Thursday, December 31, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
"A generation has passed since I wrote The Cake Bible," says Rose Levy Beranbaum in the introduction to her second and newest collection devoted to this popular dessert, ROSE'S HEAVENLY CAKES (Wiley; ISBN: 978-0-471-78173-8). Rose has been busy ever since, writing other books on pies, bread, Christmas cookies, etc. But the book we've all been waiting for, panting for and praying for is a new cake collection, and thumbing through this gorgeous and profusely illustrated book convinces me that ROSE'S HEAVENLY CAKES won't disappoint. The demand for this book has meant that it has been difficult to get a copy and it has already sold through at least its first printing. My copy just arrived, so I haven't been able to bake anything yet. But after the holidays are over, the first cake I'm rolling up my sleeves for is the Sicilian Pistachio Cake. Or will it be the Sticky Toffee "Pudding". Maybe the Chocolate-Covered Strawberry Cake. No, I'm certain it will be the Double Chocolate Valentine with its brilliant blanket of raspberries. So many great choices, so little time!
More and more we're finding that today's families are mix-diet oriented with those who will eat meat and those who won't. This puts stress on the cook who has to make separate meals for the omnivores, vegetarians, or vegans in their families. Ivy Manning, a Portland-based chef, food writer and blogger, is an enthusiastic omnivore married to a vegetarian. Drawing on her considerable culinary skills Manning has written THE ADAPTABLE FEAST: Satisfying Meals for the Vegetarian Vegans, and Omnivores at Your Table (Sasquatch Books; ISBN 978-1-57061-538-2) which provides many tasty solutions to feeding your mix-diet family, without resorting to separate recipes.
Monday, December 14, 2009
For someone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, it's shocking that I've never spent time in Big Sur, that breathtaking region of the central California coast with dramatic views of the Pacific. Since the late 1940s, Big Sur has attracted an artistic crowd of writers (Henry Miller, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac) and other creative people. The wild beauty of this rugged coastline also attracted film stars. Orson Welles bought a cabin for his then wife, Rita Hayworth, which they intended to use as a getaway home from the pressures of Hollywood. They never actually moved in. And in 1947, Bill and Lolly Fassett, a young California couple purchased the cabin and surrounding grounds from Hayworth and built a restaurant on the sight of the original cabin. Nepthene was primarily Lolly Fasset's vision--a gathering place and focal point for bohemian America. Over the next sixty years, Nepenthe, attracted large and loyal family as Big Sur evolved into one of California's most idealized tourist destinations. Celebrated for it's spectacular views, its delicious and unpretentious food, and convivial atmosphere, Nepenthe came of age in the counter-culture of the 60s. Stars such as Kim Novak and Steve McQueen could be seen in its dining room alongside beat artists, poets, painters and other colorful personalities of the era. The restaurant was often the site of folk dancing, fashion shows, poetry readings, concerts and other activities. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton filmed a scene from The Sand Piper at Nepenthe, which only added to its cache. Romney Steele, is a food writer, cook and food stylist. She is also the granddaughter of Lolly and Bill Fassett. She witnessed the flowering of Nepenthe's success first-hand, growing up there. She later launched Café Kevah, on Nepenthe's grounds. She has created MY NEPENTHE: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur (Andrews McMeel). Part memoir, part cookbook, this visually appealing book is loaded with vintage black and white photos and many color shots that evokes the special history of the California coast and the many events hosted by an extraordinary couple who created a popular destination restaurant that has endured for more than six decades.
Imagine creating a rustic retreat perched on the edge of the California coastline with jaw-dropping views, sipping a cocktail on its broad terrace or digging into one of Nepenthe's popular menu offeringss such as the Ambrosia Burger with Golden Plumes (French fries) or Lolly's Roast Chicken with Sage Stuffing, or Nepenthe's Triple-Berry Pie. The spectacular setting features the architecture of Rowan Maiden, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Steele recounts the colorful history of the restaurants, it's patrons and friends. The spirit of her grandmother presides over the restaurant's evolution. This generous spirited woman raised her family, manning the stove and day-today operations of Nepenthe with her husband. At the same time, Lolly Fassett kept guests, family and staff fed and provided many of the restaurant's personnel with staff members with housing, and acted as hostess to the artistic events hosted there. All of their stories and recipes are here.
