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.

Americans have been slow to understanding and accepting the fact that we are eating a lot of processed foods that are not good for us. Michael Pollan, who has been reporting about food for most of his career, didn't even understand it himself. Pollan's voyage of discovery changed through his investigative pieces on how potatoes are grown or how cattle are raised. "Suddenly that 'happy meal' of hamburger and fries looked a lot less happy," he writes in the Introduction to THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA. Between the feedlot and the potato farm, I realized just how little I knew about the way our food is produced."

Broken down into four "meals," Pollan looks at four ways in which the food for the meals we eat is raised: Industrial (where most food comes from ending in a supermarket or a fast-food restaurant); Industrial Organic (that is food grown on large industrial-type farms, but with natural fertilizers, as well as natural weed and bug control); Local Sustainable (non-processed from local farmers) and Hunter-Gatherer (the least utilized method which individuals hunt, find or grow their own food). Pollan follows the trail of corn and its insidious role in just about every section of the supermarket from dairy and meat to soft drinks, frozen dinners, cookies, donuts and chips. In fact corn is in a shocking number of non-foods too: toothpaste, cosmetics, disposable diapers, trash bags--even batteries.

The new edition comes at a time when childhood obesity is at an all-time high, and THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA offers young readers an absorbing look at how this came to be, offering them choices to make their own decisions about the foods they consume. This illustrated new edition comes with photos, charts, side-bar pieces, a Q and A with Michael Pollan, the latest facts about the food industry, and lots of information about the organically grown foods with tips on finding local, sustainable food sources, plus further resources on the Internet and on video.

"It's an exciting time to be an eater in America," says Pollan in the optimistic Afterword written especially for this edition. "You have choices today that your parents couldn't have dreamed of: organic, local, CSAs (community supported agriculture), humanely raised milk and meat. When they were your age, there was basically only one way to feed yourself: from the industrial food chain," he continues. "You have the option of eating from a very different food chain--you can vote with your fork for a better world, one delicious bite at a time."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Stunning New Book Movingly Captures Italy's Slow Food Movement in Glorious Photos and Text

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.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

E-Cookbook Puts the Fun Back into Entertaining

Around the time I launched StoveTopReadings, I got an e-mail from a young woman with several food-advice websites from Southern Ontario who asked me if I would take a look at her cookbook on easy entertaining. It's called GROOVE MAMMA GOES GOURMET: Easy Ways to Put the Fun Back into Entertaining. At first I wasn't feeling the title, but the fact that it is an e-cookbook intrigued me. So I went to her website,, and found this to be a delightful idea and useful for today's young would-be entertainers who might be a bit intimidated by the prospect of hosting, preparing for and executing a cocktail or dinner party, or any gathering of family and friends. Nadine Hughes is culinary professional and owner of The Cook's Companion, which provides "emergency" cooking and entertaining advice and The Menu Companion, which focuses on the planning and preparation of dinner parties.

"As a young woman, I always enjoyed getting out there and shaking my thing to the latest and greatest," says Hughes in the Introduction to GROOVE MAMMA GOES GOURMET. "But now as a Mom, wife, and business person, I’ve struggled to remember that old self who was the life of every party. That’s probably because, sadly, it’s harder and harder to actually find a party. For many, parties have been

tossed into the “too difficult” bucket, as we try to budget the ever-increasing demands on our personal time."

Hughes offers encouraging words, cute graphics, enticing photos, strong recipes, handy tips on everything from organizing a guest list and printing your own invitations, to shopping, prepping and having fun at your party.

Recipes I liked: Beef Tenderloin with Spinach Pesto Sauce, and Tiramisu Affogato (a clever wedding of two popular Italian desserts). The recipes include measurements in both the metric and American system. Here is a fine way to entertain in style while enjoying yourself without working yourself to death or the anxiety of getting it right. This e-cookbook, which appears to be the start of a series, is ideal for the laptop set and is available from Ms. Hughes' website in PDF form for $7.98.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Farewell to Gourmet and A Q & A with Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl (photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

This posting was intended to be a question and answer feature with Ruth Reichl, Gourmet magazine's editor-in-chief, and editor of the newly published GOURMET TODAY (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Just as I was publishing my review of this wonderful new cookbook comes the news that Conde Nast has shuttered the magazine, which has been the most influential culinary publication in this country for nearly seventy years. The decision to close Gourmet is a terribly sad one. And I'm sure home cooks will mourn its demise for a long time.

