Lidia Bastianich's third children's book explains farm to table

“Nonna Tell Me a Story: Lidia’s Egg-Citing Farm Adventure,” Lidia Bastianich’s third book for children, is a grandmother’s tale of how food gets to the table.

A field trip to a poultry farm is prompted when one young character in the book describes chicken as the “pink squishy stuff” in the supermarket case.

“Children do not know enough about food,” said the best-selling cookbook author and PBS cooking star at a book launch at Lidia’s Pittsburgh. “We are led by big industry.”

No such spin existed for her growing up on a farm in Istria in what was then Tito’s Yugoslavia. She left Istria for a refugee’s life in Trieste, Italy, and came to the United States two years later.

She knew intimately how food got to the table.

“I grew up feeding chickens, rabbits and goats kept in the courtyard of my grandmother’s house and helping to cook.

“I decided I’m going to get these childhood memories down, so my grandchildren will have something that will take them to the source of food. Knowing these things they’ll feed themselves better and be aware of how we are going to feed the world.”

Owner of restaurants including the New York Times 4-starred Del Posto, and the Bastianich vineyards and Eataly, Ms. Bastianich is off to Milan this summer to represent the United States at Expo Milano 2015, where global delegates will tackle strategies for feeding the planet in the future.

She hopes, when you’ve read the book to your kids, you will say, “You know the story, so now let’s get in the kitchen and cook.”

Hard-boiled types may tire of the story’s egg puns. They’re for kids. But chances are eggcellent that the beautifully crafted recipes -- only 14, all featuring chicken or eggs -- are going to become part of your repertoire.

This is a book for families cooking together — with ways for kids to help -- but not really meant to teach kids to cook solo.

If you want to live up to the book, you will need organic chicken and eggs, preferably the orange-yolked eggs from hens pecking outside, plus staples: pasta, potatoes, onions, fresh parsley, dried oregano, grating cheese and bacon.

Half the recipes are fast ways with eggs. These are for hungry people of any age, at any hour, wanting something delicious in 20 minutes. Besides the families targeted in the book, this might be Nonna herself, single people, starving teenagers, and late-night partiers who need a satisfying nosh.

Classic Spaghetti alla Carbonara is sauteed onions and bacon whirled into spaghetti, with a couple of egg yolks and some pasta-cooking water. The heat of the pasta transforms eggs and water into a velvety sauce. Stir in a cup of Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano and a teaspoon of pepper and, voila, you have dinner for six. Fried Eggs and Potatoes is just as fast, with canny tips on spud-cutting and pan-shaking, so potatoes come out hot and crispy and the eggs soft. For Oregano and Eggs, break eggs into olive oil in a cold skillet, topped with a good shake of oregano, “preferably Sicilian oregano on the branch,” shower with grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, cover and slide into the oven till gently set. With a chunk of broiler-scorched toast to dip into those soft yolks, what else could anyone need.

Among the more substantial dishes is a fourth-generation family favorite that Ms. Bastianich credits to her mom, Erminia Matticchio. The author describes My Mother’s Chicken and Potatoes as “chicken and potatoes fried together in a big skillet so they are crisp and moist at the same time.” She says she and her brother grew up “clamoring for it every week,” as did her kids and as their kids do now.

The rosemary-fragrant dish adds up to more than the description suggests and not just because she adds special touches. But these are genius. She nestles crisped little bacon rolls and pickled cherry peppers nestled among the chicken pieces: “The bacon fat slowly renders and lends the meat a layer of flavor that’s picked up by the potatoes and onions, too. By the end of cooking, the rolls have turned into crisp morsels that are a treat to eat with the juicy chicken and tender potatoes. But be sure to remove all the toothpicks!”

It is the longest recipe in the book, not from ingredients or complicated steps, but from loving instructions. You feel as if you have Erminia at one elbow and Lidia at the other. God is in the details, as you’ll find, minding cues as you go to turn, stir, cover, uncover, adjust heat. Making it the second time, I doubt you’ll need the road map. Readers may have seen the recipe before when it did a star turn in “Lidia’s Italy.”