Of the 85 enticing recipes, I chose Peanut Butter Cookies, which are a childhood favorite I hadn’t made in years, and Café Benedict, a superior version of Eggs Benedict, which adds sliced avocado to the classic preparation and substitutes multi-grain English muffins for the standard muffins. The cookies are not too sweet and have a deep peanut flavor and a tender crumb. The egg preparation is sumptuous with the addition of ripe avocado and the chewy, flavorsome wheat in the muffins nicely offsets this popular brunch entrée’s richness.
MY NEPENTHE makes me want to get to Big Sur as soon as possible, but in the meantime, this lovely book makes me almost feel like I’ve been there before.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Is there any better gift to give at Christmas time than a book? Yes--a cookbook. Most people are compiling their best of lists and I am no exception. I didn't set out to make a ten-best list. I had six and then I remembered a seventh, and checked on the books I'd reviewed already and found a 8th and 9th and then I remembered the 10 anniversary edition of America's Test Kitchen which I hadn't reviewed, but had recently arrived and qualifies as a new book this year, and just had to add it to the list, and voila!--I have ten. 2009 was a terrific year for cookbooks, with many published that I admired. Let me start with a book that I bought earlier this year and thoroughly loved before I launched StoveTopReadings.com.
Did you know that if you stir your gin or vodka martini, rather than shake it, your cocktail will have "a light-catching diamond" clarity that you'll never see in a shaken version. This advice comes from Eben Klemm, a master mixologist and author of a lively and spirited new drink guide entitled THE COCKTAIL PRIMER: All You Need to Know to Make the Perfect Drink (Andrews McMeel Publishing, December 2009). I've tried it twice with a vodka martini and once with a vodka gimlet, and it works. There's a cloudy, unappealing quality to the shaken martini, and the author further states that if you give your martini a moment to settle down in the ice while you fetch your glass, or garnish, the "pause in the midst of stirring a drink somehow ties it together." After reading through this attractively designed book, you'll never think about cocktails in quite the same way.
I had my first GIN martini at the age of 20 (no, I will not tell you when that was!). My great-aunt drank two gin martinis every day of her adult life and lived to the age of 94. That martini was delicious, but at 20 I wasn't ready for that adult a drinking experience and I allowed myself to be lulled into having a second. I have no memory of getting home that night and for about two years I drank a lot of gin martinis with the old girl. But one night I got so soused that I gave them up permanently. Gin and I were never to be on intimate terms again. For the next twenty years, scotch and wine were my preferred drinks. Then sometime in the 90s, I got the cocktail bug, and started to imbibe such wonderful concoctions as Martinis (vodka this time), Gimlets, Whiskey Sours, Manhattans, Old Fashions, Sazeracs (now that's a cocktail) and even the ultimate girly drink--the Cosmopolitan. To help me create these cocktails at home, I have the Mr. Boston guide, but this new guide was the first time I have looked at the art of the cocktail as seriously as I look at cookbooks. Klemm has a considerable amount to say about this subject, which he takes very seriously. And if you make cocktails at home, so should you.
After years of wine dominance, the cocktail has risen Phoenix-like as a serious beginning to a night out at a good restaurant or in the home as a prelude to a great meal. Klemm, studied biology at Cornell, honed his bartending skills in New York City to "pay the rent." But his fascination with the cocktail culture has endured and today he oversees the cocktail program and creates signature drinks for B.R. Guest Restaurant's, which include the enduringly popular Water Grill, Dos Caminos, Wildwood Barbecue, and many others.
THE COCKTAIL PRIMER is now my preferred go-to-guide for thinking about, and re-creating great cocktails. It doesn't seek to be encyclopedic. Klemm imparts the significance of techniques such as pouring, shaking, stirring and muddling. He groups his drink recipes around around a specific spirit. Best of all, Klemm removes himself from the laboratory of his working life to "create variations or develop complex infusions or foams because I have all the resources and equipment at my fingertips." In short, THE COCKTAIL PRIMER is an elegantly pared down reference of the essential cocktails you'll want to create at home. Yes you will learn how to set up a bar, but you'll also know why he considers the Sidecar as "perhaps the most important cocktail of all time." He explores the key distinction between wine-based, fruit-based, herb-based and sweet-based spirits. In his chapter on bar essential equipment, Klemm outlines only what you need. I didn’t know you could make your own cocktail cherries. He provides an interesting recipe.
