Too many restaurant cookbooks make promises that they can't keep. You pick them up after a magical evening in a beloved dining room, a night when you had a meal that redefined your ideas of what great food looks and tastes like. The book has stories from the kitchen and photos of the exact thing you were eating -- there it is, look at it -- and then, the book tells you a lie, in the form of a recipe. It suggests that you, too, can make the roast chicken or suckling pig or ricotta gnocchi that's been haunting your dreams since the moment it was delivered to your table. Perhaps there are home cooks out there so well-trained and well-equipped that they can make this fantasy a reality. But if you're like me, here's the cold, hard truth: When you want that exact roast chicken again, you'll need to make another reservation.
In Bottega, a collection of striking Italian recipes from Michael Chiarello's Yountville institution, the chef addresses this issue head-on: "Every recipe is written to lead the home cook step by step through making the dish just as it appears on the restaurant table." But then there's a refreshing caveat, in the form of a challenge: "If you want to make a dish Bottega style, get your game on. You can forget about sipping Champagne while you lean against the counter and occasionally stir." When you see what's in store for you if you accept, you won't hesitate to try.
The apparent simplicity of Bottega's many rustic Italian recipes is a double-edged sword. While it may seem like you should be able to pull off an "easy" sauce or soup without a full-blown culinary education, remember (and don't worry, Chiarello will remind you) that patience and practice are almost especially crucial for these rustic dishes. He encourages home cooks to try the recipes over and over until they feel like second nature, a method that seems high-maintenance until you realize that even when you aren't hitting the Bottega standard, you're still churning out some damn good meals.
The cookbook suggests pairing this Tuscan classic with Sangiovese, and truth be told, tomatoes and Sangiovese -- particularly a light little playfful Chianti -- are a fine pairing, but don't be bound to it. You might want to explore a bit with a nice Frappato or perhaps a juicy Barbera.
Pappa al Pomodoro (Tomato-Bread Soup)
This soup is the definition of Tuscan food, made from great tomatoes that aren’t cooked too long, mixed with old bread, and milled for texture. It’s very Tuscan; you won’t find versions like this in Southern Italy. I like the combination of fresh Roma and canned plum tomatoes, but you can use all fresh if you like; just aim for about 6 1/2 pounds of tomatoes. If you don’t have a food mill, by all means use your food processor, but for a true pappa al pomodoro a mill is key. This soup is all about the texture: the word velvety comes to mind, not because this soup is smooth but because the combination of good tomatoes and stale bread has a mouthfeel that’s rich and satisfying. It’s the most rustic food and yet it doesn’t feel simple or rustic in your mouth. Darrell Corti, who calls himself a grocer, is actually a wine merchant and food expert and also one of the smartest guys I know. He makes a pappa al pomodoro even thicker than mine, and it’s like a breath of new air.
You can spoon this onto a plate as a sauce and top it with grilled sardines, fried calamari, or slices of grilled steak.
Wine Pairing: Sangiovese
5 pounds fresh Roma (plum) tomatoes
One 28-ounce can peeled whole plum tomatoes
4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 cups diced crustless bread, preferably from a slightly stale country-style loaf
Sea salt, preferably gray salt, and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
Core each tomato (see note below), mark a shallow X in the opposite end, and blanch in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds. Transfer to cold water to cool briefly, then peel the tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes in half, scoop out the seeds with your fingers, then chop. (I prefer to squish the pulp into a large bowl.) Drain, reserving the liquid in a bowl. Empty the pulp into another bowl. Open the can of tomatoes and drain, adding the liquid to the reserved fresh tomato liquid and the canned tomatoes to the fresh tomato pulp.
Heat a large stockpot over medium heat, add 1 cup of the olive oil, and sauté the garlic until golden and aromatic, about 30 seconds. Pay attention because it colors quickly, and dark garlic can be bitter. Pour the tomato liquid into the pan and cook to reduce by half, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and pulp and cook until they give off their juices, about 30 minutes. Add the bread and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring to break down the bread.
To get the best texture, pass the soup through a food mill; don’t expect it to be satin smooth but it should be even in consistency, with no lumps of bread. If you don’t have a food mill, whisk the soup until the bread is broken up and then whir it in a blender. Add salt and pepper to taste, then add the basil. Whisk in the remaining 3 cups olive oil. Divide among warmed soup bowls.
Chef’s Note: Good tomatoes are like gold at Bottega, and we don’t waste a bit of them. When you core the tomatoes, take out as little flesh as possible. Then, cut a shallow X in the opposite end of the tomato and when it goes into the hot water, the skin will curl into four little corners, making it easier to peel.