I began to read Gourmet while still a teenager. It helped to form my life-long love of cooking and reading about food and inspired my travels. I just had to sample the wonderful meals in the trattorias of Rome and the bistros of Paris. I went to restaurants reviewed by Jay Jacobs and Caroline Bates in California where I grew up. It was in Gourmet that I first read about Alice Waters and the food revolution she started at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. It was in the pages of Gourmet where I first read Lori Colwin's wistful columns about simple cooking at home. Those wonderful columns were collected and published in book form as Home Cooking and its sequel, More Home Cooking, and have an honored place in my cookbook collection. Her recipe for Damp Gingerbread, is a favorite that I've been baking for more than twenty years. Those columns led me to Ms. Colwin's novels and short story collections. I wrote her a mash note about the books and she wrote back. I still have her response.

I usually read the magazine cover-to-cover. The Sugar and Spice column in the front of "the book" was a regular feature I never missed. It was wonderful to know that people could request a recipe from restaurants they visited and Gourmet could always obtain them. I never found the ambition to cook an entire menu from their big monthly entertaining feature, but I often cooked one of more of the dishes from that section--many of them can still be found at my table 30 years later. A recipe from my files in 1979 is a pasta sauce with sausage meat, green pepper, onions, garlic, red wine, tomatoes, oregano, chili flakes and served over penne pasta. I cannot tell you how many times I've made this wonderful dish. It's the sauce I go to whenever I need the warm comfort of pasta. It's a crowd pleaser or dinner for six on a Friday night and a perfect meal with a salad to unwind after a arduous week of work and deadlines.

Under Ruth Reichl's superb leadership, the magazine attained a new sense of purpose while maintaining its relevance. Prior to her era, the magazine seemed to be on autopilot. Reichl shook it up a bit--made it more modern without toadying up entirely to the chef zeitgeist of the new century. New features stayed in tune with the changing tastes of new generations of readers. She brought her own celebrity to the magazine and energized it. All the more shocking that Si Newhouse found himself faced with the prospect of pulling the plug.

Lots of culinary contenders have come and gone over the years to challenge Gourmet's influence and I sometimes switched allegiances, but I always came back. Reading all the post-mortems about the magazine's demise made me realize that a newer and younger generation is probably not Gourmet's core audience. Now one of the most iconic magazines on the newstands is gone. It will be missed.

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This interview with Ruth Reichl was prepared before the news broke about Gourmet. StoveTopReadings has learned that Ms. Reichl is touring the country in support of the publication of GOURMET TODAY, appearing at bookstore signings and other events.

Ruth Reichl has been thinking about food for most of her life and writing about it writing for more than thirty years, first as a restaurant critic, for The Los Angeles Times and then at The New York Times, before becoming editor-in-chief at Gourmet. She is also one of our most memorable contemporary memoirists. Not Becoming My Mother, Garlic and Sapphires, Comfort Me with Apples and Tender at the Bone, were not only wildly entertaining, but bestsellers too. Anybody who loves to eat, go to restaurants, or grapples with the vicissitudes of their career should read Garlic and Sapphires, which is often as emotional as it is compelling.

For the publication of GOURMET TODAY (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Reichl's publisher invited her to talk about the book and its place in our culinary lives.

What inspired you to create GOURMET TODAY?

I was wandering through the supermarket, eager to make risotto, and trying to figure out if they had anything that could stand in for Arborio rice. When I asked a clerk, he pointed toward a banner reading “Rices of the World.” Turns out they had not only Arborio, but also basmati, jasmine, sushi... I began to see that, while I hadn’t been paying attention, the supermarket had been transformed. Walking through the store, I was struck by how much the way we eat has changed over the past few years. It’s not just that salsa outsells ketchup, but that we now casually incorporate an entire array of international foods into our cooking. It seemed to me that we needed to create a cookbook that deals with this new reality.

What has changed about the way we cook and eat in the last five or ten years?

