Articles in Home Cooking

A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that's featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca.

While in Forlimpopoli, a small Italian town near the Adriatic Sea, I happened upon a cookbook that stirred up all the memories of my past: My mamma, my nonna and a very young me laboriously turning a heavy hand crank to make homemade pasta, while the women double-checked the recipe in a cookbook, which was religiously kept on a small shelf. I could never remember its title — it was too long and too difficult — but I vividly remember the author’s first name: Pellegrino.

Pellegrino Artusi

The acknowledged father of  modern Italian cookery, Pellegrino Artusi was born in 1820 in Forlimpopoli to a wealthy merchant. He lived in his native town until 1851, when the city was attacked by the infamous highwayman il Passatore and his band, who held upper-class families hostage. The Artusi family moved to Florence after that. Pellegrino, a businessman, became a wealthy man and, at age 45, was able to concentrate full time on his passion: the home cuisine. He loved to search, ponder recipes and have someone else cook his experiments.

After much research, he narrowed his findings to 790 favorite recipes. He collected these in a manual called “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”). Recipes span from broth to liqueurs, passing through soups, hors d’oeuvres, entrees (called “primi” in Italy, these are the first dishes such as pasta, risotto and soup), main dishes (“secondi,” which are usually meat or fish dishes) and cakes. Artusi anticipated trends that would become popular during the 20th century, among them the introduction of pasta as the typical first course on the Italian menu. The book was ahead of its time. No publisher was interested.

The cookbook

Finally, in 1891, the author took a chance and published it at his own expense. Success was as unthinkable as it was overwhelming. During the next 20 years, the author worked on 15 editions and “the Artusi” became one of Italy’s best-read books. Most Italian families had it — and still have it. It has been translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.

Today, Artusi’s book is regarded as an important tool of identity and cultural unification, both gastronomic and linguistic. The book is recognized by critics as a real literary work that contributed to the unification of Italy (remember, Italy was not yet unified at that time, and different languages were spoken throughout the country).

 The great Number 7

The recipes are numbered and probably the masterpiece is the Number 7, the famous cappelletti al’uso di Romagna (Romagna-style cappelletti pasta) The name cappello (hat) comes from its shape. The pasta is filled with capon breast, Parmesan, nutmeg, ricotta and raveggiolo (a mild creamy cheese), carefully shaped to six centimeters in diameter and boiled just a few minutes in a rich capon broth with celery, carrots and beef bones.

pasta vendor

pasta vendor
Picture 1 of 5

A street vendor at the Festa Artusiana dishes up pasta. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Equally famous is the Number 71, tagliatelle all’uso di Romagna, served with a delicious tomato sauce, and the Number 334, polpette di trippa (tripe balls), which are soft and juicy. Finally, there is the savor, a peasant dessert once prepared in farmhouses and served during the winter. It is made with sapa, a longtime boiled sciroppo di mosto (grape syrup), then mixed with autumn fruits and nuts. This is perfect to “savor” with either sweets, roasts, fresh or aged cheeses and is often served on a piadina (flatbread).

All these treasures are included in an extraordinary cookbook that offers a collection of home recipes, considerations and short stories, making Artusi’s manual a masterpiece of wit and wisdom.

Who was the real chef ?

If Signor Pellegrino Artusi did not cook, who did the job?

Her name was Marietta Sabbatini, a devoted, irreplaceable assistant (and maybe more) who fanatically worked side by side with Artusi, who described her as “both a good cook, and a decent, honest person.”

No fame, no glory for poor Marietta until Forlimpopoli launched the Associazione delle Mariette, which has the invaluable task of teaching traditional Romagnolo cookery. The association has a yearly national competition, “The Marietta Award,” which is reserved for non-professional cooks and gives the winner a 1,000 Euro prize.

City throws a feast

Every year the city pays tribute to its most illustrious citizen, hosting the Festa Artusiana, a tempting feast where, from 7 p.m. to midnight, the historical city center changes into a “town to be tasted.” The big castle dominates the borgo, where courts, alleys, streets and squares have names of recipes from Artusi’s book.

All the best restaurants and the street vendors in the area are invited to participate and include in their menus several of Artusi’s specialties. For nine evenings, Forlimpopoli becomes the capital city of “Eating Well,” thanks to the partnership with Casa Artusi, the first Italian gastronomic center devoted entirely to traditional home cookery. Casa Artusi boasts a library, a museum and a school that teaches practical courses, both for food lovers and professionals wanting to learn how to improve their skills. In the Casa’s restaurant, Chef Andrea Banfi serves many of Artusi’s dishes, fresh, homemade pasta and recipes from the tradition of Emilia-Romagna.