Another serve-from-the-pot temptation is Traditional Rice and Chicken” or Pollo e Riso alla Pitocca. It is essentially a buttery, oven-baked risotto — no stirring required, studded with caramelized nuggets of chicken. The alla pitocca part means “poor man’s style,” which it isn’t. With a vinegary salad and a bottle of light red wine, this relaxed risotto would be fine fare for a multi-generation family or a party with the neighbors.

A book for children must nail dessert. “Ricotta Cookies” does that. These are fat hillocks singing with lemon zest and a light lemon glaze. Ricotta gives them a texture both tender and substantial — as if Italian grandmother had taken a firm hand to a snickerdoodle. I nominate them for cookie of the year.

My Mother’s Chicken and Potatoes (Pollo e Patate alla Nonna Erminia)

My prediction: You won’t get away with making this just once. Your family will clamor for it as Lidia’s does. The only trick is having a big enough pan. I halved the recipe and used a 10-inch cast-iron skillet. You will need a 13-incher to accommodate all the ingredients or use 2 large skillets, the heavier the better.

For the basic recipe:

2½ pounds chicken legs, bone-in (I used chicken thighs)

1/2 cup canola oil

1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste, divided

1 pound red potatoes, preferably no bigger than 2-inches across

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or more

2 medium onions, peeled and quartered lengthwise

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

For my Special Touches (try either or both):

6 ounces bacon

2 pickled cherry peppers, sweet or hot, cut in half and seeded

Rinse the chicken pieces and pat dry with paper towels. Trim off excess skin and all visible fat. Cut the drumsticks from the thighs. If using breast halves, cut into 2 small pieces.

Make the bacon roll-ups: cut the bacon slices in half crosswise and roll each strip into a neat, tight cylinder. Stick a toothpick through the roll to secure it; cut or break the toothpick so only a tiny bit sticks out (allowing the bacon to roll around and cook evenly).

Pour the canola oil into the skillet and set over high heat. Sprinkle the chicken with 1/4 teaspoon salt on all sides. When the oil is very hot, lay the pieces skin side down, an inch or so apart -- watch out for oil spatters. Don't crowd the chicken: if necessary fry it in batches, similar pieces (like drumsticks) together.

Drop the bacon rolls into the oil around the chicken, turning and shifting them often. Let the chicken fry in place for several minutes to brown on the underside, then turn and continue frying until they're golden brown on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes or more. Fry breast pieces only for 5 minutes or so, taking them out of the oil as soon as they are golden. Let the bacon rolls cook and get lightly crisp, but not dark. Adjust the heat to maintain steady sizzling and coloring; remove the crisped chicken pieces with tongs to a bowl.

Meanwhile, rinse and dry the potatoes; slice each one through the middle on the axis that gives the largest cut surface, then toss them with the olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

When all the chicken and bacon is cooked and out of the skillet, pour off the frying oil. Return the skillet to medium heat and put in all the potatoes cut side down in a single layer into the hot pan. With a spatula, scrape all the olive oil out of the mixing bowl into the skillet; drizzle over a bit more oil if the pan seems dry. Fry and crisp the potatoes for about 4 minutes to form a crust, then move them around the pan, still cut side down, until they're all brown and crisp, 7 minutes or more. Turn them over and fry another 2 minutes to cook and crisp on their rounded skin sides.

Cooking everything together:

Still over medium heat, toss the onion wedges and rosemary branches around the pan, in with the potatoes. If using cherry peppers (either hot or sweet), cut the seeded halves into 1/2-inch wide pieces and scatter them in the pan too.

Return the chicken pieces -- except breast pieces -- to the pan, along with the bacon rolls; pour in any chicken juices that have accumulated. Raise the heat slightly, and carefully turn and tumble the chicken, potatoes, onion (and bacon and /or pepper pieces), so they're heating and getting coated with pan juices, but take care not to break the potato pieces. Spread everything out in the pan -- potatoes on the bottom as much as possible to keep crisping up -- and put on the cover.