The cocktail recipes themselves offer fascinating reading. Under the Martini section alone, Klemm presents "Martini's children," which includes the Martinez (London-style gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liquor and orange bitters) the Old-Time Martini (a mixture of equal parts gin and vermouth plus angostura bitters) a 1930s Dry Martini (2/3 gin, 1/3 vermouth, lemon peel or green olives) and today's New-Time Dry Martini (vodka or gin, a dash of vermouth lemon peel or olives. Then there are the vodka-derived versions, which include the Vesper and Negroni. Each subsequent chapter is grouped by Manhattans, Simple Sours (Gimlet, Fizz) Complex Sours (Sidecar, Muddled Drinks (Mojito) and Highballs (Perfect Harvest). Most interesting to me is Klemm's breakdown of each grouping in which he lists the makeup of the category plus its complexity, sweetness, acidity, strength and level of refreshment. This inspires you to think about the components of a drink. And without an A-to-Z book of every drink including all the exotic drinks available in bars and restaurants, which most people are not likely to want to mix at home, you'll be able to concentrate on a focused variety of outstanding classic cocktails that have stood the test of time with a few new classics-to-be.
THE COCKTAIL PRIMER is a great-looking book. I wanted to sample every cocktail beautifully photographed here. And if you’re looking a great gift for the holidays, I highly recommend this handsome and sleek volume. So let me close by describing the martini I prepared with vodka in the picture here: a slightly thickened crystal elixir that is pungent, elegant—an adult tasting drink. As I slowly sip my way to the bottom of the glass, my brain feels a bit lulled but my taste buds are demanding my dinner. Maybe it’s time to give gin another try.
Monday, November 30, 2009
One of my closest friends suffers from celiac's disease, which means's she is wheat intolerant. This makes Thanksgiving and the holidays a particularly difficult time of the year for anyone who requires a gluten-free meal. Pies, cakes and cookies containing wheat flour are out of the question. So are stuffing, gravies thickened with flour, breads, rolls, and muffins, nearly all crackers and other foods that are practically required eating during the holidays. Publishers have recently been stepping into the breach offering some very fine gluten-free cookbooks. Two new and very appealing ones have recently appeared, making the task of cooking for those who must eat gluten-free that much easier and a lot tastier too!
THE GLUTEN-FREE ALMOND FLOUR COOKBOOK by Elana Amsterdam (Celestial Arts; $16.99; ISBN 978-1-58761-345-6) and GLUTEN-FREE ITALIAN: Over 150 Irresistible Recipes without Wheat--from Crostini to Tiramisu by Jacqueline Mallorca (Da Capo Lifelong, a Member of the Perseus Books Group; $18.95; ISBN 978-0-7382-1361-3)
THE GLUTEN-FREE ALMOND FLOUR COOKBOOK may have the edge here because almond flour "is as easy to use as wheat flour and much less tedious than complex gluten-free flours, which require numerous supplemental ingredients such as xanthum gum, cornstarch, and potato flakes for binding purposes," says Elana Amsterdam. While you can offer anyone in your family lots of choices of alternative gluten-free foods, dessert poses all kinds of problems, as I've discovered whenever I've had a guest for dinner requiring a wheat-free ending to the meal. Amsterdam offers a fine group of tasty desserts such as a Classic Carrot Cake, Chocolate Velvet Torte, Chocolate Cranberry Biscotti, Pear Crisp and Pecan Pie. In addition to fine main courses, Amsterdam provides recipes for five different crackers plus breakfast muffins, French Toast, pancakes, which have been off -limits to people with wheat allergies. This attractive cookbook offers 95 easy recipes with handsome photographs and clear instructions.