I am sure Pellegrino would love the way his town is treating him, including having erected a tall statue right at the city entrance, prelude to a tasty visit to a very friendly town.

Main photo: A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that’s featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Read More
A grilled onigiri can be the perfect Fourth of July finger food. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Not everyone uses the word “barbecue” in Japan, but when it comes to cooking over the flame, Japanese have a long tradition — and grilled onigiri is the star!

Onigiri is essentially rice shaped into balls. When onigiri is brushed with some soy sauce and grilled until it is brown and crispy, it becomes Yakionigiri (yaki means to grill). In our family, my father would make it using a Hibachi, the classic Japanese grilling device that holds burning charcoal. He would take his time brushing the soy sauce on the onigiris. You don’t need anything else to make grilled onigiri taste good.

It’s a great side dish, or an appetizer or snack, and if you happen to have a gluten-intolerant person in the mix, offer a grilled onigiri and he or she will be grateful.

The preparation is easy, and you can even use day-old rice. Old rice has a way of perking up with heat.

There is no pre-seasoning required. It takes about five to eight minutes on each side to brown the onigiri, depending on how far the grill is from the heat source.  The shape of an onigiri is a matter of preference. In my family, it has always been triangular in shape — sort of like a pyramid. It can take some practice to get the pyramid to stand up, but you eventually figure out how to apply just the right amount of pressure to the rice to form the three corners.

You can also make them round or oval in shape. My father’s onigiri was made with brown rice. My grandmother’s onigiri was white rice. I like them both, but you have to remember to use short- or medium-grain rice. Long-grain rice will not make onigiri; you need rice that sticks. My family’s onigiris were filled with either a pickled plum or katsuobushi, dried bonito flakes seasoned with a little soy sauce. The contrasting flavors of the bland rice next to the savory bonito was heavenly.

You can grill onigiri while you grill the meat or fish or vegetables. All you need to do is keep an eye on it so the onigiris don’t burn.

Besides the straight soy sauce, you can add miso to the soy sauce to make your onigiris taste more savory. Add mirin if you want to add a little sweetness. The thing you want to remember is to serve onigiris right off the grill, while they are still hot. That way, they are crispy and really delicious.

Grilled onigiri

You can grill onigiri while you grill the meat or fish or vegetables. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Grilled Onigiris

Prep Time: 30 minutes (Note: Brown rice must be soaked overnight)

Cook Time: 10 to 16 minutes to grill onigiris

Total Time: 40 to 46 minutes

Yield: Makes 8

Rice recipe

2 cups white short-grain or brown short-grain rice, such as Koda Farms Kokuho Rose

2½ cups of water (or follow rice cooker manufacturer’s instructions)

Salt water (see note above)

2 tablespoons salt in a small bowl

1. Cook the rice first, with the measured 2½ cups water, or cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

2. When the rice is cooked, divide it into eight equal portions. Make the onigiri while the rice is hot. Take one portion of rice and put it in a teacup or small bowl.

3. Shape the onigiri: Moisten your hands lightly with the salt water to keep the rice from sticking (if you like your onigiri saltier, moisten your hands in the water, then dip your index finger into the bowl of salt and rub the salt on your palms). Mold the rice using your hands: For a triangular shape, cup one hand to hold the rice ball. Press gently with your other hand to create the top corner of the triangle, using your index and middle fingers and thumb as a guide. Turn the rice ball and repeat two more times to give the onigiri three corners. The onigiri can also be round or oval in shape.

4. Repeat with the rest of the rice to form eight onigiri.

Soy miso sauce

¼ cup miso (red miso paste)

1 to 2 teaspoons mirin to taste

1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce

¼ cup finely chopped chives

1. In a medium bowl, blend the miso, mirin and soy sauce.

2. The chives can be whisked into the sauce, or sprinkled over as a garnish just before serving.

Grilled onigiri assembly

8 onigiri

Vegetable oil

Prepared soy miso sauce

1. Baste the onigiri with a little oil to prevent it from sticking to the grill.

2. Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot, or heat the broiler. Line the grill pan or a baking sheet (if using the broiler) with foil. Grill the onigiri on both sides until crisp and slightly toasted; this can take from 8-10 minutes on each side depending on the heat and cooking method. While grilling, baste the onigiri with the sauce on each side a few times until it is absorbed and becomes crisp; the onigiri should not be moist from basting when done. Watch carefully, as the onigiri can burn.