Lower the heat to medium and cook for about 7 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, then uncover and tumble the pieces and potatoes (and bacon rolls) again. Cover and cook another 7 minutes or so, adding the breast pieces at this point. And give everything another tumble. Now cook covered for 10 minutes more.

Remove the cover, turn the pieces again and cook in the open skillet for about 10 minutes to evaporate the moisture and caramelize everything. Taste a bit of potato (or chicken) for salt and sprinkle on more as needed. Turn the pieces now and then. When they are all glistening and golden, and the potatoes are cooked through, remove the skillet from the stove and -- as I do at home -- bring it right to the table. Serve portions of chicken and potatoes, or let people help themselves.

Serves 4. 

-- “Nonna Tell Me A Story: Lidia’s Egg-citing Farm Adventure” by Lidia Bastianich (Running Press, 2014, $16.95)

Spaghetti with Egg, Onion and Bacon (Spaghetti alla Carbonara)

PG tested

The recipe works beautifully, but be sure to have your ingredients chopped, grated and set out within easy reach, because things come together fast. You will need a 12-inch skillet to prepare the whole recipe and a 9- or 10-inch for half.

Kosher salt

1 pound spaghetti

6 ounces bacon, chopped

Extra-virgin olive oil, if needed

1 small onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

2 large egg yolks

1/3 cup parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. When the sauce made in the steps below is about halfway cooked (about 6 to 7 minutes), drop the spaghetti into the boiling pasta water and stir.

Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until the fat has mostly rendered, about 4 to 5 minutes. (If your bacon is very lean, you can add a drizzle of oil to help start the rendering of the fat.) Push the bacon to one side of the pan, and add the onion. Let both cook separately until the onion is tender, about 8 minutes, then mix the 2 back together. (If you like, you can drain off the excess bacon fat here and replace it with oil.) Ladle 2 cups pasta water into the skillet with the bacon and onion, bring to a rapid boil and quickly reduce the sauce.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks with 1/4 cup hot pasta water in a small bowl. When the sauce has reduced by about half and the spaghetti is al dente, scoop the pasta into the sauce with tongs or a spider. Add the chopped parsley, pepper, and salt to taste. Toss the pasta until it is coated in the sauce. 4. Remove the pan from the fire, and quickly mix in the egg yolks and water mixture, stirring until creamy. Toss the pasta with the grated cheese and serve immediately.

Kids can: Whisk eggs with parsley, pepper, and salt; wash and chop parsley; and grate and toss the cheese.

Serves 6.

-- “Nonna Tell Me A Story: Lidia’s Egg-citing Farm Adventure” by Lidia Bastianich (Running Press, 2014, $16.95)

Ricotta Cookies (Biscotti di Ricotta)

Lemon zest and ricotta gives these simple glazed cookies a delightful spin. With fresh berries or sorbet they are a memorable ending for any meal.

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

Pinch kosher salt

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 large eggs

8 ounces fresh ricotta, drained

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Zest of 1/2 lemon


2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Zest of other 1/2 lemon, plus 1/4 cup lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl, and set aside.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Cream the sugar and butter in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium, and crack in the eggs one at a time, beating well between additions. Add the ricotta, vanilla and lemon zest, and beat to combine. Add the flour mixture, and beat on low until just combined, but do not overmix.

Drop the dough in heaping rounded tablespoons onto the baking sheets. Place in the oven, and bake, rotating pans halfway through the baking time (about 9 to 10 minutes), until the cookies are puffed, golden and cooked all the way through, about 18 to 20 minutes total. Remove from the oven and cool on wire racks.

When the cookies are completely cool, make the glaze. In a bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, lemon juice, and zest to make a smooth glaze. Adjust the consistency with a little water or more powdered sugar to make the glaze thick enough to stick to the cookies when dipped. Hold each cookie with 2 fingers, then dip the top of the cookies in the glaze and let dry on the racks until all are done.

Makes about 3½ dozen.

-- “Nonna Tell Me A Story: Lidia’s Egg-citing Farm Adventure” by Lidia Bastianich (Running Press, 2014, $16.95)

Virginia Phillips:


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