October 14, 1999
No one translates Italian food from the hearts and hands of Italian cooks to American kitchens better than Lynne Rossetto Kasper. That might be because of her Italian heritage, or it might be because she is alive to the Italian soul and its direct connection to preparing food. She's also a fabulously adaptive and instinctual cook.
I had the pleasure of traveling with her recently in a region she practically put on the map with her award-winning book The Splendid Table -- Emilia-Romagna, legendary for its Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and handmade pasta of unimaginable delicacy. We sampled an enormous number of dishes, and I got to see how Lynne's mind works: like that of a born cook and teacher.
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Previously in Corby's Table:
Countercultural Cooking -- September 15, 1999
Charmed by Chile -- August 18, 1999
Hail to the Chef -- July 15, 1999
Persian Appeal -- June 3, 1999
Help! My Child Is a Vegan! -- April 28, 1999
Seasons and Seasonings -- March 3, 1999
Seductions of Rice -- January 27, 1999
A Passion for Pastry -- December 17, 1998
Soup With Style -- November 11, 1998
Mangia, Mangia in the Mountains -- October 7, 1998
More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound
That skill is everywhere apparent in the new Italian Country Table, the
result of a number of years of travel throughout Italy and visits to kitchens
and farms to help preserve a way of life, and of cooking, that is vanishing far
too fast. The book is full of engaging stories told in Lynne's distinctive,
friendly, earthy voice (her spoken voice is a fabulously radiogenic one, as listeners to her
American Public Radio program, The Splendid Table, know).
-- Corby Kummer
Excerpts from The Italian Country Table, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Oven-Candied Summer Tomatoes
My friend Lois Lee claims having these tomatoes on hand is like having money in the bank. I often use them when sun-dried tomatoes are called for, because they are juicier and more luscious. Pieces of ripe summer tomatoes are slow-roasted with olive oil until their edges have a lacy golden crust and the tomatoes taste like candy. The tomatoes and their olive oil become a roasted tomato oil I can't resist putting on everything -- salads, bread, grilled fish, potatoes -- and into soups. Then again, the tomatoes together with their roasted oil are heavenly over pasta. Don't be afraid of the quantity of oil called for here. It is essential to the tomatoes' lavish flavors.
The idea for these tomatoes came from Sicilian writer Corrado Sofia, who in his memoir remembers how the women on his father's farm used to make them in the leftover heat of the bread oven after the loaves came out. That is why in this recipe you keep turning the oven down as the tomatoes bake, to recreate the effects of a gradually cooling bread oven.
Cook to Cook: Use only ripe, delicious summer tomatoes. Be sure to "ripen" the roasted tomatoes at room temperature for 4 to 6 hours before eating. Store them covered in the refrigerator up to 6 days. They freeze beautifully for 3 months -- and sometimes taste even better for it.
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Core the tomatoes and halve vertically. Do not seed. Leave small tomatoes in halves; cut slightly larger tomatoes into 4 wedges, medium ones into 6, and large into 8. In a half-sheet pan, or two 2 1/2-quart shallow metal baking pans (not glass or enameled metal), arrange the tomato wedges cut side-up, about 1/2 to 1 inch apart. Coat the tomatoes with the oil -- there should be enough to film the bottom of the pan(s) as well. Sprinkle with salt.
2. Bake 30 minutes, then lower the heat to 350°F and bake another 30 minutes. Turn the heat down to 300°F and bake 30 more minutes, or until the edges are slightly darkened. If the edges are not yet colored, turn the heat down to 250°F and bake another 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the tomatoes from the oven. Cool 20 minutes. Transfer them to a shallow glass or china dish and pour their oil over them. Let mellow uncovered at room temperature 4 to 6 hours.
3. Layer the tomatoes in a storage container, pouring in their oil, and refrigerate. Or freeze the tomatoes in their oil in sealed plastic containers up to 3 months.
4. To serve, drain off all the oil from the tomatoes, taste for seasoning, and offer at room temperature.
Grilled Chicken Pieces in Sicilian Mint Sauce
Chunks of chicken pick up the snap of vinegar-marinated onion, fresh mint, garlic and oregano. This old Sicilian dish, nearly a warm salad, seems like a modern idea. Long ago, Palermo fishermen grilled their catch and served it in this tart mint sauce. The technique spread inland, where cooks paired the sauce with chicken, especially grilled or sautéed breasts. Serve the chicken hot or at room temperature.
Cook to Cook: Tuna, swordfish or bass could replace the chicken. Cook the fish only until firm and opaque at its center.
