Monthly Archives: September 2014

Carol Field’s Italy

fieldbooksI loved Carol Field’s first cookbook, The Italian Baker, the book from which I learned to cook good bread. But that book is for later; at some point there will be a post on the three best bread books in the world (and until then, I will let my readers guess what the other two books should be). In this post we look at two later books by Carol Field, In Nonna’s Kitchen and Italy in Small Bites. Given Carol’s interest in baking, there are a lot of bread recipes in these two books (only one of which I tried), but there is so much more. Carol is a completely reliable guide to Italian food; her recipes are authentic, reliable, and yield wonderful food. Each recipe is placed in context: we learn where Carol found the recipe, where it is made, and its history. Thus the reader of these cookbooks can learn lots about Italy, not just Italian food.

IUntitled 8talian grandmothers are iconic figures in foodie folklore. Carol Field’s book, In Nonna’s Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Grandmothers is probably neither the first nor last cookbook to approach Italian food from this grandmother angle. Carol really does talk to lots of Nonnas and her book includes profiles of grandmothers from all over Italy. There are lots of recipes, many of which are vegetarian friendly. People who like color photographs in their cookbooks will whine about this book as it has no such illustrations. This, however, is probably a good idea, since I suspect mush of this food is not that attractive: it is food that people eat, not food that people stare at.

pestoPesto is one of those foods that many of us make without following a recipe: just toss handfuls of pesto ingredients into the food processor and process. I, however, rarely make pesto, and so when I found myself with a lot of basil, I decided to look to Carol for pesto instructions. I am glad I did; the pesto I made from her recipe was really good, and I was not the only one who thought so. This, despite using some not very good kosher Parmesan, not true reggiano (and I know kosher reggiano exists, but this was not what I had), and using some inexpensive Spanish olive oil, not the Ligurian olive oil that Carol recommends. [Go to the recipe.]

mushpotsoupMinestra di Funghi e Patate” (page 90) would probably have been better without the patates; that was definitately Henry’s opinion, and I am inclined to agree. Or at least I should have used fewer or less floury potatoes. Other than the excess of potatoes, this was a good soup, with lots of mushrooms and marjoram, enriched at the end of cooking with a small amount of sour cream and Parmesan. It was quite flavorful, even with only the water from soaking dried porcini mushrooms as the broth. This soup made particularly good leftovers.

tilapiacfFor some mysterious reason, whenever I try to cook sliced potatoes in the oven in some sort of gratin, they never really cook. Thus when I attempted “Stoccafisso della Cantina Sociale di Valdinevola” (gratin of cod, potatoes, and tomatoes, page 240), I decided to precook the potatoes. However, while the potatoes were bouncing about in boiling water on top of the stove, I actually read the recipe, and saw that the gratin was supposed to be in the oven for an hour and a half. I had been planning to eat much sooner than that, so I foolishly took the partially cooked potatoes off the stove, prepared the dish, and stuck it in the oven for the hour and a half. The dish is simple enough: layers of cod, potatoes, and tomatoes, topped with a bread crumb topping and doused with white wine. When we sat down to eat this dish, the topping was delightfully crunchy, the fish was silky smooth, the tomato sauce was flavored just right, but the potatoes were not quite cooked through. Another hour might have done the trick, but all the other components would have suffered. Next time I cook the potatoes all the way.

tunapastPasta and tuna is a classic combination, whether it is tuna fish casserole with condensed cream of mushroom soup or Carol’s “Pasta alla Palomara” (page 168), translated for us as “Pasta with Tuna, Anchovies, Pine Nuts, and Currants”. The ingredients coexist with a simple tomato sauce. Carol tops her pasta with bread crumbs, which I omitted. I particularly like the subtle sweetness provided by the currants (for which, I admit, I substituted chopped up raisins, but dried Zante currants are just raisins anyway). As long as one doesn’t mind eating pasta, this is an easy, good, and filling dish.


Sample page

Sample page

Italy in Small Bites is not so much a cookbook as a book of food ideas—the sort of ideas that come immediately to those who grew up in Nonna’s kitchen, but which the rest of us have to learn on our own. If one is looking for exciting recipes, this is not the book to leaf through, but if one is just looking for something simple and good to put on the table, this is the ideal book. As we should expect from the author of The Italian Baker, there are quite a few bread recipes, including recipes for pizza and foccacia, as well as recipes and ideas for what to do with the bread. There is a chapter on polenta, and a chapter of egg dishes. There are a number of salad ideas, and a final chapter on desserts (perhaps the least inspiring chapter). My only complaint about this book is that it is unattractive. Recipe ingredients are printed over a solid tan background with ragged edges, and there are useless little drawings throughout in the same ugly tan color.