Italian food would seem to be a nearly insurmountable cuisine with its emphasis on pasta, gnocchi, bread and pizza. GLUTEN-FREE ITALIAN is Jacqueline Mallorca's second gluten-free cookbook. The former West Coast editorial assistant to James Beard, and a food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mallorca when she discovered she was "a food writer with celiac's disease. I could no longer eat anything that contained wheat, barley, or rye," she reveals in GLUTEN-FREE ITALIAN. "As I had absolutely no intention of giving up good food, I acquired a lot of funny flours and set to work." She discovered that a gluten-free Italian pantry has lots of wonderful options such as anchovies, balsamic vinegar, many cheeses such as mozzarella, pecorino, gorgonzola, tallegio and others, pancetta, prosciutto, porcini, polenta/cornmeal, risotto, tomatoes--even gluten-free pasta. And of course, there are a huge variety of vegetables--a category that Italian cooking has elevated to an art form. Mallorca has assembled a wide-ranging collection of recipes for breads, pizza, and crostini, soups, pastas, polenta, and gnocchi, risotto and other grains, fish, poultry and meat entrees, and desserts.
These two books add considerable luster to a growing health-related cookbook category.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Marcus Samuelsson has been a member of New York's culinary elite for years through his famous restaurant, Aquavit, and later Riingo and C-House. He became the youngest chef ever to win two three-star ratings from The New York Times. I admired his previous cookbook, The Soul of the New Cuisine, an exploration of mostly African foods, but I was totally unprepared for the pizzazz, diversity and sheer fun of his newest work, NEW AMERICAN TABLE (Wiley; November 2009; ISBN: 978-0-4702818808). This is a thoroughly contemporary cookbook that celebrates the diversity of foods so many in America are eating today--ethnic, regional, international, spicy, exotic, small plates, casual and formal and often fused into new tastes and flavors.
Who better than Marcus Samuelsson to take us on this fascinating culinary journal? Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Samuelsson's initial culinary training was in Sweden. Before finishing his training at a Michelin three-star French restaurant, he got his first exposure to the food melting pot of New York by working at Acquavit (long before he took over ownership). From the cooks there he found himself immersed in many ethnic cuisines. He was thrilled by the Korean, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Jewish delicatessans and other international foods he encountered, and soon began to cook these new ethnic dishes for his friends. After finishing his training in France, he signed on as a cook for a luxury cruise ship which took him all over the world where he experienced the markets and cuisines of Barcelona, Casablanca, Trinidad, Rio de Janeiro, Rhodes, Singapore, Sydney and other ports. As a famous chef, Samuelsson's education was further enhanced by his visits to various food festivals where he experienced the rich diversity of this country's regional foods.
In NEW AMERICAN TABLE, Marcus Samuelsson has synthesized so much of what he's learned in this book. His range is prodigious. While some of the chapters are conventionally labeled such as salads, poultry, meat and game, desserts and drinks, there is equal emphasis on condiments, dips and sauces, small plates, everyday dishes, relaxed weekend recipes and holidays. The book is loaded with many color photographs illustrating this range from home cooks, finished dishes, regional foods and wines to bakers, eaters, farmers's markets, ethnic neighborhoods, ranchers, fisherman, brewers and personalities that both inspire and inform on nearly every page.
In the chapter on condiments, dips and sauces, a Cuban-inspired Avocado "Mayo" caught my eye. I lavishly painted this addictively rich yet tangy emulsion on grilled fish, a turkey sandwich, a salad of romaine lettuce and radishes, and grilled pork sausages over a three-day period. A friend of mine prefers her breakfasts on the savory side rather than sugar-loaded foods and would adore the Morning-After Sandwich, a tasty restorative that will get you back on your feet after a night on the town. It features fried eggs, garlic, baby arugula, sourdough bread, white sardine fillets and sliced tomato. It is anchored by an intriguing condiment called Sambal Oelek, an Indonesian concoction of two different chilies, salt, brown sugar and garlic. Empanadas with Peanut-Mango Sambal combines an Agentinean snack food with an Indonesian-style sauce. Other ethnic match-ups include Chinese Soy-Glazed Dumplings with a Thai-style Sweet Chilie Sauce, Corn Pancakes from the American Southwest are paired with Chili Covered Gravlax from Sweden, and an American style Banana Bread Pudding with Hazelnut Kulfi from India.
