Sunday, January 3, 2010


I know, I's January 3rd and I should be writing about cookbooks to help you take pounds off and here I am writing about Italian cooking. But can I help it if three outstanding books celebrating my favorite cucina showed up at my door at roughly the same time?

I've never made any secret about my preference for the pressure cooker over the slow cooker (or Crockpots as we called them in the 70s when they first appeared on the market). I cooked from one way back in the day and even adapted my own recipes (I remember one that was an Italian veal stew that came out well) for it, but in these days of energy awareness, the idea of a pot percolating for eight hours seems to me to be a waste of electricity. The pressure cooker can do the same thing only a lot quicker (but seems to mired in that hoary old belief that they still blow up--they don't). My other big problem with slow cookers is the many awful recipes made for them that make far too much use of canned soups, and other nutritionally challenged convenience foods loaded with salt and MSG and other preservatives and flavor boosters. A lot of the recipes I've read rely on dumping raw meat into the cooker. Sorry folks, but stews, braises and other slow-cooked dishes are based on the meat being properly browned before adding any liquid. Otherwise, you end up with an unattractive dish with very little flavor. But lately some excellent cooks, (notably Natalie Haughton in her book, Slow & Easy, Wiley, and Diane Phillips in her new magnum opus Slow Cooker, Chronicle Books) have elevated the genre. Now Michele Scicolone brings a serious reassessment of how excellent Italian food can be with this machine in her superb new book, THE ITALIAN SLOW COOKER (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; ISBN: 978-0-547-00303-0). I know Michele Scicolone. I have eaten wonderful meals in her home. I own six of her remarkable cookbooks. Leave it to Michele to create delicious, authentic Italian meals using the slow cooker and she does.

Most of the recipes here use a five to seven-quart slow cooker. Mine is only a four-quart model, but I had no trouble using this to make an amazing Beef in Barolo (recipe included here). Soups adapt well to the slow cooker. Risotto and polenta (even Farro) do too. Michele provides a terrific survey of Italian sauces for pasta. There are aromatic seafood recipes (I liked the Tuna Meatballs in Tomato Sauce, which uses the more economical frozen tuna with good results), first-rate recipes for poultry and eggs (frittatas), and meat. There's a fine recipe for that classic braise of Roman Oxtail Stew plus lamb shanks, meat loafs, spareribs, short ribs, and other cuts. There are chapters on vegetables (Cauliflower with Prosciutto and Olives is one of the inventive choices here), and desserts. Espresso Walnut Cake, Chocolate Truffle Cake and Pannetone Bread Pudding would make an ideal finish to any meal. You simply make them and go about your business.

Michele Scicolone is one of the under-sung brands in cookbook publishing. Don't believe me? Get a copy of The Antipasta Table, and make her Roasted Cauliflower. It's magical. THE ITALIAN SLOW COOKER book will provide anyone with a wealth of cold weather dishes to sustain you all throughout the long winter months in great Italian style. I made gnocchi, as Michele Scicolone suggests to accompany the Beef in Barolo which made my guests very happy diners. Try this:

Beef in Barolo

Hearty Barolo is the wine of choice for this pot roast in Piedmont, in northern Italy, but any good dry red wine can be substituted. The sauce is enhanced with vegetables and a hint of ground cloves. Serve with potato gnocchi or Creamy Polenta with Gorgonzola and Mascarpone.

Serves 6

1/3 cup all-purpose flour
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 three-pound boneless beef chuck or bottom round roast
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup dry red wine, such as Barolo
2 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped fresh or canned tomatoes
1 cup Meat Broth or canned beef broth
2 medium carrots sliced
1 medium celery rib, sliced
1 bay leaf
pinch of ground cloves

Combine the flour with salt and pepper to taste. Spread the mixture on a piece of wax paper and roll the meat in the flour.
In a large, heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the beef and brown it on all sides, about 15 minutes. Pace the meat in a large slow cooker. Add the pancetta and onion to the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is tender. Stir in the garlic. Add the wine and bring it to a simmer, scraping the bottom of the pan.
Pour the mixture over the beef. Add the tomatoes and broth. Scatter the carrots, celery, bay leaf, and ground cloves around the meat. Cover and cook on how for 6 hours, or until the meat is tender when pierced with a fork.

I've never made gnocchi before. The recipes always seemed to be too complicated or time consuming. But THE ITALIAN FARMER'S TABLE arrived at my doorstep at the right time and the recipe for Potato Gnocchi just seemed made-to-order for the Beef in Barolo I prepared from THE ITALIAN SLOW COOKER. The gnocchi were incredible. The first time I made them, I put the drained cooked gnocchi in a saute pan of browned butter and sage. It perfectly complimented a roast chicken I served that evening. The rest of the uncooked gnocchi froze well. Just put them on a wax-paper covered cookie sheet in your freezer and when frozen, toss into a plastic bag and store in your freezer until ready to use. They cook within two mintues in a simmering pot of salted boiling water. Drain and sauce. Don't forget the Parmesan.