3. Serve immediately while the onigiri are piping hot. Sprinkle with chives.

Main photo: A grilled onigiri can be the perfect Fourth of July finger food. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Read More
Earl Flewellen's honey butter sauce. Credit: Brooke Jackson

The sweet, amber liquid melted with a bite of chocolate in my mouth, creating a symphony of complementary flavors. Somehow the avocado honey combined with the earthy dark chocolate made for an ethereal combination.

I was at a tasting hosted by the National Honey Board, led by Marie Simmons, award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher. Simmons, whose latest book is “Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking With 40 Varietals,” had already talked the group through three samples of honey, going from lightest in color to darkest. Each type was paired with a food that complemented it: alfalfa with a slice of cheddar, tupelo with a buttered cracker, and dark, bold buckwheat with a roasted sweet potato, creating a flavor explosion.

Somehow, the sum of the two ingredients of each pairing exceeded the parts, demonstrating the versatility and nuances of honey. With more than 300 varieties in the United States today, the uses and pairings are seemingly boundless, which is what Simmons said inspired her to write the book.

Honey more versatile than people realize

” ‘Taste of Honey,’ the book, exists because an editor who lives in Kansas City, Mo., was flummoxed by the array of different varietal honey at her local farmers market and called me to ask me which one she should buy and that there should be a book on the subject,” Simmons said. “After her call I went to my files — yes, I’m a paper person — and found an inches-thick mess of many dog-eared clippings about honey and lots of old honey recipes.”

The book is an ode to all things bees and honey. Simmons, a prolific writer with upward of 20 cookbooks under her belt, touches on every aspect of beekeeping, production, varieties, tastings and pairings along with 60 recipes. At the end of each chapter is a “quick hits” section with creative, simple suggestions for ways to use honey in every meal of the day.

As she led the tasting, her passion for the topic was palpable. Someone from the audience asked what to do when honey crystallizes, and she said, “I spread it on a warm piece of buttered toast and let it melt, then pop it in my mouth!” She told us that using honey in sweets and baked goods is a natural, but she was most inspired when cooking with it in savory recipes.

The book is chock full of interesting main dishes trotting around the globe, from a tagine with lamb and figs to a Vietnamese-style beef stew to Chinese stir-fry with cabbage and peanuts. Honey tempers the heat of spices, balances the salt and acid and complements aromatics like garlic, elevating savory dishes to heavenly heights.

Simmons devotes a section in the beginning of the book to in-depth descriptions of honey varieties, how-tos for hosting a comparison tasting, and cheese and honey pairings. She sat with a cheese expert, and together they sampled platters of different cheeses with types of honey. Here is some of Simmons’ advice on the topic:

“Colors of honey: Notice the colors play into the flavor notes. Orange blossom honey, for instance, is a delicate floral honey and like other more lightly colored, floral honeys. It goes best with full-fat dairy: whole-milk yogurt, heavy cream; I love orange or lemon blossom honey with a sweet rich fresh goat cheese. It tastes like lemon meringue pie. Also cream cheese cake with orange blossom honey is amazing.

“As the color of honey darkens, the flavors become more pronounced. Wildflower honey with its spectrum of flavors from fennel to rosemary to goldenrod to fruit blossom to spice notes can be fabulous with a mildly salty/fatty cheese. I like it especially with the buttery and nutty notes in Comte or Gruyere cheese.

“The only cheeses that can be challenging with honey are the bloomy rind type: Camembert, Brie, etc., although there are some bright lights in that arena as well.”

jackson_honeypeanutbrittle

jackson_honeypeanutbrittle
Picture 1 of 3

Salted honey peanut brittle. Credit: Brooke Jackson

As part of her research, Simmons traveled around visiting beekeepers and learning about their craft. One such interesting character is Earl Flewellen, an apiarist and restaurateur in Port Costa, Calif., who used a Kickstarter campaign to launch his bee farm. He serves his honey and other goodies at the Honey House Cafe in this village perched on the Carquinez Strait of San Francisco Bay. His recipe for caramel-like Honey Butter Sauce is included in the book.

Simmons’ journey of writing “Taste of Honey” taught her about unusual honeys, how they are sourced and collected, and the myriad ways this miracle of nature can be used for eating and health. Ultimately, it led her to her sweet spot, an urban farmstead in Eugene, Ore., where she has a small garden plot and raises chickens for eggs and, of course, bees for honey.

