October 2010

Charlotte Freeman


A Tavola Non Si Invecchia

It’s fall, so there’s been a deluge of cookbooks arriving at chez Cookbookslut, and these three Italian cookbooks turn out to be a great example of what I love and what I really, really hate in cookbooks. They all contain good recipes; recipes are never really the problem, but I come to cookbooks less for recipes than I do for techniques and stories about how other people live -- because what tells us more about how someone lives than finding out what it is they eat?

Let’s start with the one I found insufferable -- Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen. Ethan Stowell runs a number of well-reviewed and beloved restaurants in the Seattle area, none of which I’ve eaten at in previous visits (Seattle being my closest “big city,” where my stepmother lives, and where the office I report to for my day job resides). This is one of those cheffy cookbooks that advertises itself as somehow giving one a glimpse into the soul of the chef-as-artiste. As a result, it suffers from the kind of pretension that makes me want to stick hot needles in my eyes. This is a $35 hardcover cookbook with blurbs by chefs like David Kinch and Chris Cosentino, and yet, somehow they think that their audience needs “A Note on Ingredients” telling us that the recipes depend “on using the very best ingredients you can find and afford.” Aren’t we beyond this sort of post-Alice-Waters posing by now? Is there anyone out there who might buy this book who isn’t already using the best ingredients they can afford, who isn’t shopping at their local farmer’s market or Whole Foods or nouveau co-op (the one where the bins of bulk foods and brewers yeast have been banished to the back to make room for heirloom baby vegetables and goat cheese produced by local trustafarians)? This tone of haughty hyper-reverence continues through the entire book. We’re told that the “crudos,” small plates of raw fish or shellfish, “speaks to the respect the cook has for the ingredients on the plate.” And that the pasta made “the old-fashioned way, an auger gently working the dough as water is dribbled, drop by drop” expresses the chef’s “strong reverence for pasta, for how it is made and for saucing it properly.” Properly made and sauced food is not something I’m annoyed by; showy reverence for such things is something I find deeply annoying -- it’s a worn-out trope. While I’m the first one to argue for sustainable sourcing and local purveyors, the last thing I want with my menu is a litany of the preciousness of the ingredients.

It’s not that the book is a loss -- if you can avoid reading the pretentious prose you can learn some interesting things like what to do with a geoduck, that big old phallic clam indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. I don’t know if I’ll avail myself of the instructions, but one thing I want from a cookbook is something I haven’t learned before, some new technique of concept that isn’t just another recipe. And this is one (who knew you had to skin the siphon? Or that it was best raw?). The only time I’ve eaten geoduck, it tasted distinctly muddy, but hey, if I’m stuck, now I have some idea how to deal with the creature. He also includes an interesting pickling method where you bring the brine to a boil, add small veggies cut to roughly the same size, bring back to a boil and take off the heat (although I’d probably do the beets separately so they don’t stain everything else in the pot). Pickles, especially quick pickles like this are all the rage this year after decades of being banished to some grandma’s relish tray of the mind, and it’s nice to see another easy method for bringing them back. But for the most part the recipes in this book fall into what I’d categorize as “restaurant food.” Things I’d love to eat out, when someone else is preparing them (and cleaning up), but not food I'm particularly interested in cooking at home. However, if you’re a person who likes the bold flavors of the Pacific Northwest, with a slightly Italian cast, or if you’re a fan of the restaurants and want to know how to add his flavors to your daily life, or if you’re one of those annoying people who wants to impress your friends by worshiping at the altar of Fresh, Pure and Local, then this might be the cookbook for you.

Michael Chiarello’s Bottega falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of cookbook loves and hates. On the one hand, this is a very cheffy cookbook, full of pictures of his restaurant and lifestyle, and a lot of the recipes are the sort of restaurant-food recipes I’m disinclined to make at home. But the book itself is really quite charming, and Chiarello steers clear of the Alice Waters School of Reverence. Chiarello is a restaurant and television chef, and this is a large coffee-table hardcover with a lot of lovely photos that documents the food he’s serving at his new restaurant in the Napa Valley. What saves the book for me is Chiarello’s dedication to convincing people to cook at home, whether they are new to the kitchen, or whether they want to take the challenge and re-create one of his restaurant dishes. He starts with a good pantry list explaining what staples he keeps at home and why, and pointing out brands he feels are particularly good. Where Stowell’s book is filled with the rhetoric of reverence, Chiarello is more practical. He wants you to learn to make your own basics because he believes that if you “set aside one morning every month and devote it to stocking your pantry, refrigerator and freezer... you’ll find yourself relying less on take-out food, you’ll eat better, and the experience of making your own pantry items will add flavor to an already tasty meal.”

