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Lidia Bastianich gives a lesson in Italian cooking




Lidia Bastianich has written a dozen cookbooks since arriving in America more than 40 years ago, introducing at least two generations of Americans to the delights and intricacies of regional Italian cooking. 

Rather than simply dazzle like so many celebrity chefs, she keeps it simple. Ms. Bastianich’s persona on TV and in print has always been that of teacher, from how to choose the right ingredients, to the need to taste as you go to the importance of technique in certain recipes. In “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50), she offers aspiring cooks what she calls her “master class.”

Nearly 2 inches thick, the soups-to-nuts primer is a handsome companion piece to the third season of “Lidia’s Kitchen,” her 26-part series on PBS. Its 400-plus recipes run the gamut from appetizers, salads and sauces to pizza, pasta and seafood, and she also includes an extensive guide to the ingredients and techniques essential to Italian cooking. Near the end, there’s a 46-page glossary of words that tend to pop up in Italian kitchens.

She also includes some tasty insights to Italian culture (there’s a reason it’s called “wedding soup”) along with a handful of phrases that would come in handy at her ristorante in the Strip District, where on Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. she’ll feature some favorites at a dinner to promote the cookbook. Cost is $55 (plus tax and gratuity), with an optional Bastianich wine pairing for an additional $30. 

“This book provides the forum for me to collect everything I want to communicate to you in one place,” she writes in the foreword. “Here I have gathered my life’s memories, my philosophy, my passion, my art. These are the ingredients I love to cook with, and the cooking techniques I have learned and developed through my 40-plus years in the kitchen.”

Italian food at its best is simple, made with seasonal items. Many of Ms. Bastianich’s recipes require just a handful of ingredients, many of which are pantry-friendly. All you need for her tomato sauce, for instance, is olive oil, garlic, a can of Italian plum tomatoes, crushed red pepper and basil; for gnocchi, it’s simply potatoes, eggs, flour, salt and pepper. 

One dish that immediately caught my eye, and one that will be offered on Sunday at her restaurant, was her mother, Erminia’s, recipe for Chicken Thighs with Potatoes and Olives. Ms. Bastianich ate the dish often growing up, and when she became a mother, she served it to her kids, too. Salty, succulent, crispy and tender, it might be one of the best chicken dishes I’ve ever made. And it was easy to prepare, requiring only my large cast-iron skillet, a handful of ingredients and the resolve not to polish off the bottle of white wine used for cooking while the dish simmered oh-so-fragrantly on the stovetop, whetting my appetite. 

Previous incarnations of the dish called for bacon slices rolled into little bundles and pickled cherry peppers to imbue the dish with a mellow heat. The recipe in this book swaps that slow burn for the bite and brine of olives and tang of red wine vinegar.  

I also very much enjoyed her recipe for Mussels in Spicy Tomato Sauce, which was included in the chapter on appetizers but made a lovely dinner when paired with crusty Italian bread and a salad. 

With winter marathon-training season underway, I’m looking forward to trying the book’s many soups and pasta dishes and vow to perfect my risotto-making with her detailed instructions. (Stir, cook and stir some more.)  And the Chocolate-Hazelnut Cake, which involves an entire jar of Nutella, is on my menu for Valentine’s Day. 

Readers might lament the book’s lack of glossy pictures to tempt them (it’s illustrated with black-and-white drawings), but “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” would be a great addition to any kitchen library, for novices and seasoned cooks alike. 

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

 

Chicken Thighs with Potatoes and Olives

(Cosce di Pollo con Patate ed Olive)

PG tested

“This might be the best chicken you’ve ever made,” my husband told me after eating it, and his portion had been frozen and reheated. But it’s true. This poultry dish is absolutely terrific, fancy enough for a dinner party but also so simple that you can make it for the family midweek. 

12 medium chicken thighs

1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for seasoning

All-purpose flour for dredging

Vegetable oil for browning

2½ pounds medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1½-inch chunks

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

1½ cups pitted large green olives

4 sprigs fresh rosemary

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

½ cup dry white wine

Season chicken thighs with 1½ teaspoons salt. Spread flour on rimmed plate, and lightly dredge chicken thighs on all sides, tapping off excess. Heat large shallow Dutch oven or large skillet over medium-high heat with ½ inch vegetable oil. When oil is hot, add chicken, skin side down. Brown well on both sides, about 10 minutes, and remove to plate.