Some of the recipes found in NEW AMERICAN TABLE are reminiscent of street or cart food. This style of eating has exploded of late, with carts serving ethnic and popular American quick meals in cities as diverse as New York, Portland and Los Angeles. Small plate dining is also on the rise, where eaters can sample and share a number of small dishes for variety and different flavors. Most of the recipes are just fascinating and made me want to hit the kitchen: Noodle Paella with Pistachio Aïoli uses vermicelli instead of rice in this updated version of the Spanish seafood classic. Lentil Soup with Pork and Lamb Meatballs is not only economical but a wonderful winter dish. The New Orleans-style Head-On Shrimp pairs wonderfully with Bacon Orzo. Braised Pork Roast with Grilled Chile Vinaigrette features a host of international ingredients including Indian fenugreek seeds, Hungarian paprika, and Scandinavian caraway seeds. "The grilled chile vinaigrette served on the side is pure American Southwest," says Samuelsson. The holiday section spotlights foods to celebrate Christmas, Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year, Father's Day, as well as fused regional dishes.
I don't think there is anything quite like this eclectic book. Samuelsson's enthusiasm for all of this food is as infectious to read about as it will be to cook. Lidia Bastianich says in her introduction to NEW AMERICAN TABLE that Marcus Samuelsson has a "unique view of our 'culinary landscape'". Indeed he does, which is why I think this magnificent book belongs in every cook's library.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Michele Scicolone deserves to be much more widely known. In her many cookbooks, she has shown herself to be a gentle authority on Italian cooking, and nowhere is that more evident than in ITALIAN HOLIDAY COOKING: A Collection of 150 Treasured Recipes(Morrow). Italians have many traditions and feasts throughout the year. Michele Scicolone provides the family stories and the splendid recipes that make every Christmas, New Year's, Easter, and other important holidays memorable occasions for families to gather round the table and celebrate. One of the first recipes I prepared when I first acquired this wonderful book was Reinforcement Salad, a sturdy winter recipe which included cauliflower, pickled red and yellow peppers, black olives, sour gherkins, celery and anchovy filets. The idea was to have a salad that could be added to throughout the Christmas holidays. I added artichoke hearts, radishes, garbanzo beans, chunks of cheese, and other sturdy ingredients. I've made this salad during the holiday ever since. The addictive Crispy Lamb Chops dispense with utensils so that you can pick them up in your fingers and "get every bit of meat on the bones." And the Roast Pork Porchetta Style is the ultimate holiday dinner. There are many tradition seafood dishes for Christmas Eve, and Easter Pies for spring. Most importantly, how you can not stop to read a recipe that reads like this: Timbale of Boniface VIII. I dare you.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I have made so many Thanksgiving feasts over the years that I can practically do this holiday event in my sleep. I'm not being boastful here. It can be tricky getting a great Thanksgiving meal on the table with all the elements in place at once, which is why every time Thanksgiving comes around, my phone begins to ring with friends stressing over how to make gravy and worrying about overcooking the turkey? The real secret to success is organization. That is the message, delivered with inspired exactness by Diane Morgan in THE NEW THANKSGIVING TABLE: An American Celebration of Family, Friends, and Food (Chronicle Books; $24.95). The Portland-based Morgan has made this holiday feast somewhat of a specialty having written a previous cookbook devoted to Thanksgiving. In this all-new book, she provides the tricks, techniques and game plans anyone will need to get this huge behemoth of a meal on the table without having a nervous breakdown. This time Diane Morgan has shone "a spotlight on the regional specialties that make this vast land of ours so gastronomically amazing."
An excellent example of this regional diversity can be found in the stuffing recipes. For instance, there's a traditional New England Bread Stuffing with Bell's Seasoning, or Southern Corn Bread and Oyster Dressing, or Minnesota Wild Rice Dressing with Dried Fruits. This theme is carried throughout the book so that Fresh Cranberry Salsa with its shots of jalapeño, cilantro and fresh lime juice evokes the Southwest. Juniper-Brined Roast Turkey with Chanterelle Mushroom Gravy demonstrates the indigenous bounty of the Pacific Northwest.
