I recently wrote about Healthy Cooking, a volume in the Culinary Institute of America’s at Home series of cookbooks. I was impressed with that edition since the focus was on cooking, not on forcing dishes to be healthy. Of course, as home chefs know, just by cooking something from scratch it’s almost always going to be more wholesome and healthful than a comparable store-bought item.
Italian Cooking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America makes no claim to being a "healthy" cookbook, but then again it certainly isn’t unhealthy. In fact, one thing that struck me as I dug through the book was how downright healthy Italian food is. This edition has a wonderful selection of regional dishes spanning the length of the boot of Italy. The vast majority of the dishes were inspired by the classic cucina povera: that cuisine inspired by poverty, seasonality and thrift. Sometimes the simplest recipes can be amongst the best, and that goes for virtually every one in Italian Cooking. Heck, even the title has that wonderfully direct austerity!
So, what’s in the book? Well, there are some of the standard recipes, and some surprises as well. The recipes are organized by type with typical Italian cookbook fare, such as Risi and Pasta, augmented by sections on Spuntini (snacks), Conserve (preserves and pickles) as well as Crudi (raw dishes), and Brodi (broths). The broth recipe in particular is a winner, and they even have Bollito Misto!
The lead-up to the recipe listings includes a brief look at the important foodstuffs of each Italian region with a brief overview of cheese, DOP products, and wine guides that are brief but serve as a suitable introduction. When more attention is warranted, such as discussing Castelluccio lentils, there are sidebars sprinkled throughout the text. Wine is given special prominence here, well deserved considering how integral wine is to la cucina povera. Every recipe is accompanied by lists of red and white wines that are appropriate for each dish, along with a brief blurb explaining why that is.
Of course, there are the typical instructions for making a proper risotto, pasta, gnocchi and the like; a staple of Italian cookbooks these days. Here there are several images that accompany the process, but unlike most new Italian cookbooks the images are simply designed to augment, not replace, coherent, intuitive directions. In fact, all the techniques here are explained in a simple, direct, easy-to-understand way that prevents any one recipe from discouraging further exploration.
Regarding exploration, I had a fun time running through this book. In addition to the Bollito Misto mentioned previously, I found myself planning out menus using everything from the Gnocchi al Taleggio (it’s not what you think!) to the chestnut, bean and milk soup. While those were some standouts for me, I though it better that I share three recipes that can make a fine early spring meal.
Start off with a southern Italian twist on the classic pasta fagioli soup. This one is made with chickpeas and mussels -- something that strikes me as Sardinian but is based on a Campagian recipe. Then tuck into a simple dish of beet root ravioli before wrapping up with a baked sardine dish that is simple and deserves a nice rough salad -- think chicory or kale -- to offer some textural contrast and help highlight the sweet nature of the fish.
What wine you ask? Well, that’s up to you but Italian Cooking at Home has a recommendation for each of these dishes. In general, the wine recommendations draw on the old adage wines and foods from a region work well together, but I might be tempted to just stick with the Falanghina that’s recommended for the soup and the sardines to complete this masterpiece of la cucina povera!
Buy Italian Cooking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America, by Gianni Scappin, Alberto Vanoli and Steven Kolpan
See pages 2-4 for recipes for Sardine in casseruola (Baked sardines), Minestra di fagioli e cozze (Bean and mussel soup) and Casunziei all’ampezzana (Beet-filled ravioli)