Almost everything: Our entire outlook on food has changed dramatically. We’re cooking lighter; where we used to throw butter into a dish to make it tastier, now we're being much more creative, using herbs, spices, and broths to add that extra flavor. We’re eating a much wider variety of grains and vegetables than we did even five years ago. And we’re eating less protein—the middle of the plate is less often the giant steak. We’re eating more fish than we used to, and supermarkets are selling better fish and offering many more seafood choices than they once did. And people are thinking about the health aspects of food almost without realizing it; we’re thinking about where our food comes from in a way we didn’t used to. We’re asking, “Where was this raised? Is it in season?” We don’t want strawberries that come from halfway around the world--we’re more willing to wait now -- and we're considering the carbon footprint of everything we purchase. The farmers’ market movement has accelerated so rapidly in the past five years that it’s made a big difference in what we choose. We're also thinking about the cost of food in a new way; we're much less wasteful than we once were, and conspicuous consumption has become an embarrassment rather than a point of pride.

What does GOURMET TODAY offer for the time-pressed or inexperienced cook?

This is a book that deals with the fact that nobody has much time these days—sixty per cent of the recipes can be prepared in under half an hour. And it is also a book that understands that there are a number of people who are just coming back into the kitchen and need a refresher course in cooking.

That's why we've included boxes on the easiest possible way to cook every vegetable you'll find at the supermarket or the farmer's market. We want people to cook again, and we know that the way to encourage that is to give them easy recipes

What is the testing process at Gourmet—how do you ensure that home cooks can reproduce your recipes in “normal” kitchens?

We test almost to the point of absurdity. We start with an idea for a recipe; wouldn’t it be nice to have a really good fish recipe with a terrifically easy rub? Somebody goes into the kitchen and starts experimenting and comes up with a blend they like. A group of us then tastes the result and stands around critiquing it—with a dozen or so people weighing in on how the dish can be better and easier, the criticism can be brutal. The cook takes notes, goes back to the drawing board, and does it again. This happens over and over, usually eight or nine times, until we all agree it’s as good as it can be. At that point, the recipe goes to a cross-tester, a cook who has had no contact at all with the recipe; he or she is a stand- in for the reader. If the cross-tester’s result isn’t exactly the same as the final prize recipe, we go back and figure out where the problem is.

What can we find in GOURMET TODAY that we didn’t find in the first book?

These are all new recipes. We started from scratch and thought about what people really need today. So we put in a cocktail chapter, because we've become a serious cocktail culture. We have a vegetarian chapter, because today, in the United States, I don’t think there's anybody who doesn't occasionally end up cooking for a vegetarian. We’ve put in a lot of one-dish meals, because they make such perfect weeknight solutions for the working cook. And we’ve added a big grilling chapter that takes grilling to the next dimension, with a long primer telling you everything you want to know about how to be a better griller.

What are some of your favorite dishes from GOURMET TODAY?

I really love every recipe in this book. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be here. Still, there are certain recipes I make again and again. For example, there’s the Planter’s Punch, which is one of those forgotten drinks that is so incredibly festive it takes only one sip to make everyone understand that they’ve come to a real party. There is no better tidbit to serve on the side than those Bacon and Cheddar Toasts. And I can’t think of any more seductive way to start an evening than a plate of Korean Pancakes—why don’t more people know how utterly delicious Korean food is?—and some spicy Jamaican Meat Patties.

What else do you serve when you have guests?

I often find myself offering them South Indian Shrimp Curry because it fills the house with such a wonderful aroma while it cooks. Crisp Roast Duck is another great company dish; everybody always thinks it’s difficult, but it couldn’t be easier, and it just feels so special. And for those who are on a diet (and there’s at least one at every party) I find myself turning to Steamed Bass with Ginger and Scallions again and again. Everybody loves chocolate, and the Devil’s Food Cake with Marshmallow Frosting gives you a huge wow factor for very little effort. But the easiest way I know to impress people is with cheesecake. Turn it into a Sour Cherry Cheesecake and no matter what you may have served before, your reputation is made.

Is there anything you make just for yourself?

My single favorite dish to make when I’m home alone is Egg Fried Rice. Fried rice takes about five minutes, but it offers hours of comfort. I like it so much that I always ask for an extra box of rice when I order Chinese food. To please myself, I absolutely love that Cranberry Almond Crostata for its slight edge of tartness. And I am simply unable to resist the Peaches-and-Cream Eclairs with Bourbon Caramel Sauce—because all I have to do is look at them and I am instantly about ten years old.

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