mozzballsmballscelery“Bocconcini di Mozzarella Marinata” or “Little Bites of Marinated Mozzarella” (page 37) are the sort of food that I expect to see, ready-made, in cheese sections of upscale groceries. But these are too easy to make: you just add mozzarella balls to olive oil, with salt, red and black pepper, and garlic. Once you have made your marinated mozzarella balls, you can just pop them into your mouth, or use them in salads, such as “Insalata di Mozzarella, Noci, e Sedano,” translated as “Marinated Mozarella, Walnut, and Celery Salad” (page 38). I found this combination underwhelming; walnuts, celery, and mozzarella balls have no particular affinity for one another. These mozzarella balls would sit more happily in a standard lettuce based salad.

peppersoup“Acquasale” or “Sweet Pepper Sauce” (page 60) consists of roasted red pepper blended with onion and garlic cooked in olive oil and tomatoes. Instead of roasting my own peppers, I took the easy way out and used jarred roasted peppers as well as canned tomatoes. Carol suggests several uses for this sauce, and I opted to turn it into a soup by combining the sauce with an equal volume of broth, thus making “Zuppa di Acquasale,” aka “Sweet Pepper Soup” (page 73). With pre-roasted peppers and canned tomatoes, this soup had a very high taste to trouble ratio, and was a nice twist on the usual red tomato soup.

DSC_0323Once tubes of polenta began appearing on grocery shelves, I quit making my own polenta, and there has been no looking back. Breaking open one or two of these tubes, slicing the polenta, topping with a sauce, and baking in the oven, then serving with a salad, is one of the easiest ways I know to put a filling and relatively nutritious meal on the table. For “Polenta ai Funghi” (“Polenta with Wild Mushrooms,” page 72), Carol tops polenta with “Condimento ai Funghi,” or, in English, “Wild Mushroom Topping” (page 62). This is a tomato mushroom sauce flavored with sage. Although Carol did not mention cheese, I could not resist topping my polenta and sauce with cheese. This made a satisfying dish.

cheesebreadI could not leave these cookbooks without trying at least one of the bread recipes, and so I made “Pizza di San Lorenzo in Campo,” or “Cheese Bread from Le Marche” (page 224). This is a very rich bread, full of eggs, olive oil, and cheese, and yet it does not taste at all greasy. I baked my bread in cute little loaf pans, and used the egg glaze so that my loaves would be nice and shiny. I liked this bread a lot; the dough underwent some magical transformation on its way to morphing into baked loaves, a transformation of the type that challah dough often fails to make. [Go to the recipe.]



Adapted from Carol Field, In Nonna’s Kitchen

3 cloves garlic
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted and cooled
1 cup basil leaves, packed
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt

Blend all the ingredients together. Store in the refrigerator with plastic wrap pressed onto the surface.


Cheese Bread

Adapted from Carol Field, Italy in Small Bites

1 tablespoon yeast
6 tablespoons water
4 eggs
3 egg yolks
¾ cup olive oil
3¾ cup flour
2 teaspoons salt
7 ounces grated cheese (your choice)
1 egg for glaze (optional)

Dissolve the yeast in the water; mix in the eggs, egg yolks, and olive oil. I made the dough in a heavy duty mixer; you could also do it my hand, or could probably use a food processor. If you are using a mixer, put the flour and salt in the bowl of the mixer. Add the liquid, and knead with the dough hook until the dough is smooth. Add the cheese gradually while kneading with the dough hook. Knead with the mixer for about a total of 10 minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl, then cover and let the dough rise. You may simply let the dough rise until doubled, or after it has started to rise, put the dough in the refrigerator overnight.

You can make two normal sized loaves or four small ones. Line the bottom of your bread pans with parchment paper and grease the paper and the sides of the pan. Separate the dough into as many parts as you have pans. Flatten each piece into a rectangle, then roll up and place in a loaf pan. Cover the loaves with a towel and let them rise until doubled.

Preheat the oven to 425º at last 30 minutes before baking. If desired, beat the egg for the glaze, and brush all over the tops of the loaves. Put the loaves in their pans in the oven, ideally on a baking stone. Bake until done, 30 to 40 minutes. Let the loaves cool in their pans for a few minutes, then remove them from the pans and let them finish cooling on a rack.

Mideast Vegetarian

bksWith Alan now in Israel for the year (rolled into Nazareth…), close friends in the middle of a big family vacation in Israel, other friends having just made aliyah with their three children, and we ourselves leaving for Israel in a few days, not to mention all the distressing news from this part of the world, Cookbook Cornucopia looks to the Middle East and two vegetarian cookbooks. Vegetarian dishes are not necessarily what one expects from this region, but on the other hand it is reasonable to expect a long tradition of vegetable dishes from a part of the world in which vegetables have been cultivated for thousands of years.

