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.
Willinger’s “sweet and sour chicken bites,” a recipe from a chef in a southern Tuscan village, also focuses on a very few direct flavors—here rosemary and sage, the two resinous herbs that power many Tuscan dishes, particularly bean dishes—and turns them into a greater whole. The bite-size honey-and-vinegar-glazed nuggets of boned chicken thigh, skewered with toothpicks, make terrific party food. Or, like the soup, they can be the basis for dinner for a few days (the recipe is easily doubled). They go well with, say, vegetable stir-fries, and would also be a good main course served over not-so-Tuscan rice: you’ll be reminded of teriyaki, although they’re made without a drop of soy sauce or its sometime surrogate, balsamic vinegar (and with very little salt).
For a substantial hors d’oeuvre for four to six people or as a main course for two, cut four boneless, skinless chicken thighs into one-inch pieces. (It’s quick and easy to bone thighs yourself.) Mince together one garlic clove, smashed and peeled; a teaspoon each of chopped fresh rosemary and sage leaves; and a half teaspoon each of fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Coat the chicken pieces with the dry rub, cover, and leave them in the refrigerator to marinate for at least two hours or overnight. When you’re ready to cook, make the glaze by stirring together two tablespoons of mild honey with a quarter cup of white-wine vinegar. (I had red, and it turned the pieces an appealing mahogany color.) Melt the honey into the vinegar either in a small saucepan over a low flame, or in a covered bowl for a minute in the microwave.
In a medium nonstick skillet, heat two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil over a medium-high flame and sauté the chicken pieces, stirring to brown them lightly and evenly. Add two tablespoons of dry white wine and continue sautéeing until the wine evaporates. Then add the honey-vinegar mixture, turn up the heat, and keep the pieces moving until the mixture forms a thick, shiny glaze that coats each one without burning at the bottom of the pan. The mixture will start to thicken after 10 minutes, and the dish should be finished after another five—you want each piece cooked through. The hot little nuggets are chewy and irresistible.
The Companion’s longest entry on nuts is devoted to walnuts, which Riley describes as “an object of veneration for centuries, associated with the revelries and cults held around the summer solstice.” Italian Jews have a knack for flourless walnut tortes, which show off one of the country’s finest, though least recognized, products (hazelnuts get the attention) and are ideal for Passover as well as for the increasing number of people who avoid eating wheat flour. The area south of Naples grows exceptional walnuts that can redefine your idea of how they should taste.
The best torte I know, torta del re (“king’s torte”), comes from Edda Servi Machlin’s Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, one of my favorite cookbooks and a record of the vanished culture of the once largely Jewish village of Pitigliano, in the hills of southern Tuscany. Like most tortes, that truly regal cake requires lengthy beatings of egg yolks and whites; many also call for nut flour, which is hard to find. Willinger’s recipe, from a cook and innkeeper named Lucia Botte, who lives in the walnut-growing region of Basilicata, uses plain chopped nuts and egg whites (sugar is the third main ingredient). I had to try the recipe as soon as I read it, for the same reason Willinger insisted on watching Botte make the torte: it starts with a technique I’d never seen, cooking whites over a flame with sugar. This is tricky, though less so if you start with very low heat; I had to make the recipe twice before recognizing its virtues. The cake is low and not as delicate as more-laborious tortes. It’s as much a nut bread as a cake, and very good with tea. Fresh walnuts are essential for its pleasantly soft and light texture. You can substitute any nicely fresh and soft nuts; pecans would be excellent.
To make the torte, which will serve six to eight, heat the oven to 350˚ F and place a rack in the middle. Line the bottom of an eight-inch springform pan with a piece of baking parchment or wax paper cut to fit; lightly oil the paper and the sides of the pan. Measure two cups of fresh whole walnuts and chop them. The recipe says “coarse.” How coarse? Finer than bagged chopped walnuts: a bit smaller than Rice Krispies—or, to use a Passover analogy, the size for haroset, the walnut-and-sweet-wine “mortar” whose arrival is a high point of every seder.
In a small saucepan over very low heat, stir together three egg whites and one-third cup sugar with a wooden spoon. If you keep the heat very low, the whites won’t start to coagulate into long strands, as they do in stracciatella, egg-drop soup (and as they did on my first try). Instead, the mixture will slowly become an off-white slush; after about eight minutes, it will begin to pull away from the bottom of the pan as you stir. After 10 to at most 15 minutes, it will resemble loose cream of wheat or grits. When all the whites are opaque, turn the mixture into a two-quart bowl and stir in the chopped nuts. The whites will just coat them and will have the texture of spackle. In another bowl, which should be clean and dry, whip three more egg whites with a good pinch of salt until they mound and form soft peaks. Watch them carefully as soon as the beater starts to leave swirling tracks; don’t overbeat, or the mixture will begin to break like a melting glacier. The peaks should be firm but not pert.
Mix half a cup of the beaten egg whites into the nut mixture and then use a spatula to carefully fold in the rest in two or three additions. The batter won’t be light and airy, but it will spread easily in the baking pan. Sprinkle it evenly with two tablespoons of sugar and bake for an hour, until a toothpick or a fine knife comes out clean and the top is a light golden brown. Let cool.
Because the torte is barely sweet, it needs dressing up with whipped cream and fruit—ideally, the season’s first strawberries, albeit trucked in from someplace warm. The veil of crunchy sugar and the soft nut pieces, sweet on their own, make it very easy to nibble. Unlike the almost endlessly extendable lentil soup, this won’t last for days.