09 July 2011

Entertaining All'Italiana

It is no big secret that I collect cookbooks. Unfortunately for me, I do not have unlimited funds to procure said cookbooks, so I always have a list of items that I am looking for with the caveat that they must fall on $20 range. Many of them I can find, but alas, I cannot afford them, so there is an eternal quest for certain grail. One such grail was Anna del Conte’s Entertaining All'Italiana. There have always been a few copies of this elusive book on the market, but they tended to be priced between $100 and $300. That is a lot of tomato sauce and garlic!

First, let me say that Anna del Conte is not well known in America. In England, however, she is cross between Julia Child and Lidia Bastianich. Sure, now there is big food movement in England, but thirty years ago, English food was a bit of a joke. Imagine what it was like when Elizabeth David and Anna del Conte put forward fresh spicy, Italian creations. Del Conte married an Englishman and that is what lead her from her Italian kitchen to England. Del Conte wrote the first complete compendium of Italian food for and English speaking population, Gastronomy of Italy.

Finally, it didn’t hurt that Nigella Lawson stated emphatically that Entertaining All'Italiana was probably her favorite cookery book. (Click here to read Nigella's touching tribute to del Conte.)Published in the early 1990’s, Entertaining All'Italiana is a throwback to older cookbooks, featuring a handful of line drawings for chapter headings, but no pictures of the food.

So finally, I saw a copy of Entertaining All'Italiana. I knew it immediately as I had memorized its blue jacket with the painting of the plums and walnuts. I knew it would be out of my price range, but surprisingly it was under my $20 limit and I practically hyperventilated at the pristine book and fine jacket.

When I got it home, I admired it for several days before I even cracked the spine. The very first recipe was for Linguine coi piselli alla panna, a flat spaghetti with peas and cream. That very morning I picked peas in the garden and had a small bowl sitting on the counter. It was kismet.

Linguine coi piselli alla panna

450 r/1 lb linguine
freshly grated Parmesan for serving

For the sauce

45g/1 1/2 oz unsalted butter
4 shallots, very finely chopped
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
225g/1/2 lb fresh garden peas, podded, or frozen peas, thawed
1 tbsp flour
6tbsp dry white vermouth
120 ml/1/4 pint single cream
freshly ground pepper

If you are using fresh peas, plunge them in a saucepan of boiling water and cook them for 5 minutes, Frozen peas do not nee this blanching.

Choose a large sauté pan or frying pan into which you can later transfer the drained pasta. Put the butter and shallots in the pan and sprinkle with the sugar and salt. Saute the shallots until soft and then add the peas. Coat them in the butter for 1 minute, sprinkle with the flour and cool for a further minute, stirring the whole time, Stir in the vermouth, boil for 1 minute and then add the stock. Cover the pan and regulate the heat so that the liquid will simmer gently for the peas to cook. They must be tender, not just al dente. Stir in the cream, cook for a couple of minutes. Add pepper , taste and check seasoning.

Meanwhile, put a large saucepan of water on the heat and bring to the boil. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of cooking salt and when the water has come back to a roaring boil, slide in the linguine, a ll at once, pushing them in gently with your hand. Stir with a long fork, putting the lid back on the pan until the water is boiling again, then remove the lid and cook at a steady boil until the linguine is done. Drain, but do not overdrain, and transfer immediately to the pan with the sauce. Stir-fry, using two forks, and stirrings with a high movement so that all the pasta strands are well coated with the sauce.

Now, if your frying pan is a good-looking one, bring the pan directly to the table. The less pasta is transfer from the container to another , the better; it keeps hotter. But if you do not like to bring sauce pans to the table, tun the pasta into a heated bowl and serve, handing round the Parmesan in a bowl.

For my version, I added a bit of ham. It was wonderful. And I can't say enough about how much I love this book. Perhaps it was the quest, perhaps it was Nigella, perhaps it was the first recipe being for peas, but I love it. Frankly, I have long been a fan of Anna del Conte after finding her Gastronomy of Italy. This book is a much more personal journey. Check out our review of Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes,

In the meantime, be on the lookout for you own copy of Entertaining All'Italiana.

03 July 2011

Heart of the Artichoke

David Tanis is a chef. Granted he is the head chef at Chez Panisse, which has a more laid back, ingredient vibe than say... The Four Seasons, but he is still a head chef so you have to think, big old complicated recipes. Here is where Tanis is brilliant. The recipes really do feature the food. The clean, only slightly fussed with, fine ingredients that one really wants to eat. Heart of the Artichoke is Tanis' second book. It follows up on his first book A Platter of Figs which shares the same clean edible and "cookable" recipes.

