Everybody grabs recipes off the Internet (me included) but let’s agree that, when gift giving time comes around, most of us would rather receive a cookbook than a pile of printouts.
The fact that I’m a cookbook author influences my point of view, of course, but right now I’m here to talk about other Italian cookbooks (hoping, optimistically, that you already own mine). Here are three worth giving to someone on your list–or adding to your own library.
One of the best new reads–especially for jaded Italophiles who think they’ve seen it all–is SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine. Authors Shelley Lindgren and Matthew Accarrino are the wine director and executive chef, respectively, of SPQR in San Francisco. They’ve chosen as a theme to take readers down the ancient Roman roads of central and northern Italy, collecting recipes and stories along the way.
Rather than a reverent sharing of traditional dishes, however, this is an exuberant mash-up of recipes that draws on molecular cooking techniques and ingredients from the global larder. I couldn’t stop staring at the stunning but strange photo of fluke crudo studded with citrus segments and sausage-stuffed olives.
I look forward to experimenting with a waxy powdered olive oil said to be “a simple, modern twist that brings out the oil’s floral flavor without an oily texture.” SPQR also contains useful chefs’ tips such as floating a parchment paper lid on simmering beans to seal in moisture. But finding a dish I could put together without considerable advance work: That was tough.
In a ricotta fritter recipe, for instance, the traditional sweets are spiced with curry powder and fennel pollen, and served with smoked maple syrup. Smoked maple syrup? It requires a stovetop smoker, also needed for a smoked linguine recipe (the technique emulates flour milled from charred grains in Puglia, Accarrino’s family homeland).
A stovetop smoker, if I had one, would likely set off the fire alarm in my condo. Nor do I own a spaetzle maker or the immersion circulator and vacuum sealer needed for sous vide cooking. Fermented black garlic, frozen huckleberries, nettle leaves and xanthan gum are among the ingredients that pose sourcing challenges.
I enjoyed reading this book, but instead of pushing me toward the kitchen, it made me feel like booking a flight to San Francisco for dinner at SPQR.
Hazan Family Favorites falls at the other end of the cookbook spectrum–no earth-shattering culinary news here but this collection of appetizing dishes gently invites readers into the kitchen. My education in Italian cooking started way back with Marcella Hazan’s ground-breaking books and her son Giuliano is carrying on the family tradition in fine fashion.
In this family album-style cookbook, he includes the recipe for the veal rolls Marcella once served food editor Craig Claiborne, setting her on a path to culinary fame. Marcella’s four-ingredient butter, tomato and onion sauce is also here. Along with his wife Lael’s meatloaf, Giuliano offers intriguing recipes such as mahshi (lamb-stuffed cabbage leaves) that reflect his grandparents’ experience as Italian expatriates living in the Middle East. Okra with fresh tomatoes is not typical Italian fare, either, but Giuliano remembers eating it for the Shabbat meal served every Friday night.
Strictly speaking, The Country Cooking of Italy is not new—it came out at the end of 2011—but this hefty volume, filled with evocative photographs of country dishes and scenes, remains impressive. Author Colman Andrews set out to recreate simple, robust dishes of farms, villages and provincial towns throughout Italy.
He offers his versions of well-known standards such Liguria’s trofie with pesto and the five-fish Tuscan fish stew called cacciucco. But what delighted me more were obscure dishes such as salamareci, a cold tomato soup (related to gazpacho) I’d tasted in Sicily and a Calabrian marinated lettuce dish called mappina (“dishrag,” alluding to the limp greens). His recipe for orecchiette with broccoli rabe matches up exactly with the one my friend Maria makes—and no wonder. She’s from Puglia, and so is this recipe.
Some recipes, such as the Tyrolean ham-dumpling soup from Alto Adige, were completely new to me. And until now I’d never made peposo, a dead-easy Tuscan beef stew with a crazy amount of black pepper and garlic.
Peposo (Tuscan Peppery Beef Stew)
(from The Country Cooking of Italy, by Colman Andrews)
Makes 4 servings
2 pounds cubed beef stew meat (preferably chuck)
12 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons to 2 tablespoons crushed (not ground) black peppercorns*
Kosher or sea salt
1 cup homemade or purchased tomato sauce
Up to 1 bottle Chianti or other fruity red wine*
1. Preheat the oven to 275°F.**
2. Put the beef and garlic into a Dutch oven or other heavy ovenproof pot, sprinkle with the peppercorns and season generously with salt. Spoon the tomato sauce over the top, then pour in enough wine to barely cover the ingredients (you may not need the full amount). Place the lid on top.
3. Bake for 6 hours without uncovering the pot. The meat should be very tender and the sauce very thick. Continue baking for 1 to 2 hours more if necessary.
4. Serve over bruschetta, if you like.
* The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of crushed peppercorns but I started with 2 teaspoons and, after tasting later, decided that was enough.
** If you use an earthenware pot, as I did, start the cooking in a cold oven.