None of this would be possible without organization, and this is the essence of THE NEW THANKSGIVING TABLE. Diane Morgan thoughtfully provides a seasonal Autumn Harvest Table, where she lays out all the important ingredients from bread cubes to winter squash. There's a glossary of essential holiday equipment and tools needed for best results. The Planning Tips for Thanksgiving section provides reassuring advice on the overall strategy of the meal, stocking the pantry, tableware and decor, as well as wine and other beverages. Each of the regional menus is accompanied by a schedule of what to do ahead of time, creating the menu, step-by-step meal preparation--all leading right up to assembling everyone around the table on Thanksgiving Day. And there's a terrific section with some very creative ideas on what to do with the leftovers.
Some of my favorite recipes here include Deviled Eggs with Capers and Wild Smoked Salmon, Spatchcocked Turkey Roasted with Lemon, Sage, and Garlic (basically a butterflied turkey), Hazelnut and Fresh Herb Popovers, Honey and Chipotle Glazed Sweet Potato Spears with Lime, New England Iron-Skillet Succotash, and Spiced Pumpkin Layer Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting.
Diane Morgan's website, www.dianemorgancooks.com, features terrific Thanksgiving-themed how-to videos for that extra zap of confidence. She is also the author of The Christmas Table: Recipes and Crafts to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition (also Chronicle Books, $19.95). With Diane Morgan’s game plan and great recipes, there is no excuse not to create your own fabulous holiday dinner that you can enjoy without stress!
Thursday, October 22, 2009
As far as I’m concerned, Lidia Bastianich is simply the best cooking teacher on TV (well...Jacques Pepin is certainly no slouch, but they set the standard). What makes her cooking so special is the organic way in which she demonstrates how to prepare those gorgeous Italian recipes. Each step makes complete sense, and her methods are so clear and relaxed that you cannot fail to attain similar results. There is no waste, in either the food or in the techniques she has honed over a lifetime of cooking. And nobody makes better-looking food than Lidia. Those piles of pasta, glistening with tomatoes or vegetables with a snowy cap of grated cheese and finished with a slick of extra-virgin olive oil or one of her long-simmering braises, just make you ache for a place at her table. Lidia's Italo-American Kitchen converted me as she brought a renewed integrity to these well-loved dishes immigrant Italians made from the foods they found in the new world. I've been cooking from her books ever since. LIDIA COOKS FROM THE HEART OF ITALY (Knopf; $35.00; ISBN 978-0-307-26751-1) is the second companion volume to her PBS-TV series that explores Italy region-by-region. And once again her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, contributes a historical and cultural perspective to each culinary region.
In all, twelve regions are explored. The sheer variety of food on display here is intoxicating and Lidia always finds new dishes to tempt us. Meatless Pecorino Meatballs from Abruzzo, is a case in point. There's not a speck of meat in these "crispy, savory balls, simmering in tomato sauce," which feature eggs, grated pecorino, breadcrumbs, garlic and basil. Fresh Cavatelli with Eggs & Bacon from Molise might remind you of a better-known indigenous recipe from Rome named Spaghetti alla Carbonara. In this recipe, bacon replaces pancetta and fresh pasta is used instead of dried spaghetti. The dish is finished with shredded Fontina Val d'Aosta for extra richness. From Le Marche is an intriguing and easily prepared dish of Lamb Chunks with Olives. Large pieces of lamb shoulder are sautéed in olive oil, garlic, peperoncino flakes and fresh rosemary and is then simmered with white wine and red-wine vinegar and finished with olives. The sauce reduces to a syrupy consistency. This is a quick and economical main course full of great flavors. Valle d'Aosta is located in the northwestern Italian Alpine range. Lidia presents a Layered Casserole with Beef, Cabbage & Potato under a canopy of shredded fontina for which the region is famous. Because the beef is from the shoulder (a top blade or top chuck shoulder roast), here is another fine party entree, which can serve eight or more.
In addition to the many pasta dishes featured in LIDIA COOKS FROM THE HEART OF ITALY, there are also wonderful vegetable and bean recipes such as Celery Steamed in a Skillet from Le Marche, Potato-Mushroom Cake with Braised Lentils from Umbria, Bread Salad with Summer Vegetables from Liguria, and a heavenly-sounding skillet-cooked combination of Artichokes, Fresh Favas & Potatoes from Basilicata.