Here is an easy, delicious recipe from the book. Simmons suggests an everyday honey variety, such as clover or orange blossom, for the brittle.

Salted Honey Peanut Brittle

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 24 pieces.

Adapted from “Taste of Honey” by Marie Simmons.

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing foil
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup honey
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons coarse salt, divided
  • 1½ cups dry-roasted, lightly salted peanuts

Directions

  1. Line a sheet pan with lightly buttered foil.
  2. Combine the butter, sugar, honey, cream and 1 teaspoon salt in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Heat over medium-low, stirring until the mixture comes to a boil.
  3. Boil, stirring frequently, over medium to medium-low heat for 4 to 5 minutes or until the mixture turns a deep amber color. Adjust the heat to maintain a steady boil and stir to keep the mixture from boiling over or scorching.
  4. Stir in the peanuts. Immediately scrape the mixture onto the prepared pan, spreading it in a single layer with a rubber spatula.
  5. Sprinkle the surface evenly with remaining 1 teaspoon salt.
  6. Cool thoroughly, about 1 hour. Lift from the pan. Break into irregularly shaped pieces. Stored at room temperature in a cool, dry place, the brittle keeps indefinitely.

Main photo: Earl Flewellen’s Honey Butter Sauce. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Read More

I am a cake person. For people who know me, this is as irrefutable a fact as the Earth orbiting the sun. Given that, when I picked up Diana Henry’s new cookbook, “A Change of Appetite” (Mitchell Beazley, 2014), and it fell open to a recipe for Pistachio and Lemon Cake, I felt the book and I were destined to become true friends.

And so we have.

If you read my review of her previous book, “Salt Sugar Smoke,” you know that Henry is one of Britain’s best-loved food writers. She was twice named Cookery Journalist of the Year by The Guild of Food Writers.

I have enjoyed all eight of her books — particularly “Roast Figs Sugar Snow” — filled with winter recipes that make me long for frigid temperatures — and “Crazy Water Pickled Lemons” — for the name of the book and the Middle Eastern Orange Cake, among other things — but “A Change of Appetite: Where Healthy Meets Delicious” is timely because, like her, I have realized a change of appetite is in order.

Although I don’t eat an unhealthy diet (yes, I am a bit too fond of sweets), it could do with some tweaking — less meat, more vegetables and grains and different flavors. Still, I don’t want to sacrifice taste in pursuit of healthier eating, and, as the title attests, I don’t have to.

‘A Change of Appetite’ suggests seasonal eating

The book is divided into seasons, and the Pistachio and Lemon Cake is one of the spring recipes. About eating in spring Henry notes, “We find we want different foods: greener, cleaner, sprightlier flavors.”

A Feta and Orange Salad with Honeyed Almonds certainly provides sprightlier flavors, as does White Fish, Saffron and Dill Couscous Pilaf, a dinner that takes 15 minutes to prepare and is a delicious reward at the end of the day.

In summer the “appetite is fickle,” but even the most fickle will likely find something to enjoy here. Two summer recipes stood out for me.

The first, Turkish Spoon Salad with Haydari (a yogurt dip), involves much chopping of chilies, tomatoes, cucumbers and other ingredients, but you are rewarded with a lovely looking salad that is also delicious. For me, fine dicing promotes patience. It also reminds me of my father, who had abundant patience and always diced vegetables in this precise manner for his soups and salads, and they always tasted better because of the care he took in preparing the ingredients.

The second summer recipe, Shaken Currants with Yogurt and Rye Crumbs, was a lovely surprise. Given the addition of rye crumbs, I wasn’t sure I would appreciate this dish. Happily, I was wrong. Although other summer berries can be substituted, I loved the currants’ tartness, which complemented the earthy rye. I grew up eating currants because my maternal grandmother picked them from her garden and fed them to me with thick, fresh cream. When I complained that raspberries and blueberries, also abundant in her garden, were sweeter, she reminded me that life was not made up of sweetness only, so I should set my mind to other flavors too. I was 5 at the time, but the lesson must have taken hold because I’ve always relished other flavors, almost as much as sweetness.

“I love the pull toward the kitchen that cooler weather engenders,” Henry writes about fall. For me, that pull is a pull toward soup, and her Eastern Broth with Shallots, Lime and Cilantro will be a great addition to my fall lineup. A lovely broth on its own, it becomes a soothing and filling meal with the addition of tofu or chicken and vegetables.