UntitledArto der Haroutunian, the author of Vegetarian Dishes from Across the Middle East rates a brief Wikipedia page, from which one can learn slightly more than from the author blurb on the back of the book. Our author studied architecture, designed restaurants, painted, composed music, translated Turkish, Arab, Persian, and Armenian authors, all in addition to founding a chain of Armenian restaurants with his brother and writing twelve cookbooks. He died in 1987 at the unfortunately young age of 47. I wish I liked this book more, since the author seems like an interesting person, but most of the recipes that I tried were not that great. On the other hand, there are still a few untried recipes that catch my eye. I think, though, that I will pass on the recipe that that amused Alan and Henry: “Avocados in Wine” (page 60): you mix a half cup of wine with a fourth cup of sugar and some lemon juice, then fill avocado halves (pits removed) with this syrup.

potsaladme“Potatoes, Peas, and Pickles” (page 69) is a standard potato salad with peas and pickles (as advertised) as well as carrots, celery, and scallions. Arto offers two choices of dressing: one made with cream, and the other with a combination of mayonnaise and sour cream; I opted for the mayonnaise and sour cream dressing. This is, after all, supposed to be a Russian type salad, and opinion at the lunch table this last Shabbos was that Russian salads were often distinguished by the presence of mayonnaise.

badsoupzzz“Almond Soup” (page 15) is described as “an extremely delightful soup from Turkey” but it failed to delight anyone at our house. It looked promising, unusual enough to be a taste sensation. Instead, it tasted of almost nothing. The soup consists of hard boiled egg yolks, ground almonds, lemon rind, coriander, basil, and cream. Perhaps not was not a good idea for me to use almond flour instead of grinding my own almonds; perhaps it was not a good idea to use fresh basil instead of ground basil. The basil dominated, the almonds and everything else left no taste, so we were left with hot basil flavored cream. The leftovers were never touched.

zucsouf“Zucchini with Egg and Cheese” (page 100) was a very pleasant zucchini soufflé. The vegetables are zucchini and mushrooms; the cheeses are feta and Parmesan. This soufflé is quite sturdy, and I cooked it in advance and reheated it; although not not as light and airy as when first out of the oven, this dish still had a good texture. I actually used twice as much zucchini, feta, and mushrooms as specified in the recipe, with quite good results. [Go to the recipe.]

saltyspinach“Spinach and Chickpea Salad” (page 80) is not exactly my idea of a salad. This dish consists of spinach cooked with chickpeas in a tomato butter sauce. I did serve this at room temperature, but it would have been very good hot; I’m not so sure about cold. Unfortunately, I came close to ruining this dish by forgetting and salting it twice, so my spinach and chickpeas was way too salty. But when I tried to forget the salt, it seemed that the the slippery spinach, with texture from chickpeas, and the buttery tomato sauce could have been really good.

Untitled 2Habeeb Salloum’s book, Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East & North Africa is a great cookbook. Amazon reviewers agree, except for the reviewer who gave the book one star because it had no pictures. I suppose this reviewer also gave The Joy of Cooking and Mastering the Art of French Cooking one star: although those cookbooks have line drawings, there are no color photographs, at least in the editions that I have, to show what a dish should look like. Who cares what a dish looks like? It is taste that matters, and taste that Habeeb delivers. In his introduction he notes that Middle Eastern food often seems to be quite meat-centric, but this is only because the food served to guests (and so in restaurants), the most highly esteemed food, is meat. The diet of most people of the Middle East, most of the time, over the millennia, has been, however, vegetarian, and it is this vegetarian diet that Habeeb celebrates. The recipes are simple, as recipes of the masses should be, yet make the most of their ingredients.

“Algerian Salad” (page 96) is your standard Middle Eastern chopped salad; what distinguishes it is the addition of olives (ideally salt-cured) and hard boiled eggs to the usual combination of peppers, cucumber, tomatoes, and onion. Both olives and eggs made a fine addition to this type of salad, and Habeeb’s rendition of this classic stands with the best.

carrotegg“Carrot and Egg Salad” (page 106) was a little more unexpected. For this salad, we briefly cook carrots in boiling water, then chop them up in the food processor. The carrots get a dressing of cilantro, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. Next, you are supposed to spread the carrots on a plate and decorate with hard boiled eggs, olives, and tomatoes; not being too interested in this sort of presentation, I just mixed olives and eggs into the carrot salad and omitted the tomato.  This all made a tasty and slightly different salad.

olivedip“Olive Dip” (page 46) gets high points for taste, ease of preparation, and unordinariness. You just toss green olives (pitted!), tahini, cilantro, lemon juice, garlic, tomato, olive oil, and some hot red pepper into the food processor and whiz until the dip is as smooth as you want it. Habeeb says “smooth”; I like a little bit of texture. This dip was great on bread; I also like it mixed into lettuce salad, and even plain.