In her Introduction to LIDIA COOKS FROM THE HEART OF ITALY, she discusses the principals of a food culture that has made Italy the envy of the rest of the world: "The recipes I share with you reflect a respect of food--growing it, shepherding the animals, foraging for the gifts of nature in the wild, and hunting, respectfully to put nourishing meat on the table, not just for sport. Nothing is wasted. Bread is recycled and used in soups, casseroles, lasagnas, and desserts. Water is carefully conserved; for instance the same water in which vegetables are cooked is used to cook the pasta that follows, and then that is saved for soups or for making risotto. The fat that is rendered is used as a base for soups, a pasta or a braised dish. The outer leaves of cauliflower and broccoli and the stalks of Swiss chard are all included in a meal."
There's always an intriguing dessert in every one of Lidia’s books. This time I gravitated towards the Sweet Ricotta Dumplings with Strawberry Sauce; pillowing white clouds are surrounded by an eye-appealing crimson fruit sauce, or Chocolate-Biscotti Parfait, in which country-style white bread is soaked in an espresso-chocolate elixir; spiked with dark rum, draped in chilled whipped cream and given a final layer of crunch with toasted almonds.
TV chefs rarely achieve such a bond with their viewers and readers. Lidia Bastianich effortlessly projects a genuine desire for her audience to experience the same joy she does when preparing meals for her family. I think she is as important a cookbook author for contemporary audiences as Marcella Hazan was in her day. Well written, communicative, inclusive, inspiring and yes, loving, LIDIA COOKS FROM THE HEART OF ITALY belongs with the rest of her fine books in your cookbook library.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Every few years a book comes along that challenges the way we think. THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA is just such a book. Michael Pollan's gigantic bestseller was an eye-opening investigation about the way foods are processed on their way to the American table, and its timely arrival signaled a wake-up call for consumers to consider the global implications of their food choices. One million copies have been sold and the book thus far has spent more than 138 weeks (and counting) on The New York Times bestseller list. Pollan has recast THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: The Secrets Behind What You Eat (Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers trade paperback; $9.99 and a hardcover edition; $17.99) in an adaptation for a younger generation. The timing couldn't be better.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
When filmmaker, Douglas Gayeton was asked by PBS to create a documentary about Italy's burgeoning Slow Food movement, it changed his life. Settling on Pistoia, a small Tuscan village near Florence and Gayeton's home, his camera began to explore the images he hoped to capture on film. The documentary never got made. Instead he found a new voice as an artist immersing himself in a way of life that merged food, family, and the daily rituals of this special place in a revelatory way. The result is SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town (Welcome Books; $50.00; October, 2009; ISBN: 9787-1-59962-072-5). This is a sumptuous and utterly captivating book with many spectacular sepia-toned 4-color images and gatefolds, as well as other beautiful touches that mark this book as very special. SLOW also contains an Introduction by Alice Waters and a Preface by Carlo Petrini, the founder of Italy’s Slow Food movement. This skillful balance of art and publishing, I think, will surely make this one of the most popular gift books of the holiday season.
The Slow Food movement came from an idea that Carlo Petrini started as a reaction to the opening of a McDonald's branch at the foot of Rome's Spanish Steps. Petrini was sending out a warning call about the preservation of his food culture, which represents not only one of the world's great cuisines, but a way of life that was slowly disappearing in our modern world. The Slow Food movement has been gaining world-wide attention where it has raised awareness of locavore culture, which focuses on finding locally produced foods from farms and dairies, with a reduced emphasis on foods delivered to grocer's shelves from mass producers around the world.
Pistoia, is a small village where just about every inhabitant knows everyone else, but they also know the local sources of the food they eat and the wine they drink. Gayeton's girlfriend, Ombretta, originally came from Pistoia, and he would accompany her to family gatherings, where he haltingly learned Italian from his girlfriend's mother. The couple bought an apartment in town and sometime after a long period of partial restoration, they parted ways. Gayeton decided to stay.