To same oil add potatoes. Brown them on all sides, about 10 minutes, and remove to plate with chicken. Dump out oil and wipe pot clean.

Return pot to medium-high heat and add olive oil. Add garlic. Once garlic begins to sizzle, add olives and rosemary. Once they are sizzling nicely in pot, let cook for 1 minute or 2 to bring flavors together, then add vinegar. Boil until vinegar has reduced away, then add back chicken and potatoes. Pour in wine, adjust heat to simmer and cover. Cook until chicken is almost tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Uncover and simmer rapidly, turning chicken occasionally, until it is tender and glazed in sauce, about 15 minutes. Remove garlic cloves and rosemary sprigs and serve hot.

Serves 6.

— “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50)

 

Mussels in Spicy Tomato Sauce

(Cozze al Pomodoro Piccant)

PG tested

I’ve been obsessed lately with mussels, and this recipe, which cooks them in a spicy tomato sauce, shines. Be sure to rinse and scrub mussels clean before using, discarding any that remain open after tapping or are chipped or broken. (Mussels must be alive when you cook them.) If there are any that don't open after cooking, toss those, too.

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

8 garlic cloves, sliced

28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed by hand 

½ teaspoon dried oregano, preferably on the branch

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon peperoncino flakes

3 pounds mussels, scrubbed, debearded and drained

10 large basil leaves, shredded

Heat 5 tablespoons olive oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add sliced garlic, and cook until garlic sizzles and is gold around the edges, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, rinse can out with ¼ cup water, and add to pot. Season with oregano, salt and peperoncino. Bring to boil, and simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Once sauce has thickened, add mussels, stir and adjust heat so sauce is simmering. Cover, and simmer until mussels open, about 5 minutes. Discard any that do not open.

Once mussels are open, stir in basil and drizzle with remaining tablespoon olive oil. Transfer to serving bowl, and pour juices over them. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50)

 

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Butter and Sage Sauce

(Gnocchi di Zucca)

PG tested

Nothing beats fresh pasta, and gnocchi (the Italian version of dumplings) are easier to make than you might think if you follow this simple rule: Once the potatoes have been cooked, peeled and riced, allow them to completely cool before adding the flour. If you don’t have a ricer, push the potatoes through a sieve or the holes of a colander.   

For gnocchi

1-pound chunk butternut squash

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium russet potatoes

½ cup freshly grated Grana Padano

1 large egg

1 teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1½ cups all-purpose flour, divided, plus more as needed

For sauce

1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter

10 fresh sage leaves

1 cup very hot water from cooking pot of pasta

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup freshly gated Grana Padano

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Scoop seeds from squash and place cut side up in pan. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool slightly.

When cool, scrape flesh from squash, set in cheesecloth and let hang or set in a strainer in refrigerator overnight to drain. You should have about ¾ cup squash.

Cook potatoes in medium saucepan with water to cover until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, let cool, then peel and press through a ricer into an even layer on sheet pan. You should have 2 cups potatoes. Pass drained squash through ricer as well.

In large bowl, combine squash, potatoes, cheese, egg, salt and nutmeg; mix until smooth. Sprinkle in 1¼ cups flour and mix to combine. Dump dough onto your work surface and knead until it comes together. If dough is still sticky, add remaining ¼ cup flour, and knead just until smooth. Do not overknead dough or gnocchi will be heavy.

Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment and sprinkle with flour. Working with 1 piece at a time, roll dough onto floured surface to ½-inch-thick rope. Cut rope crosswise into ¾-inch pieces. Working with 1 piece at a time, roll gnocchi along the back of fork tines dipped in flour, making ridges on 1 side and a dimple on the other. Transfer gnocchi to floured baking sheets. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bring large pot of salted water to boil. While water is heating, make sauce. Heat butter in large skillet over medium heat until melted and just foaming. Gently lay sage leaves in pan and heat until they crisp up, about 1 minute.

Ladle in 1 cup boiling pasta water, stir sauce and simmer for about 2 minutes, to reduce liquid by half. Grind black pepper directly into sauce.

Keep sauce hot over very low heat while you cook gnocchi. 

Cook gnocchi in two batches in boiling water, giving them just a couple of minutes more after they all float to surface. Remove with slotted spoon and transfer to awaiting sauce. Toss until well coated. Remove from heat and toss in the cheese just before serving.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50)







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