While I am the first to embrace immersion circulators and having a huge tank of liquid nitrogen in my kitchen, there is something remarkable to be said for some one who can look a a beautiful pile of green beans (how pedestrian) and turn them into Green Bean Salad with Pickled Shallots, a dish that is one the one hand so simple and on the other so complex and beautiful, not to mention it a dish that even the most challenged cook cold pull off with total aplomb.

Don't get me wrong, while I adore the Stand Around Melon with Mint, your basic melon balls with mint sprinkled on the top, there are some very involved recipes, like Pho with its nearly thirty ingredients. But for the most part, these recipes are easy to do and would make even the most finicky eater happy.

How could I resist my favorite poached pears. Tanis says that he often finds poached pears in spice end up coming off like a really bad mulled wine. Here he takes a light and delicate approach.

Spiced Pears in Red Wine

8 slightly under ripe small Comice or Anjou pears
1 (750-ml) bottle medium-bodied red wine, such as Côtes du Rhone
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 whole cloves
A wide strip each of lemon and orange peel

1. Peel the pears top to bottom with a sharp vegetable peeler, leaving them whole, with stems attached and the core intact.

2. Put the pears in a large wide nonreactive pot (enameled or stainless steel) in one layer. Stir the wine and sugar together in a bowl to dissolve the sugar, pour over the pears, and add the aromatics. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Poach the pears for about 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted encounters no resistance. Remove from the heat and let cool, in the poaching liquid, overnight.

3. The next day, with a slotted spoon, transfer the pears to a platter. Heat the poaching liquid over high and boil down until it is reduced by half. Strain this syrup into a bowl and let cool.

4. Use a paring knife to cut a small slice off the bottom of each pear, allowing them to stand up straight. Stand the pears in a deep rectangular glass or plastic container large enough to contain them in one layer.

5. Pour the cooled syrup over the pears. Refrigerate for up to several days. Serve chilled, putting each pear in a soup plate and spooning over a little syrup.

Today is a steamy, muggy summer day. What a lovely end to any meal.

01 July 2011


For more than thirty years, James Villas has devote his life to food. It's a tough job but someone has to do it. Twenty-seven years of his career were as Food and Wine Editor of Town & Country. He has also written about his food endeavors for a slew of other publications including Esquire, Saveur, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Life, The New York Times, and don't forget the cookbooks, two of my favorites with his mother, Martha Pearl Villas, who died several years ago. Miss Martha Pearl always traveled with her White Lily Flour, a custom I understand, but I digress...

Usually, when writing books one moves from the general to the specific. James Villas, who wrote the ever popular book, Bacon, moved from this particular cut of pork to whole hog in his book Pig. Leave it to a good old Southern boy to call his book simply Pig. Really, does one need further info? There are, of course, a few bacon recipes and standards like ham steak and red eye gravy. There is a traditional spiced stuffed hams seen on every buffet South of the Mason-Dixon, and some fancier
fare. Still, no one can give a better explanation of how to make a great fried pig's ear.

Recently I made some great double-fried french fries for a cookout. A guest went on and on about how good they were. He never got his fries to taste like that. I told him to double fry them and he looked a bit stunned. "You made these?" he said. "you cut them and everything?" Well duh! Why do think they were so good!

For the next few days, I got e-mails from "friends" outlining how bad potatoes were for one's diet. I got potato chip, french fries and just plain old baked potato warnings. Let me just say that if I have the choice of living to be a hundred without fries or living to eighty with a big bowl of cheese fries covered in bacon and ranch dressing... no contest...but I digress.

Back to Pig.

So I decided to share a recipe featuring pork AND potatoes. And not just pork but Virginia Ham, with a salt content that blows the USDA standards right out of the water. Here is Villas' take on such a dish.

"Scalloped potatoes with lots of butter and cheese have been a staple in Southern homes for centuries, but only in Virginia have I encountered the dish made with the state's incomparable country-cured ham -- simply called "Virginia ham" in the Old Dominion. Do remember that you need to use dry russet potatoes for any gratin, and if the potatoes seem to be drying out after 35 or 40 minutes, just add a little whole milk, basting them slightly to produce a golden crust."

Old Dominion Scalloped Potatoes with Country Ham

4 medium russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 cup finely diced cooked country ham
1/2 cup chopped fresh chives
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1 cup half-and-half

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Butter a 1 1/2 to 2-quart gratin or baking dish and arrange alternate layers of overlapping potato slices and ham, sprinkling a few chives over each layer and seasoning with salt and pepper. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the cheese over the top, dot with the butter, pour the half-and-half over the top, and bake till the potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes, basting from time to time with the liquid. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and bake till golden brown, about 10 minutes longer.

3. Serve piping hot directly from the dish.

Ham and potatoes. I'm ready to meet my maker or my Maker's Mark, which ever comes first.
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