Friday, February 21, 2014


I've said it over and over and over again--there is no finer teacher of cooking on television than Lidia Bastianich. Period. Lidia is full good information. She wants her readers and viewers to use recipes as a starting point offering all sorts of ideas for variations that will take the cook in new directions. There is a kind of zen calmness about her as she cooks endless numbers of pastas, ragus, sautés, and braises. Lidia can cook luxury foods with the best of them, but she also has respect for the cook on a budget extracting the most flavor from each. She always offers great tricks and techniques in order to get the best results and never cuts a corner if it means and less than ideal dish. I have watched her for about a fifteen years now and I find it fascinating to watch her cook. She is as comfortable baking as she is finishing a steaming plate of pasta. If male chefs cook to impress, as someone recently said, then female chefs cook to nurture. That is the essence of Lidia Bastianich. I have most of her cookbooks and they are well used and loved volumes in my kitchen. In LIDIA'S COMMONSENSE ITALIAN COOKING (Knopf; $35.00; ISBN: 978-0-38534944-4) Lidia is again collaborating with her art-historian daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, who is an integral part of the Bastianich food empire. This new volume of 150 recipes is Lidia's latest collection of Italian recipes to tempt families back to the table right in the kitchen, a place she recalls, as a loving and nurturing space that set her on her own course of success. It is this strong sense of gathering family together to eat and interact that informs all her books, only this time, she's adding an extra dollop of culinary wisdom that will insure great meals.

Before I opened the book, I had seen Lidia prepare Mozzarella and Celery Salad. My mother loved celery, and munched on big stalks of the stuff throughout my childhood. I never got in the habit, but recently I find the most delicious celery available in Portland, even in supermarkets where is comes from local farms. The stuff is addictive and I'm looking for lots of new ways to use it. Lidia offers several new recipes, including this delicious winter salad which could get any meal off to a good start. Thinly sliced with leaves, toasted walnuts, fresh mozzarella and a lemon-Dijon vinaigrette create a fresh new kind of winter salad, and one I can add variations to such as beets, cucumbers, oil-cured olives, cooked cauliflower, radishes and other delicious wintry ingredients. Celery Au Gratin is another delicious use for this much underused vegetable. A Boiled Beef Salad with Gherkins, Red Onion and Parsley, only begins to hint at the flavors in this recipe, which is Lidia's simple riff on the time-consuming Bollito Misto. The Rustic Ricotta Tart, puff pastry provides the enveloping container for fresh ricotta, eggs, mozzarella, ham and Grana Padano (or Parmesano-Reggiano) cheese.  An aromatic, paper thin Potato Pizza reminds me of my first trip to Rome, where I inhaled rectangular slices of potato pizza while I walked through the Campo die Fiori open air market.

Lidia Bastianich prepping artichokes

Lidia is always finding new ways to cook pasta, and so Spaghetti with Quick Pantry Sauce is a quick, inexpensive, and creative way to use the foods we always should have on hand:  olive oil, anchovies, black olives, capers, canned tomatoes and red pepper flakes. Pipette or Elbows with Sweet Potatoes, Parsley, and Capers is a more nutritionally balanced pasta dish, and no less flavorful for it. And for a crowd, try Baked Rigatoni and Zucchini. Lidia suggests enhancing this dish with swordfish or shrimp, crumbled sausages or shredded chicken breast.

Italian cooking offers so many variations, including Eggplant and Rice Parmigiana. Based on the  classic dish, here it is made more complex and inviting with the addition of Arborio rice. There are a bunch of fine risottos that seem new to me, including Lettuce Risotto, Fava Bean and Leek Risotto, Clam and Scallion Risotto, and Garlic Risotto.  I can't wait to try Razor Clams with Garlic and Parsley because razor clams are plentiful here in the Pacific Northwest, and I love them. The dish can easily be adapted using littleneck clams or mussels in those areas where the razor clam is not available.

A Skillet Gratin of Mushrooms and Chicken shows Lidia genius with this particular cooking vessel, and would be an excellent choice for company. A slow cooked Apple Cider Vinegar Braised Pork Shoulder demonstrates the excellence of this modestly priced bone-in cut of pork, and includes small turnips and easily qualifies as a superb dinner for guests. Another dish I've made is Ham in Marsala Sauce. Packages of ham steaks are not found in markets in Italy, so Lidia's inspiration was to treat them like scaloppini. Browning the ham in one piece, she removes it from the pan and then sautés chopped leeks in the pan drippings, adding a little white flour and then a full cup of dry Marsala wine. This makes a tasty, shiny sauce for the ham. I've only sautéed ham steaks for a late Sunday breakfast or a quick weeknight meal with scrambled eggs and a salad. This elevates the ham steak to a new level of sophistication. Minimal ingredients treated with respect yield great results. Of the dessert section, Grandma Rosa's Apple Cake is an easy standout.

In LIDIA'S COMMONSENSE ITALIAN COOKING, Lidia Bastianich invites us back into the kitchen where she grew up with adults and siblings around to share their days' stories. Go into your own kitchens and cook with your family. It's easy and the food is fantastic.

Torta Rustica di Ricotta

In the Italian cuisine, dough is at the center of many dishes, whether turned into pasta, crostata,
pizza, or torta. The dough is the carrier of other delicious products, be they vegetables, meats, fish, or cheeses. In Italian tortas, ricotta is one of the favorite fillers, often with eggs to
bind it. One can flavor ricotta with just about anything; in this dish I use ham and mozzarella.
Just think of all the other meats and vegetables you can add to give this recipe your family’s special flavor twist.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 10- by- 7- inch baking dish with the butter. Roll out the puff pastry on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle about 14 by 11 inches. Fit the dough into the prepared baking dish, letting the dough go up and extend over the sides.
In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, three eggs, the mozzarella, ham, and grated cheese to combine. Spread filling over the dough, and fold the dough over to make a 1- or 2- inch border. Press holes in the top dough with a fork, and brush it with the remaining egg. Bake until the filling is set and the pastry is golden and crisp, about 40 minutes. Let the tart rest on a rack for at least 15 minutes, to set, before cutting into squares and serving.

Serves 6 to 8
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
All- purpose fl our, for rolling
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 pound (2 cups) fresh ricotta, drained
4 large eggs, beaten
1 cup cubed low- moisture mozzarella
1 cup julienned strips deli ham
¹⁄³ cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano- Reggiano

Excerpted from Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich with Tanya Bastianich Manuali. Copyright © 2013 by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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