Wine suggestion: A Sicilian white Etria Bianco or Bianco Alcamo, or Valcalepio Bianco Colle Della Luna by Monzio Compagnoni
1. Toss the chicken with the oil, lemon zest, oregano, and pepper. Marinate in the refrigerator 1 to 6 hours.
2. About 30 minutes before cooking, stir together the minced onion, garlic, sugar, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Let stand 20 minutes, then whisk in the oil.
3. About 15 minutes before serving, heat a heavy griddled skillet, a griddle, or a 12-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the chicken, sprinkling it with salt. Turn the pieces as they pick up color and immediately reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue cooking about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the chicken is barely firm when pressed; be sure there is no sign of raw meat. Transfer it to a serving platter.
4. Stir 3 tablespoons of the fresh mint into the sauce. Taste for seasoning. Spoon over chicken and serve hot or warm. Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of mint over the dish just before serving.
Spaghetti del Venerdi Sera
Tuna never tasted so good. Tossed with spaghetti in a sauce of crunchy onion, black olives, garlic and parsley, it's the essence of sound home cooking. In the hands of country cooks from Sicily to Veneto, these few ingredients from the cupboard turn into a magical meatless sauce for pasta in almost no time -- a Friday night dinner or quick supper after a movie.
Cook to Cook: A generous amount of pasta water plays three roles in sauce. A little added to the garlic sauté helps to finish cooking the garlic while protecting it from burning. A little more added later dilutes the tomato paste and anchovy mixture, actually turning the sauté into a sauce. Finally, once the tuna is in the pan, a few more tablespoons of pasta water assure that the sauce will cloak the spaghetti, not remain dried up on the bottom of the sauté pan.
Wine suggestion: A crisp white Frascati Superiore like Fontana Candida Santa Teresa, Conte Zandotti's, or Casale Marchese's
1. Chop the garlic, parsley, and salt in a food processor. Or mound the salt in a small pile near the edge of a cutting board. Crush the garlic into it with the side of a knife blade. Add the parsley and chop everything fine.
2. Drop the spaghetti into fiercely boiling water and cook until it's a little firmer than you'd like it. Quickly measure out about 1 1/4 cups of the pasta water and set aside. Drain the spaghetti in a colander.
3. As the pasta cooks, heat the oil in a 1 1/2-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. Stir in the garlic-parsley mixture and half the onion. Sauté until the onion is beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Don't brown the garlic. Blend in 1/4 cup of reserved pasta water and cook to nothing. Stir in the anchovies and tomato paste, along with about 1/3 cup of the reserved pasta water. Continue stirring over medium heat 1 minute. Blend in the tuna, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Cook another minute, adding a little pasta water if there's no moisture in the pan. Remove from the heat.
4. If the sauce has dried up, stir in enough pasta water to moisten the bottom of the pan. Toss in the drained pasta, the remaining red onion, the olives, and capers. Toss over medium heat a few minutes to thoroughly cloak the spaghetti with sauce. Taste for seasoning and serve hot. No cheese is needed for this dish.
True balsamic vinegar comes only from Modena and Reggio, two small neighboring provinces in northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. Only here have families been making balsamic vinegar in the attics of their homes for at least a thousand years. The best balsamic vinegars are always family-made. Liqueur-like and luscious enough to sip from a glass, artisan or family-made vinegar is a way of life for these people. You can't go to a special dinner, a wedding or just about any outing without someone sharing their homemade balsamico.
This chicken illustrates what I mean. Herbs and pancetta under the skin help it roast to bronze and crisp. Potatoes brown right along with the chicken, basted in its juices -- an example of the one-pan roasted dinner, done so easily by Italian farmwomen. But in the Modena and Reggio countryside, when the chicken is presented, and you, the honored guest, are helped to the best pieces, someone always leans over with a little decanter of old balsamico -- thick, lustrous and fragrant. Politely they'll ask, "May I" as though you'd ever say no. With no stinting, they pour their pride and joy, the result of decades of nurturing, over the chicken and potatoes. Few things in the world ever get to be this good.
If you don't have an artisan-made balsamic vinegar for the chicken, a good commercial one works well. Do try this dish -- it's one of those easy, one-pan dinners you'll make again and again.
Cook to Cook: Roasting pieces of meat and vegetables need plenty of room to brown. A large shallow pan like a half-sheet pan allows the pieces to be spread out, barely touching. Its low sides allow heat to surround the foods, aiding the slow caramelization that creates the flavors we love in roasted dishes. Using dried herbs with fresh ones is a trick to boost flavors.
