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.