Campagna Table: Bring the Style and Cooking of the Italian Countryside Into Your Own Home." (William Morrow, 256 pages, hardback, $30).
What's a nice Jewish boy doing writing an Italian cookbook? Having an Italian grandmother didn't hurt, and he tells us he naturally gravitated to the cuisine of the Italian countryside even though his training was French. Today, he operates New York City's Campagna, which means "country" in Italian.
One of Strausman's most interesting dishes is Poor Man's Cassoulet. Pieces of pork butt, slab bacon and sweet Italian sausages are sauteed along with vegetables. Beans are added along with chicken stock and the rind from Parmesan cheese. The cassoulet is allowed to simmer for 90 minutes. Olive oil and grated cheese are sprinkled over the top and the cassoulet is allowed to bake for 10 minutes until the top is golden and crusty.
A quick and tasty dish, and the most popular at his restaurant says Strausman, is Spaghetti with Brooklyn Clam Sauce. Don't use fresh clams, he says, they just don't work as well in this sauce as canned clams.
While the pasta is cooking, garlic is sauteed in a little olive oil, two 6-ounce cans of chopped clams and their juice are added along with a cup of crushed Italian plumb tomatoes and the mixture is allowed to simmer for five minutes. A half-cup of the pasta-cooking water is reserved. The pasta and a tablespoon of butter are added to the clam sauce. The pasta water is used to thin the sauce, if needed, and to give it body.
This book is interestingly divided. Most of the others follow the order of an Italian meal but this one has sections labeled "One Pot Meals," "Quick-Cook Main Dishes" and "Slow-Cook Main Dishes."
In addition, because of Strausman's Jewish heritage, you get dishes that might not otherwise show up, including Turkey Polpette With Leek Sauce, a dish of turkey meatballs that's a Passover dish served by Roman Jews. Another is Sephardic Rack and Shoulder of Lamb, a lamb stew laced with nutmeg and cloves. It's ladled onto the serving plate and then topped by slices of the roasted rack of lamb. Its Dijon mustard coating is a mixture of mustard, matzo meal, garlic, rosemary and lemon zest.
Many restaurant chefs have trouble adapting recipes to the needs and circumstances of the home cook, but not Strausman. His recipes are clear and straightforward. His many tips sometimes border on the obvious, but for the most part will be helpful to home cooks.
'Nick Stellino's Family Kitchen'
Finally, there's "Nick Stellino's Family Kitchen" (Putnam, 256 pages, hardcover, $27.95). While the cover says this book was inspired by the traditions of Stellino's native Sicily, it's perhaps the least traditional of the books featured here. Stellino wanders from his roots with dishes including Pasta With Curry Sauce.
But there are many authentic dishes here, as well -- for one, Carciofi Brasati or braised artichokes. Eight cloves of garlic and a medium onion are sauteed in olive oil with thyme. Artichokes that have been cleaned and quartered are added along with white wine and chicken stock. The artichokes are then simmered until tender.
Another Sicilian classic is pasta with a sauce of salami and rosemary. While the pasta is cooking the salami, garlic, onion and generous amounts of rosemary are sauteed. Tomato sauce is added. When the pasta -- farfalle, fusilli, orecchiette, or penne rigate -- is cooked and drained, the sauce is poured over the noodles and Romano cheese is added.
With Stellino, the reader is advised to approach his recipes with caution. He's usually on the mark, but for example, in a recipe for Roasted Pork Loin With Fennel, Peas and Parmesan Sauce, he says on one hand that the roast should still be slightly pink inside -- on the other hand, he says to let it come to an internal temperature of 165 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit and says it will continue to cook as it is allowed to rest. At those temperatures, there won't be a hint of pink in sight.
Stellino's is the most sentimental of these books. His father takes him down to the pier and tells him about his decision not to go to America. Uncle Giovanni lies on his deathbed as the family tells stories about his fantastic life. His grandmother meets his wife, Nanci, who knows very little Italian. Together they laugh over the pictures of little Nick as a child. And through it all, Stellino is crying. Oh, so many tears. This is Stellino the showman, and the show almost overtakes the cooking.
If these offerings aren't enough, remember that this bounty of Italian cookbooks, most with wonderful recipes, didn't originate this year. A list of previously published books worth consideration include:
Destination: Camogli, Italy
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