"During the years Ombretta and I were together, her family made me the designated photographer of every celebration or shared event, so they were used to seeing a camera in my hands," Gayeton recalls in SLOW. He took many photographs and pouring over the results, he began to assemble "a single snapshot of an entire afternoon spent together." He did the same thing when he took his camera into the streets, shops, fields, and anywhere else his artist's eye directed him. He shot pictures of Pistoians at their tables, foraging in fields for wild greens and mushrooms, butchering meat, creating cheese, gathering eggs, conversing in bars, or at various social gatherings and celebrations. Once assembled in a way that gave each photograph some narrative drive, Gayeton embellished the images with handwritten notes, recipes, facts, and sayings. The pictures have the effect of being flat film, as described by his publisher. Indeed they are.
SLOW not only came to embrace the special culture of food, but also a way of life. Gayeton's stories have real charm whether he's relating how a contractor has run off with his money, leaving his restoration project in limbo, or of Giuseppina, an elderly village woman who raises chickens for their eggs. Stringent health laws and prohibitive health licenses and certifications prevent Giuseppina from legally distributing her eggs. She exchanges them for chunks of Percorino cheese or tomatoes at a local restaurant. They quietly incorporate these forbidden eggs into their fresh pasta. One of my favorite photographs shows four men gathering on a street in the village and lists, "What Italian Men Talk About When They Aren't Talking About Women: soccer, politics, Iraq (l'America), whoever isn't there."
Pistoia is also significant in that two of its most impassioned culinary citizens make memorable appearances in SLOW. Sauro, a fixture of Pistoia's open-air food market, had a strong influence on Mario Batali, who cooked locally there early in his career. Sauro gave the young Batali advice on local produce, and "was the first person to impress upon me the importance of eating local-foods, especially those in season," writes Gayeton. Dario Ceccini is a legendary butcher and restaurant proprietor, renowned for his recitations of Dante's Inferno, who figured prominently in Bill Buford's Heat, an acclaimed memoir about his culinary adventures in New York and Italy. Gayeton is in complete accord with Ceccini's memorable mantra of four things every animal must have: "a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook."
One of the most compelling sections of SLOW is the chapter on the butchering of a pig. Americans are entirely too squeamish and cut off from this process. We're used to buying our meats at the supermarket, knowing nothing about how that meat reached us and under what conditions. Gayeton describes the masterful and respectful way in which Domenico, a highly skilled macellaio (butcher), kills and then butchers a pig, wasting nothing. We see the various parts of the pig which will become salami, sausage, prosciutto, choice cuts for roasting--even some of the skin is saved, which the villagers will use to polish their shoes.
Nearly anyone who visits Italy invariably fantasizes about living there. I know I have. Douglas Gayeton experienced that fantasy life. "I wanted to get beneath the surface and live Italy from the inside." He watched a lot of Italian television. He "embraced soccer with a genuine all-consuming passion," and even attended Sunday mass and went to confession. The photographs and text in SLOW embrace this immersion with wit, compassion, and an artist's eye.
Taking my cue from Gayeton's example, I have absorbed SLOW...well...slowly. Having recently moved to a less hectic town from New York City, the book's arrival has signaled my own transition into a more relaxed way of living, buying foods regularly at farmer's markets, paying closer attention to eating more seasonally, while passing up easy conveniences such as processed foods that may be fast but don't deliver the good taste of fresh food from local ingredients. I'm keeping closer tabs on the seasons instead of complaining about the humidity or counting the days until spring comes. "The gift of this book lies in the depth with which it introduces us to the slow lives of ordinary people," says Carlo Petrini in his Preface to SLOW. "Through this unusual portrait of a Tuscan community, we come to understand that living slowly, once learned, can be done anywhere. It is not a matter of luck, it is a matter of choice."
Whether enjoying the daily ritual of a long lunch or a leisurely weekend supper, or indulging in a long-lasting feast at the table of Paolo, the owner of an important olive grove, the citizens of Pistoia commit themselves to the richer experience of communal dining. Find a roomy table and pull up a chair as you read this wonderful book and gaze thoughtfully at the superb images. Let Douglas Gayeton introduce you to the age-old Italian concept of SLOW.