Lidia Bastianich's new cookbook is full of common sense


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With so many new ingredients and techniques being thrown at home cooks from all directions -- what do you mean you haven't yet embraced quinoa or tried your hand at sous vide cooking-- it can be easy to forget that cooking is supposed to nourish the soul as much as the body.

Which is why I love Lidia.

The New York City restaurateur-turned-PBS cooking show star and best-selling author is a calming, reassuring voice in the kitchen. Down-to-earth but still extremely passionate about the foods she and la famiglia grew up cooking and eating, Ms. Bastianich is the Italian nonna we wish we had. You don't want to just eat her recipes, you want her to pull up a chair, pour a glass of pinot bianco and enjoy them with you.

If you were lucky enough to snag a table at her restaurant in the Strip District last Thursday at a special dinner promoting (and featuring recipes from) her latest cookbook, chances are she did cozy up with you, if just for a moment. She loves nothing more than to connect with her fans, and feeds off their energy.

"If people don't love [what I'm doing] and respond to it, it means nothing," she says, waving her hands as Italians are wont to do for emphasis.

"Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cookbook" (Knopf, Oct. 2013, $35) is the fourth cookbook she has written with her daughter, Tanya. Geared to home cooks who favor quick and easy dishes, it features 150 recipes that she's accumulated over her 40-year career and cooks in her Long Island kitchen. That's right -- she really does prepare meals as often as she can for her 93-year-old mother, Erminia, who lives with her, as well as her two children and five grandchildren.

"Every Saturday and Sunday when I'm home," she says. "Lentil and chicken soup before I left for Pittsburgh."

With so much on her plate -- in addition to four restaurants in Manhattan and another in Kansas City, she's a partner at Eataly, an insanely busy artisanal food and wine marketplace in New York City -- you have to wonder how she found time for another cookbook. (It took about two years, with Tanya doing much of the research.) Actually, the better question might be, Why write one at all?

"I hear all the time, "I can't cook," explains Ms. Bastianich, who was born in Istria (present-day Croatia) and moved to Italy at a young age. "But everyone can cook something."

Too many cookbooks, she continues, "imprison" their readers by insisting they follow recipes to a T. And that can be intimidating, not to mention frustrating for people who aren't as well-versed as they'd like in the culinary arts.

This latest tome does anything but. Meant more as a guide than an exact set of instructions, it puts readers in the driver's seat by encouraging them to trust their instincts and be creative.

She also stresses the importance of cooking for your family's senses and tastes (you want them to eat, after all) and gives her fans permission to cook, without guilt, with simple ingredients already in their pantry.

Don't buy into the craze for kale? Go ahead and substitute spinach or Swiss chard. Not feeling anchovies, which she considers an "umami" ingredient? Leave them out. Nothing but dry spaghetti on your shelf? It will taste so good tossed with butter, olive oil and rosemary.

"My recipes are not written in stone," she writes in the introduction. "They will be better if you adapt them to your own tastes (and your family's table, of course). Don't be afraid to make substitutions. Don't be afraid to add or subtract. . . . Never be afraid of trying or doing anything in the kitchen."

Picking that first dish to try is deliciously difficult: In a five-minute train ride from Downtown to the North Shore, I tagged at least a half-dozen recipes. Heeding Ms. Bastianich's advice to cook to the season, which right now includes apples, winter squashes, pork roasts and "anything with raisins," I started with the very lovely Grandma Rosa's Apple Cake, made with Granny Smith apples. My family also very much enjoyed an exquisite Butternut Squash and Ricotta Tart that's included in today's story by Arlene Burnett on make-ahead Thanksgiving recipes.

Sprinkled throughout the beautifully photographed pages are cooking and serving tips and little bits of kitchen wisdom that Ms. Bastianich has picked up over the years. She calls them her "accumulation of sensibility" and says she hopes they'll help free readers to have fun and also feel empowered.

