Illustration by Sylvia Hofflund
|A FLOURLESS WALNUT TORTE with only three ingredients
That Italian food is simple will come as no surprise. That it is, at its heart, friendly and willing to forgive many errors might explain its popularity among both cooks and diners. An Italian recipe will elicit praise even after minimal but sincere effort—like a faltering attempt to speak the language, which natives usually greet with “How did you learn to speak such good Italian?” (The French response will, of course, be in English.) Hence my eager anticipation last year of Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, by Faith Heller Willinger, and of a scholarly work years in the making: The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, by the longtime food historian Gillian Riley, a magisterial (recipe-less) book that anyone even mildly interested in the subject must own.
Unlike the Companion, which en-courages you to read entry after entry for the pleasure of learning marvelous oddments about the obscure and the familiar, Adventures is a distillation of its author’s big, exuberant personality. An American expat, Willinger has lived in Florence for more than 30 years, all of them devoted to Italian food and the people who make it. She is now forager in chief for American food luminaries from Mario Batali to Alice Waters, who call her before they visit Italy to find out which restaurants and artisanal producers they must not miss. Her wry subtitle, With Recipes From 254 of My Very Best Friends, is hardly an exaggeration: she is ceaselessly generous to her friends (I am lucky to be one), and thus they to her.
Charmingly illustrated with watercolors by the author’s sister, Suzanne, Adventures is less a cookbook than a collection of sketches of chefs, winemakers, and innkeepers, all of whom you would be well advised to visit. Housebound, I turned to it for a few recipes to tide me through the winter, and found several as friendly and forgiving as the author. Two immediately became staples, and a third, not quite so forgiving—a very unusual cake with only three main ingredients—will fulfill my and many another frustrated cook’s quest for a new Passover dessert.
Recipes you use all the time adjust to what you have on hand: as Tuscans say, Che c’e c’e, meaning “What we’ve got is what there is.” A good illustration is Willinger’s recipe for lentil soup, which requires very little time, start to finish, and takes advantage of lentils’ adaptability. Alone among pulses, lentils need no advance soaking or long boiling—just rinsing and 45 minutes of cooking, after which they achieve the pleasing floury texture they keep even after reheating. The current fashion among cooks is lentilles de Puy, which the French have promoted as the caviar of lentils. Italy has its own prized lentils. They don’t have a fancy name, just a place famous for them: the “uplands of Umbria,” Riley’s entry says, which grow “small fragrant” lentils (you can order some from www.gustiamo.com).
The soup can be made in an hour and gets better as days go by as it keeps absorbing its few potent flavors—especially that of good olive oil, which somehow turns into a fragrance as well as a flavor. This is appropriate, given that the recipe comes from the olive-oil consultant Maurizio Castelli, who has helped improve the quality of several Tuscan oils (the kind actually from Tuscany, as opposed to the many that are only bottled there) and has overseen the production at McEvoy Ranch, in northern California (see “Domestic Reserves,” January/February 2006).
For a soup that can serve four to six (or two for a week if it’s replenished with water, stock, or chopped-up leftovers), heat a quarter cup of the best olive oil you have in a heavy-bottomed two-quart pot. Over medium-high heat, sauté one large carrot, one large celery stalk, one medium red onion, and one medium leek, all finely diced (the soup won’t be pureed), and two garlic cloves smashed with the flat of a knife and minced with a sprinkling of coarse salt. (If you can’t find a leek, use a second red onion.) Stir with a wooden spoon until the vegetables soften, about seven minutes; they should just begin to brown. Add one cup of rinsed lentils, five cups of water, and a teaspoon of salt (Willinger likes sea salt from Sicily). Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, partially covered, for about 45 minutes, skimming off any scum that rises. Taste for salt, grind in some pepper, and let the soup rest, covered, for at least 20 minutes before serving.
A thread of fresh olive oil added just before serving, Riley points out, “gives a hot dish … a last-minute charge of flavour as the heat releases the aromas.” Willinger recommends it, too, along with some minced uncooked leek. But the soup is a pure demonstration of Tuscan simplicity and of the Tuscan love of beans and oil, and it can do without any garnish.