Roasted Tomatoes, Hummus, and Spinach on Toast is filling as well, especially when a quick Watercress and Carrot Salad is added. Spiced Pork Chops with Ginger and Mango Relish are hearty, while Citrus Compote with Ginger Snow is a light and refreshing end to any fall meal.

Like her previous books, “A Change of Appetite” is stylish. Interesting food essays (“Japanese Lessons,” especially so) are interspersed with clear and easy-to-follow recipes, often accompanied by gorgeous photographs that inspire rather than intimidate. They draw you into the kitchen.

Cool weather cooking and sweet treats

When winter descends, the instinct to eat for survival, carried with us over eons, takes hold despite the fact that many of us are now blessed with the certainty of our next meal. Winter cooking, perhaps more than cooking in any other season, is for sharing, and a dish like Georgian Chicken with Walnut Sauce and Hot Grated Beet offers warmth and comfort against the harshness beyond our windows.

The recipes in “A Change of Appetite” reinforce the truth that healthy eating does not require depriving yourself of flavor and pleasure at the table. Far from it. And although cutting back on sugar is never a bad idea, you can still have dessert. When it is made a special treat, it will be enjoyed even more.

Returning to the special treat that began my friendship with this cookbook, Pistachio and Lemon Cake may well be a “perfect cake for spring,” but I won’t limit it to this season. It’s made with olive oil instead of the butter I so liberally use in my cakes, stale breadcrumbs instead of flour, and finished with lemon syrup that makes the cake even more moist and delicious.

My grandmother may have taught me that life will not be made up of sweetness only, but at times there will and must be some, so I will slice the Pistachio and Lemon Cake just a little thinner. Delicious.

Main composite photo: “A Change of Appetite” by Diana Henry. Credits: Book cover image courtesy of publisher Mitchell Beazley and author photo by Chris Terry

Read More
Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh from the Farm.

In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”

The author of two previous cookbooks, “Fast, Fresh & Green” and “The Fresh & Green Table,” Middleton chronicled her island experiences on her blog sixburnersue.com.

It blossomed into her newest book, “Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories,” which includes stories and photos of farm life and 121 recipes. Middleton added diagrams for building raised beds, a farm stand and chicken coop. You might call it a complete recipe book for the good life.

What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?

I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.

What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?

I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.

Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.

It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.

You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?

If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.

From “Fresh from the Farm” by Susie Middleton (Taunton Press, 2014). Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.

I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.

With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?

Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.

How did your first two books lead toward this one?

I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.

Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?

I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.

Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press

Read More
Carrot and split pea soup with toasted cumin. Credit: Barbara Haber

I read somewhere that people generally use only two or three recipes from each of their cookbooks, and realized this was true for me, so I began to wonder why we select the ones we do from the vast numbers of recipes that are available.

For answers, I took a look at my own preferences, and while I make no claim to speak for anyone else, I will describe why certain recipes appeal to me. I sometimes come across a recipe that becomes a favorite when I am searching for ways to use up ingredients.

For instance, I had on hand eggs nearing their expiration date and a surplus of corn on the cob. I went through a few cookbooks and soon found a tempting recipe for fritters that called for eggs, lots of corn kernels and, happily, not much flour. This has become a standard dish in my house. But while I appreciate practical reasons for favoring recipes, I am more intrigued when I randomly come across a description of a dish I find so compelling that I must try the recipe as soon as possible or else I will obsess about it.

I should say right off that for me, and for other food lovers I am sure, reading a recipe is comparable to sight-reading by a musician. Just as an orchestra conductor can hear the music in his head by following the notes on a score, I can almost taste a dish by reading the ingredients and cooking instructions. Therefore, reading cookbooks has become an enjoyable pastime for me and maybe even adventurous because I never know when I will stumble into my next great find.

My latest discovery comes from Michael Romano’s “Family Table,” a cookbook focusing on the family-style meals prepared for restaurant staff that is filled with down-to-earth recipes. Among them is blue smoke oatmeal cookies. You may wonder what could be so special about an oatmeal cookie, that old standby that can be mealy and taste more healthy than delectable. But, this recipe includes some crushed cornflakes and coconut — not too much — so that the texture and flavor of this oatmeal cookie surpassed any I had tasted.

A well-written split pea soup recipe

I am often attracted to a recipe because of its use of a favorite seasoning not found in standard versions of the dish. Dried split pea soup recipes always struck me as pretty much alike until I came across one in the cookbook “Season to Taste,” which calls for lots of sliced carrots and roasted cumin, a flavor I love. The result is so good than whenever I serve this soup to guests I am bombarded with requests for the recipe.