"It's about telling you, 'Relax! Use your common sense. You have plenty of it.' "

Join us for a Google+ Hangout On Air with Lidia Bastianich at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 18. Get details at google.com/+parademagazine.

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PEPPERS PIEDMONTESE

There's a first time for everything -- in my case, anchovies. Never thought that would happen but this simple recipe just sounded good. And it was. The salty anchovies (they dissolve when you cook them) bring out the smoky flavors of the peppers without dominating them.

Serve with thinly sliced salami, cheese and crusty bread as part of an antipasto platter or toss with pasta. Also delicious on top of a burger.

6 yellow or red bell peppers

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

8 anchovies, chopped

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Char the peppers as they are -- whole and unclean -- on the stove flame on all sides (or under a broiler). Immediately put the charred peppers in a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let steam until cool. Peel charred skin from peppers, remove stems and seeds and cut into 1-inch-thick strips.

To a large skillet, over medium heat, add olive oil. When oil is hot, add garlic. Once garlic begins to sizzle, add anchovies. Saute until anchovies fall apart and dissolve into the oil. Stir together garlic, anchovies and grilled pepper strips, and season with salt. Sprinkle with some parsley and toss 3 to 4 minutes, so the peppers absorb the garlic-and-anchovy flavor. Serve peppers warm or at room temperature as part of an antipasto plate.

Serves 6.

---- "Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking" by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, Oct. 16, 2013, $35)

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MAFALDE FLORENTINE STYLE

Raisins don't necessarily come to mind when you think of pasta, but they work in this dish, the roots of which Lidia Bastianich ascribes to a famous Italian artist. "Once, during my many years researching Italian recipes, I found a spinach dish that was attributed to Michelangelo," she writes in her new book, "Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking." "It contained raisins and pignoli along with braised spinach. It seemed natural for me to build upon those basic pedigree ingredients."

If you can't find malfalde, a flat ribboned noodle, use pappardella (my favorite) or fettucine.

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the pot

1/4 cup golden raisins

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup pine nuts

5-ounce bag fresh spinach, chopped

1 pound malfalde or fettucine

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

1½ cups drained fresh ricotta

1/2 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Regiano

Bring large pot of salted water to a boil for pasta. Soak raisins in hot water to cover for 10 minutes, then drain.

In large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add pine nuts and cook, stirring, until toasted, about 2 minutes. Add spinach and season with salt. Once spinach is in skillet, start cooking the pasta.

Let spinach cook until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes, then ladle in 1 cup pasta water and add raisins and nutmeg. Simmer until pasta is ready. Once pasta is almost done, stir ricotta into the sauce over low heat. Remove pasta with tongs, and add directly to sauce, adding a little more pasta water if the pasta seems dry. Remove skillet from heat, stir in grated cheese and serve.

Serves 6.

-- "Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking" by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, Oct. 16, 2013, $35)

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GRANDMA ROSA'S APPLE CAKE

I usually go for chocolate when it comes to dessert, but this easy-to-make apple cake fit the season perfectly. I used tart Granny Smith apples but Golden Delicious or Honeycrisp would work beautifully, too.

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan

3/4 cup white sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon baking powder

Pinch kosher salt

Zest of 1 lemon, grated

3 baking apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (I used Granny Smith)

2 tablespoons light-brown sugar

1/2 cup coarsely chopped nuts (I used pecans)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8- or 9-inch springform pan

In electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and white sugar until pale and light, about 1 minute. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until light and fluffy, another minute or two. Beat in vanilla.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Pour dry ingredients into mixer with the lemon zest, and mix until just combined. In medium bowl, toss together apples, brown sugar and nuts. Scrape batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and then sprinkle with the apple mixture.

Bake until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the cake, about 35 to 40 minutes. (My cake took 45 minutes.) Let cool on a rack, then unmold and cut into wedges. Serves 8.

---- "Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking" by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Alfred A. Knopf, Oct. 16, 2013, $35)


Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

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