Tahini Soup


Cucumber Soup

Habeeb has lots of hot soups, most based on beans, and all calling for water, not vegetable broth. This I appreciate; too often soup recipes are just for flavored chicken (or fake chicken) broth. I have made several of his hot soups in the past; the ones I tried were good and filling, but not remarkable (and this is really the best one can usually say for a bean soup). It’s the middle of summer, though, so instead of hot soup I tried two cold yogurt soups: “Tahini and Yogurt Soup” (page 84) and “Cold Yogurt and Cucumber Soup” (page 66). I am not a huge fan of cold yogurt soups, so I was not impressed with either soup, but our guests who liked yogurt soups thought that they were quite good, especially the tahini soup.

The trick to enjoying vegetarian kibbeh is to forget that there is a much better meat version, and just appreciate the dish for what it is. So, forgetting that meat exists, “Cashew Nut Kibbeh” (page 178) is not that bad. The cashews stand in for the not-to-be-thought-of meat. This is baked kibbeh: a layer of cashews and bulgur, a layer of onions, and a final layer of cashews and bulgur. Once cooked and cut, the squares of kibbeh sort of fell apart, which was not that satisfactory. Although tasty, this would have been better with a spicy sauce of some sort.

eggplant“Eggplant and Cheese Casserole” (page 190) is a srt of Middle Eastern eggplant parmigiano, with feta instead of Parmesan or another Italian cheese, the eggplant fried but not breaded, and a rather weird egg and onion topping. The dish seems normal enough until the topping: just fried eggplant layered with tomatoes and cheese. The topping consists of beaten eggs with allspice, oregano, sage, and raw onions. The cooked dish looked strange, but tasted great.

tahinicookiesSeveral people mistook “Almond and Tahini Cookies” for peanut butter cookies, a very understandable mistake. The cookie dough is made in the food processor, with all the ingredients thrown in and processed. I cut the sugar in half, although I think that these cookies could have used a little more than half the sugar. I might have left them in the oven too long, since the cookies were quite hard. Although I was not that fond of these, some people, including Danny, really liked them, even preferring them to the other cookie I made, below.

datecookies“Date and Almond Cookies” (page 261) are perhaps the best non-chocolate cookie in the word. It is unlikely, though, that people who do not share my fondness for soft, fruit-sweetened cookies will agree. But for those who also like such cookies, get some dates and almonds, pull out your food processor, and prepare yourself for a sublime experience. Like the tahini cookies, you make these cookies by processing all the ingredients together. I was not immediately successful in blending the ingredients, so I added a little more cream, then a little more flour. My dough was too soft to form into balls, so I just made drop cookies, which held their shape without much spreading. I cut the amount of sugar in half, and these cookies, unlike the tahini cookies, did not need any more sugar. The cookies were incredible when first made; the quality declined slightly as the cookies aged, but they were still delicious when I made a mid-morning snack of the last five cookies, by then at least four days old. [Go to the recipe.]


Zucchini Soufflé

Adapted from Arto der Haroutunian, Vegetarian Dishes from Across the Middle East

4 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
½ pound mushrooms, chopped
1 pound zucchini, grated
¼ cup flour
1¼ cups milk, heated
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
¼ cup parsley, minced
4 eggs
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter a medium sized baking dish (about an 8 cup capacity).

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Cook the onion in the butter until soft, then add the mushrooms and cook a little longer. Add the zucchini. Stir in the flour. After the flour cooks for a minute, begin gradually adding the milk, stirring all the while. When the milk has been all stirred in and the mixture is thick, add the feta, salt, and pepper. Remove from the heat.

Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks. Add a little of the hot vegetable mixture, then mix together all the vegetable mixture and the yolks. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold the whites into the yolk and vegetable mixture. Scrape into the prepared pan, top with the Parmesan cheese, and bake for about 40 minutes. Eat right away, or later: either cold, room temperature, or reheated.


Date and Almond Cookies

Adapted from Habeeb Salloum, Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East & North Africa

1 cup almonds
1 cup pitted dates
6 tablespoons butter
½ cup sugar
2 eggs
½ cup cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350º. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Add the almonds to the food processor bowl and pulse until powdery. Add the dates and pulse until you get a fairly homogeneous mass. Add the butter, sugar, eggs,  cream, and vanilla and pulse until all mixed together. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse until combined. Drop spoonfuls of dough onto the baking sheets and bake for about 10 minutes. Cool on racks.