I also find myself seduced by claims made by cookbook writers. For example, Madhur Jaffrey has a recipe for crisply fried onions that are slowly cooked and then stored in a jar in the refrigerator to use as toppings for a variety of dishes.

“It’s like money in the bank,” she promises, and she is right. Her words ring in my ears not only when I make those onions but when I cook and freeze the thick soups I prepare each winter and pull out to serve on cold nights.

James Beard’s work is also full of opinions and advice. In one of his books he counsels us to always have on hand a roasted chicken because then you will be prepared for many occasions. I listened to him and find that in the summer I can pull off a great salad at the last minute, and, at any time, have available the fixings for sandwiches, stir-fries, hash or my latest favorite, chunks of cooked chicken warmed in a curry sauce and served over naan instead of rice.

I sometimes find irresistible comments made in a cookbook writer’s head notes. In “Flour,” Joanne Chang says about a recipe for a multigrain bread she learned from a bread-baker, “If I had to pick one recipe that I am most grateful for, it would be this one.” Finding such a recommendation pretty compelling, I immediately tried the recipe and understand why it deserves Chang’s rave.

Cookbooks by Nigel Slater. Credit: Barbara Haber

Cookbooks by Nigel Slater. Credit: Barbara Haber

But a writer’s high opinion of a recipe I follow does not always lead to a good result. On the lookout for a definitive biscotti, I came across one whose author claims “these are hard, crisp, full of roast-almond flavor, and addictive for either dunking or munching.” They were so hard I wound up breaking a tooth and sitting in the chair of a dentist for a root canal. I should have dunked, and not munched.

Garden inspiration in the depths of winter

These days I am under the spell of Nigel Slater, the gifted British writer whose recipes are elegant and simple. “Tender,” a book about how he uses the produce from his backyard vegetable garden, is my current favorite, perhaps because we share an enthusiasm for growing and eating potatoes. But I also am drawn to his stylish writing and wit. In flipping a pan-sized potato pancake he instructs, “I find doing this with one positive movement and no dithering tends not to end in tears.”

And in “Áppetite,” a book I ordered from a dealer in England, he talks about why we should cook even though it creates a mess and takes up time. He says that if you decide to go through life without cooking “you are losing out on one of the greatest pleasures you can have with your clothes on.”

Carrot and Split Pea Soup With Toasted Cumin

(Adapted from “Season to Taste” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer)

Serves 6

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 celery stalks and leaves, chopped

2 teaspoons cumin seed, roasted and ground

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced thin

6 cups chicken broth

1 cup dried green split peas

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. In a large saucepan, heat oil. Sauté onion, garlic, and celery about 5 minutes.

2. Add cumin and carrots and cook for 2 minutes.

3. Add stock, bring to a boil, and add split peas. Simmer partially covered, for about 45 minutes or until peas are very tender.

4. In a food processor or blender, purée 2 cups of soup mixture, leaving the rest in the pot.

5. Return purée to pot, taste for salt and pepper, and serve.

Note: If soup has thickened too much before serving, thin with stock or water.

Top photo: Carrot and split pea soup with toasted cumin. Credit: Barbara Haber

Read More
Co-author and translator, Maureen B. Fant and the book's editor, Maria Guarnaschelli at the book's launch in New York City. Credit: Julia della Croce. “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way,” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant. Credit: Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Every now and then a new cookbook comes along that stands above the rest. Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen Fant’s “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way” is such a book. There’s nothing really new about it, and this is its strength. In an age of obsession for novelty, here comes a cookbook without gimmicks, a handbook for amateurs and adepts alike, a holy writ of Italian pasta cookery that I wish could, once and for all, put to rest the deplorable mistreatment of Italian pasta recipes at the hands of American cooks.

Brought to you by the authors of the “Encyclopedia of Pasta” and “Popes, Peasants, and Lore from Rome and Lazio,” this valuable work contains a vast body of culinary knowledge that can only be gained from an intimate attachment to the Italian way of life.

No meddling editor’s hand has constrained the writers to Americanize ingredients, simplify techniques or modernize recipes to suit the foreigner. The legendary editor of this title, Maria Guarnaschelli, has shaped other important cookbooks, famously, Rose Levy Berenbaum’s “The Cake Bible” and Diane Kennedy’s “The Art of Mexican Cooking,” and this one is the jewel in her crown.

The best cookbook writers can paint you pictures with their words and draw you into their world of food in a way television celebrities cannot. Cuisine is, after all, not only about recipes, but also about culture, people and where they live, what they eat, and why.