THE ITALIAN FARMER'S TABLE: Authentic Recipes and Local Lore from Northern Italy
(Three Forks, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press; 978-0-7627-5264-5) can be placed on your cookbook shelf or, if like me, you're an armchair traveler, on the stack of books that take you to places you want to go but have never been. While I've been to Italy many times, I've never toured by car to the small farms of rural Italy. Matthew Scialabba and Melissa Pellegrino, two young Italo-American culinary school graduates who are married to each other, set off for Italy where they discovered the rustic farms that are part of the agriturismi system. As the authors explain in their Introduction, this system was developed by the Italian government in 1985 "to help preserve these farms throughout the country." Farmers are allowed "to open their doors to overnight guests and provide them with meals." This helps supplement their incomes as they continue living off the land. "Strict laws mandate that a certain percentage of the food served be grown on the property, with all other ingredients sourced from nearby farms," they explain. "Sustainability and dedication to a farm-fresh cuisine created by the seasons are the two most common threads linking these farms. Today, the agriturismi movement is booming, as thousands of abandoned farms across the country have undergone an agrarian revolution. Beautiful old farmhouses, once left to crumble and decay, have been restored to splendor and now offer country retreats for tourists seeking rural solace and tranquility in the Italian countryside and a cuisine not readily found in cities and towns," they conclude.

THE ITALIAN FARMER'S TABLE is an introduction to some of the best of these rural farms in northern Italy. The authors have visited every farm profiled here and share the recipes that are served to their guests. I'd certainly like someone to drive me to La Traversina, in southern Piemonte for a slice of their Frozen Chocolate Ricotta Cream Cake. Or the Pork Braised in Red Wine from at La Quercia Rossa, also in Piemonte. Risotto with Red Cabbage and Taleggio Cheese from Casa Clelia in Lombardia, is my kind of dish. The authors demonstrate a good eye for the personalities that oversee these wonderful farms and the great food products they make such as wine, cheese, and olives. We get wonderful profiles of the cooks in the kitchens. This attractive trade paperback will be useful in the kitchen but don't forget to pack it with you on your next trip to Italy. By all means indulge yourself, if only for one night, at one of these wonderful farms.

Just when I thought I had every Italian cookbook I'd ever need, SALT TO TASTE: The Key to Confident, Delicious Cooking by Marco Canora with Catherine Young (Rodale; ISBN: 978-1-59486-780-4) has proven to be insidiously necessary to my cookbook library. Marco Canora is a very hot New York co-owner and executive chef of Hearth, Insieme, and Terroir restaurants. He also was a chef at Craft (which explains Tom Colicchio's Foreword). But the restaurant that captured my attention was Cibreo in Florence, where Canora did a "stage" in preparation for his stint at Craft. Cibreo is one of the great restaurants of the world. It specializes in game dishes and serves no pasta (the owner says you can get pasta in every restaurant in Italy). I recommend anyone visiting Florence for the first time, make sure they eat a meal at Cibreo. I'm not always a big fan of celebrity chef cookbooks and I draw the line between home-prepared and professional restaurant cooking. But within three minutes of perusing this book, I had to go into my kitchen and make Corn and Pancetta Risotto. It was a spectacularly simple and tasty dish that evening (I polished off the rest of it for lunch the next day). I made it with frozen white corn which I sauteed briefly in butter before adding it to the risotto. Canora suggests you can grill the corn, sweat it in some butter or add it raw (if fresh). Each way will give you a different taste, which is the point of this book. It is filled with a sensible collection of somewhat familiar recipes. But depending on the season, ingredients, and technique, the cook is liberated from the straight-jacket of a recipe and encouraged to improvise within the confines of a recipe. Skate, for instance, is one of my favorite fish. Canora's version is made with a pomegranate vinaigrette, an appealing alternative to the classic bistro recipe of skate in browned butter, lemon and capers. Don't have pomegranate juice on hand? No problem--"grapefruit, lime, or orange, alone or in combination," are terrific substitutes. By cooking a steak in a cast iron pan on top of the stove, you'll get a more flavorful, tender steak and it will be perfectly medium-rare for Stove-Top Rib Eye than by any other cooking technique. This chef's approach to home cooking is packed with enough wisdom to wean anyone off of recipes and cook with imagination and skill. Hats off to the Rodale team for producing such a handsome, beautifully photographed book that is as pleasurable to hold and read as it is to cook from.


  1. I have both, slow cooker and a pressure cooker. As you know, if I salt to taste it would be too much.

  2. I have to get ITALIAN SLOW COOKER if only for the oxtail recipe!

  3. Lonnie,

    I still don't think there's enough medical information about salt. But in this case, the book is trying to help you understand as a cook that seasoning, knowing when something is done, or adding a layer of flavor has to become instinctual--it's not about adding salt.