I 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.
Italian 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.
Pesto 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.]
“Minestra 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.
For 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.
Pasta 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.
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.
“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.
“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.
Once 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.
I 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.
Adapted from Carol Field, Italy in Small Bites
1 tablespoon yeast
6 tablespoons water
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.