It’s always easy for those of us who enjoy messing around in the kitchen to preach about stocking up, but it does make life easier on those nights when you’re tired or home late from work and don’t know what to eat. This was the section of the book I found most interesting. There’s a recipe for Tuna Conserva (tuna conserved in olive oil) that, along with the one in My Calabria has me about to go order a big hunk of tuna from my local fishmonger. There’s also a recipe for “My Grandmother’s Old Hen Tomato Sauce” which is on my list, since there are four elderly backyard hens currently residing in my freezer. There’s certainly some very fancy food in this book -- quite a lot of it, in fact -- “Green Eggs and Ham” involves soft boiling then peeling and deep frying eggs coated in panko before serving them with asparagus and proscuitto. It looks delicious, but I’m unlikely to cook it at home. Or the Porcetta, the whole stuffed suckling pig (well, maybe I need to throw a party -- that one looks really fabulous). But there are also some recipes that would be perfect for a weeknight supper -- “Tagatelle with Bread Crumbs, Mint and Tomato Carpaccio” or “Grilled Raddichio Salad with Tuna Conserva.” Chiarello definitely wants to have it both ways -- showing off his best restaurant dishes while also encouraging people to take the time and care to learn to cook good wholesome food at home for themselves and their families. And while this is definitely a cheffy restaurant cookbook, complete with arty photos celebrating the restaurant that Chiarello runs (and the lifestyle he's marketing in his catalog), the tone is so devoid of the name-dropping reverence that infects Stowell’s book, that it comes off as an accessible and useful cookbook for the home cook. Chiarello comes off as a dedicated chef and family man who struggles, as we all do, with juggling work and family responsibilities, but who wants us to learn to cook and eat well.

My favorite by far of all the new Italian cookbooks is My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South by Rosetta Constantino with Janet Fletcher. I’m wild about this cookbook. Constantino is a former Silicon Valley engineer who lives in Oakland, a block away from her parents. She and her family immigrated to Oakland from Calabria when she was fourteen, and the book is, in part, an ode to her parents, who were determined to recreate as much of the food culture of their native land as they could. Luckily, Oakland has a similar climate to southern Italy, and so the seeds they imported for the Calabrian tomatoes, peppers and eggplants they longed for took root. Constantino’s father has turned not only his back and front yard, but hers as well into a hugely productive vegetable garden -- a small farm, really -- and the family preserves much of their own food for the winter. Constantino admits that “for much of my adult life, I mostly watched my mother in the kitchen and lent a hand on occasion. I had a busy engineering career and no time for handmade fusilli. But as she and my father aged, I began to realize how much would be lost if I didn’t master these techniques and recipes and record them for others.” So she learned her mother’s techniques and started teaching cooking classes in the Bay Area.

Calabria is not a wealthy place, so most of the recipes in this book are made with a few simple ingredients, and in some cases Constantino gives variations, as with her recipe for “Spaghetti with Garlic, Olive Oil and Hot Red Peppers” which lists the way she makes it, the way her parents make it, and the way her Cousin Alberto makes it. There are recipes for a number of fresh pastas, including Fusilli Calabrese, known as “knitting needle pasta” because you make it by rolling the dough around a knitting needle. But the chapter I really fell in love with is “La Dispensa Calabrese: The Calabrian Pantry.” I wish I’d had enough green tomatoes left in my garden to make both the green tomato jam and Green Tomatoes Preserved in Oil, but since I didn’t, I chose the latter. It’s a fascinating technique, and one her family seems to use as well for eggplant, mushrooms and zucchini. First you salt the vegetable until it gives up its juices, then boil briefly in vinegar, then dry for a day or two, then submerge in olive oil accompanied by hot peppers, garlic and mint. I keep looking longingly at my jars of green tomatoes preserved this way waiting impatiently for the two to three week aging period to be over so I can taste them. Next year, I'm going to try it with wild mushrooms as well (they're over for this season).

Like Chiarello, Constantino has a recipe for home preserved tuna, although she gives directions for using a pressure canner to render it shelf stable. Like I said, I’ve got an order in at the fishmonger because this looks absolutely delicious and I'm one of those oddball people who would rather make it myself than eat Chicken of the Sea. There are directions for drying peppers, making pepper conserve and homemade paprika, as well as for canning your own tomatoes and tomato sauce. And while these activities don’t appeal to everyone, what I love about Constantino’s book is her quest to preserve for posterity the very old foodways of her parents and their parents before them. These are techniques whose origins lie not in show-offy attempts to one-up your hipster friends from the farmer's market, but in people who were determined to eat well despite a certain poverty, and who developed techniques of thrift to do so. And while not everyone has the inclination to turn their entire yard into a farm in order to feed the family through the winter, if you want to, this book will give you a good start. My only gripe is that I wanted better pictures of the garden, and especially of the trellis system Constantino’s father uses to grow tomatoes.

So there we have it, three cookbooks, each of which go at the Italian food tradition in America from a slightly different angle. If you’re someone who likes recreating restaurant dishes at home, either the Stowell or Chiarello book is the one you want; if, like me, you are somewhat obsessed with growing and preserving food at home (or with making your own bread, pizza or pasta), then you’ll love the Constantino book. They all have good recipes in them, but I have to say, the Constantino is the one book of the three that not only told me a story of a family and a region, but taught me the kinds of tricks you'd have to have your own Italian relative to discover. And that's what I really seek in a cookbook. Something totally new that I didn't know before, taught to me by a person I feel like I'd like to get to know better. It's all I can do not to hie myself to Oakland to start pestering Rosetta Constantino (and her father) for cooking and gardening tips.