One author is a native Italian with roots in Bologna (coined “the belly of Italy”) who learned pasta-making as a child at the elbows of the sisters in a convent school. The other is an American scholar of classical archaeology who was transplanted to Rome more three decades ago. They take you, forks in hand, through the marvels of a corner of Italy’s cookery that is at once timeless and timely.

A guide to pasta technique

Besides its erudition and charm, this book is a manual for proper cooking technique and the whys and wherefores of matching of pasta shapes to sauces. If the recipes are true to Italian tradition, they are not stale. Most, such as spaghetti with clam sauce, are classics. Some are strictly orthodox, like Bolognese meat sauce, which stipulates no tomatoes and no garlic. The authors tell us that the Bolognese, who are fixated on preserving their glorious cuisine’s authenticity, have gone so far as to register the genuine recipe with a notary.

Others, including chestnut and wild fennel soup, have rarely been tasted outside the Italian kitchen. A few will show you tricks you probably never knew before, like a way of cooking eggplant that reduces oil absorption, learned from the revered, still living, Italian chef, Gualtiero Marchesi.

What makes this holy text fresh is writer-translator Fant’s lively voice and careful research. About the emblematic Sicilian pasta alla norma, she tells us that it was not named for the opera, as every other source will tell you, but after the word for “marvel” in Catanese dialect.

Bucatini all'amatriciana from "Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way." Credit: Gentl & Hyers/Edge

Bucatini all’amatriciana from “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way.” Credit: Gentl & Hyers/Edge

Further,  Fant writes, when the original dish was invented by Marietta Martoglio, it was topped with “a snowfall of grated ricotta salata.” With a mere phrase, we are there, gingerly walking across a bridge of nimble words into that early 1900s kitchen, inhaling the aromas of the steaming spaghetti lapped in glittering fried dark-purple eggplant slices and veiled in flakes of cheese.

There are countless other bites of history. We learn that the Pythagoreans, who subscribed to reincarnation, eschewed the primordial staple of Mediterranean peoples, fava beans, because they were thought to nestle human souls.

I have read this captivating book from cover to cover, digesting every phrase, savoring every recipe, relishing all the fine points, ancient wisdom and new visions that make it utterly seductive.

I’ve written five titles about Italian pasta cooking of my own, and for me reading it has been like puttering in the kitchen with two old friends who can all but finish each other’s sentences, yet have so much that is new to tell one another. With its sensitive and rich photography, it makes for a book that is both useful and beautiful, and bound to be treasured, even by the reader with a groaning shelf of other Italian classics.

Amatriciana Guanciale, Tomato and Pecorino Romano

From “Pasta the Italian Way: Sauces & Shapes” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant

The reader ought to go to the recipe in the book for the savory and local history of this popular topping for pasta from Lazio’s northeastern province; it is “one of the dishes self-appointed purists (read fanatics) will fight over to the death, or at least death by boredom,” the authors write. Rarely do recipes for its preparation tell you, as the locals would and which the authors do, that one of the secrets to its success is to toss the piping hot pasta after draining, first with the grated pecorino, then with the sauce; this method gives the sauce a voluptuous consistency.

This sauce is used on flour-and-water shapes. This includes spaghetti or bucatini, of course, but also rigatoni, casarecce or some of the handmade flour-and-water shapes, such as strozzapretti/pici.

For the condimento (sauce):

2½ ounces (70 grams) guanciale [salt-cured pork cheek], cut into thin strips

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion (any kind), chopped (optional but recommended)

1 pound (450 grams) red, ripe sauce tomatoes, broken into pieces, or canned Italian peeled tomatoes, drained

1 small piece dried chile

salt

For the pasta:

1 pound (450 grams) pasta (see suggestions above)

7 rounded tablespoons (70 grams) grated pecorino

Directions

1. Put the guanciale and oil in a saucepan. Turn the heat to medium and heat gently so the guanciale renders some fat and starts to brown. Take a piece to assess how salty it is.

2. When the meat just begins to become crisp, add the chopped onion (if using) and sauté gently until transparent.

3. Add the tomatoes and chile, then taste for salt (how much you need will depend on the guanciale).

4. Finish cooking the sauce, covered, over low heat. You’ll know it’s done when the liquid has thickened somewhat and the fat shows on the surface, about 20 minutes.

This much can be done earlier in the day, but the sauce is not customarily made in advance or kept, except casually as leftovers for the next day.

