Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Southern Italian Table

Admittedly, I love most cookbooks and I own more "recipe" books than any other kind. That said, there is truly a difference between cookbooks written by chefs and those written by food journalists. Chefs create fantastic dishes...and, let's face it, photos of finished dishes and their recipes are usually what attract us to cookbooks. Food journalists, on the other hand, add a very special extra bit of seasoning...a story, a history, a snippet of the dish's provenance...a book worth actually READING.

In fact, I can't remember the last time I took a cookbook to bed. Reading at night is usually some fluff novel that puts me to sleep after a few pages.

Cookbook reading is normally a daytime event around here. Sometimes I go from cover to cover quickly, adding post-it notes (or torn bits of paper - napkins or those inserts from magazines) to recipes I want to try. Sometimes I'll have a bunch of cookbooks strewn across table and floor looking for some theme menu or the hunt for some elusive recipe I know I have....somewhere.

But The Southern Italian Table: Authentic Tastes from Traditional Kitchens by food journalist, award winning cookbook author, and Italian cooking aficionado, Arthur Schwartz is that one treasure....a book to really read AND cook brilliantly from. I've been enjoying it for a while now...in bed and out.

The book starts with an excellent geography and history lesson that goes on for ten pages. Here's a wonderful quote so you can get a picture of Arthur's writing style and love for the region.

"Southern Italy is a land of drama and contradictions. It has great expanses of unspoiled physical beauty, arid stretches and heroically fertile ones. It has urban slums and hundreds of miles of white sandy beaches. Its people are earthy, often farmers or others who depend on the land for their living, but just as frequently they have advanced educations and live professional, middle-class lives in neat homes and apartments where the kitchen is still the center of life and the table is where everyone meets, even when dressed in Armani and Prada."
It's a wonderful intro with some very interesting facts like...
  • Greeks arrived as early as 800 BCE where Sicily, in particular was sought for its fertile soil;

  • Mussolini drained the swamps of Paestum in the 1920's and is now a rich vegetable and fruit growing zone;

  • Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, squash, corn and coffee were native to "The New World" and brought to Italy and the rest of Europe with early explorers like Cortez in the 1500's

  • Tomatoes were originally used as decorative plants and only eaten 200 years later!

  • Most North American Italian dishes are Southern Italian in origin...you'll have to read the book for details.

It's Arthur's journalistic background that brings all that research to us in such an engaging manner, not just in the intro, but in every chapter and every recipe. He describes Southern Italians as frugal people and the cuisine -

"La cucina povera, the food of the Italian peasant, featuring dishes with few ingredients used in extremely creative ways ... that have become some of the most ingenious and popular foods in the world, including pizza, macaroni, spaghetti, tomato sauce, meatballs and mozzarella."

And while I could go on forever...and frankly will continue to read more of the book - I'm still enjoying the Antipasti chapter...two pages just talking about bread in its various forms - bread in cooking; bread crumbs; toasted bread crumbs; hard bread - with explanations and page references to delightful recipes (each with the region it comes from). The Stuzzico (Eggplant, red pepper and onion spread) will definitely be made as soon as the grocery stores open tomorrow and I can get my hands on some purple beauties! Once made, it becomes one of those sott' olio preserves, kept for months in the fridge. Don't even get me started on the simple pizzas, paninis...

Naturally, being founder of Presto Pasta Nights, I had to flip to the pasta pages, past the three page intro (I did read them eventually and discovered many differences between Northern & Southern methods of making fresh pasta, how Italians vs North Americans like to eat their pasta and which wonderful creations are truly Southern in origin - like fusilli and my favorite orecchiette).
Pasta e Lenticchie all Siciliana. or Pasta & Lentils, Sicilian Style was the first to capture my attention... an easy to make, hearty stew, perfect for our long winters...
...followed by Pasta e Ricotta, a simple, soul warming dish, perfect for a quick lunch or stress-free supper. It really doesn't take any longer that to boil the water and cook the pasta.

The recipes - 130 in all, each with an intro as to provenance, region, regional distinctions and variations have been tested in Arthur's New York apartment, so you know that you can find the ingredients easily, no matter where you live. And, regardless of your favorite Italian course - from Antipasti (appetizers & snacks), through Insalate (salads), Minestra e Zuppe (soups), sugo e Ragu (tomato sauces & ragu), pasta e risotto, fromaggio e uova (cheese & eggs), fpesce e frutti di mare (fish & shellfish), carne e pollo (meat & chicken), verdure (vegetables & side dishes) to Dolci (sweets) you will find all the classics and more, not to mention all the wonderful explanations that bring Southern Italy to life.

The Southern Italian Table is truly a wonderful gift for anyone who loves Italian food.

1 comment:

Kirsten Lindquist said...

I just bought this and couldn't agree with you more! Love, love, love this book! Thanks for sharing. And loving your blog!