Wine Suggestion: A Piemontese red Paitin Sori' Paitin Dolcetto d'Alba
1. If times allows, season the chicken ahead and refrigerate it several hours or overnight. Preheat the oven to 400°F when ready to cook the chicken. Mince together, by hand or in a food processor, the onion, garlic, herbs (dried ones could be in here too), and pancetta. Then blend in 2 teaspoons of the balsamico, the oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
2. Cut out the chicken's backbone and open the chicken out flat, skin side up. With your palm, firmly press down the breast area to flatten. Stuff most of the herb mixture under the skin of the thigh, leg, and breast areas. Rub the rest all over the chicken. Place the bird skin side up on a large shallow pan (a broiler pan or half-sheet pan). Scatter the potatoes around it and sprinkle everything with salt and pepper.
3. Roast 20 minutes, then pour in 1/2 cup wine. Roast another 70 minutes, or until the thigh reaches about 175°F on an instant-reading thermometer. Baste the potatoes and chicken frequently with the pan juices, turning the potatoes often to brown evenly and prevent them from sticking. Add more wine if pan is dry. Turn over the chicken two thirds of the way through cooking for even browning. If after an hour of roasting, the chicken isn't browning, raise the heat to 500°F to finish cooking. (Or wait until it is done and run it under the broiler 5 minutes to crisp the skin.)
4. Let the chicken rest 5 to 10 minutes at room temperature, then present on a warmed platter along with the potatoes, sprinkling everything with the rest of the balsamic. Garnish with bouquets of parsley or fresh thyme.
I practically reeled at my first taste of Puglia's little oval tomatoes. Once I broke through the tough skin, the tomato tasted so lavish it could have been a sauce -- brilliant flashes of sweet and tart with bursts of ripe fruit in each bite. I was at a farm stand in southern Puglia. The woman there explained that these tomatoes are cut in late summer and hung on their branches in pantries or outdoors under shady porches, where they shrivel slightly but do not dry. They are used just like fresh tomatoes all though Puglia's mild winter, when garden tomatoes are not to be had. And there's no work to them -- no canning, no expensive jars and no tedious drying in fitful weather. This is the genius of country women who can't afford to waste time, yet find ways of having the best from their gardens all through the year.
Even the tomato's seed packets call them "Pomodori d'Inverno" (tomatoes of winter), and though it's hard to imagine, their flavors become even more intense as they hang from late summer until the following spring.
Most of the tomatoes treated this way are shaped like small eggs with pointed blossom ends. Dora Ricci, who cooks in the restaurant she and her husband run outside the country town of Ceglie Messapico, gave me my first taste of a wintered-over red tomato -- it was even punchier and more luscious than the fresh one I'd tasted the year before. Across Puglia, in the pottery town of Grottaglia, Elizabetta Del Monoco introduced me to green tomatoes treated the same way -- cut while still green on the branch and hung all winter. They don't turn red, but instead go from tasting simply like green tomatoes to tasting of lemon and herbs and black pepper -- more complex and interesting.
Puglia's farmers don't hold the patent on this method of holding tomatoes through winter. People all over Italy do it.
Cooking with these tomatoes is even easier than with fresh -- the intense flavor is already in place. Dora Ricci cooks them quickly in a hot skillet to sauce pasta and meats. Elisabetta Del Monaco dices her green winter tomatoes and barely cooks them before dressing her Green Tomato Sauce for Midsummer's Eve. Country women all over Italy season broths, stews and pot roasts with a few winter tomatoes. Best of all is squeezing out the flesh and juice of a winter tomato onto a slice of bread that's been toasted over a wood fire, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil. This is pure heaven. I do it in my fireplace at home.
Hang your own fresh tomatoes through the winter. You need a dry, airy place that remains above freezing, ideally between 45° and 60°F. Delicious small tomatoes are the other requirement. Think about Red Currants, Sweet 100's, Sun Golds, Early Cascades or Principessa Borgheses. Cut the vines, being sure the tomatoes are firmly attached to stems. One trick is hanging them so plenty of air circulates around the tomatoes. Space them out on several nails rather than having them hang in a single tight bunch. Turn the branches twice a week to expose all the fruit for maximum exposure to the air. Twist off tomatoes as you need them. Usually they keep well from September or October until April or May.
Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Joy of Coffee.
More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound.
Copyright © 1999 by Corby Kummer.
Recipes and links from The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. Scribner: New York, New York, 1999. Hardcover, 410 pages. ISBN: 0684813254. $35. Copyright © by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.