5. Bring 5 quarts (5 liters) of water to a boil in an 8-quart (8 liter) pot over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons kosher salt, then add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.

6. Warm a serving bowl in a low oven. If the oven is not practical, warm the bowl just before use with hot water, even a ladleful of the pasta cooking water.

7. Drain the pasta and put it in the warmed serving bowl. Toss it first with the grated cheese, then with the sauce. Serve immediately.

Top composite photo:

Co-author and translator, Maureen B. Fant and the book’s editor, Maria Guarnaschelli at the book’s launch in New York City. Credit: Julia della Croce.

“Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way,” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant. Credit: Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Read More
Kate Lebo's

“A Commonplace Book of Pie” is anything but common. While some cookbooks may help you make poetry with food, this cookbook is poetry, and more. It is a collection of facts, real and imagined, about pie.

“I created these prose poems that are this imaginary zodiac,” Kate Lebo said of the writing in the book that leaps beyond the expected instructions. These are not anecdotes about your aunt’s legacy bubbling up in sunny syrup each time you make peach pie. Rather, these lyric narratives are gripping slices of dreamed lives.

The pumpkin pie fancier befriends bartenders. “People who love chocolate cream pie move through the world in a swarm of music,” Lebo writes. OK, sure. Or maybe not. Maybe you believe other things about these people, and that’s just fine, because this book makes room for discovery within accepted standards.

“We’re both really attracted to obvious things and finding things that are not obvious, shaking people out of their complacency with that object,” Lebo said of Jessica Lynn Bonin, who illustrated the book and accompanied her on tour this fall.

“Both of us are really interested in everyday objects, objects that we take for granted but really inform us in subtle and important ways of who we are, where we are, what type of relationship we have to a place.”

The paintings of pie and its many component parts, Lebo said, are not just renderings of physical objects, but images that have their own stories. The poet is working in a similar fashion with her subject.

“I’m doing that in the pie book by taking something as commonplace as pie and using a form, using poetry, using language to talk about it and break it open in completely new ways,” she said. “We owe allegiance to surrealists because that’s what they do as well, but it’s not surreal.”

“This is not a pipe,” the painter René Magritte said of his painting of a pipe. This is not a cookbook like one you’ve known, but yes, it is a cookbook, and from it you can learn how to make pie.

The poetry of pie instruction

“Position your hands palms up, fingers loosely curled, the same way you relax your hand above your head while falling asleep,” reads the instructions in a recipe for crust. When a pie master suggests a shape of supplication for handling flour and fat, even those with deep attachments to pastry cutters will try to leave them in the drawer.

Like pie, the book has quite a life beyond its crust, or covers. The project started as a collaboration between Kate Lebo and artist Bryan Schoneman. In 2010, the two did a gallery show that involved a pie safe and people clamoring for the pies cooling teasingly inside it. “A Commonplace Book of Pie” appeared first as a zine and part of this show. Lebo sold 2,000 copies of the zine, and expanded the cardboard-bound booklet into a book, just published in October by Chin Music Press.

Here are some ingredients of Lebo’s life that are not inside the book. She was not interested in cooking until she was in her 20s, when she had a kitchen with a view of downtown Seattle and the Olympic Mountains. She baked her way through the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook,” and recalls that era as her “cool lady in the city time, singing Doris Day.”

After she got her master of fine arts from the University of Washington, she sold at a stand in her front yard to raise rent money. Her pie stand traveled to places like the Sasquatch Music Festival, and begat Pie School, which let Lebo pass along the fine qualities of pies by teaching people to make them.

Connecting with “A Commonplace Book of Pie”

“Pie is warm, inviting, a symbol everyone is connected to in this culture,” Lebo said. “I can talk to anyone about pie. It’s like football except I actually know something about it. So that kicks the door open for further discussion about something that is less approachable, something that is less familiar.”

Discussions on the book tour have covered a lot of topics. Seattle events drew a lot of literary folks. At a cooking school in the Midwest, people came who love pie. Questions ranged from what’s the secret to making the perfect pie, to how do you revise the manuscript?

People are reading the book to each other, which is something Lebo heard with the zine, too. She has a picture of a child — who attended a reading in Milwaukee, Wis. — reading the book to her family while they were making pie. Another fan is giving the book, along with a letter about what pie means in her family, to her children.

“Pie is a gift and that’s something I’m trying to evoke with the book,” Lebo said.

Top photo composite:

“A Commonplace Book of Pie” jacket cover and author Kate Lebo. Credit: Amy Halloran

Read More