Cookbook Review: Ciao Italia Slow and Easy
Italian Slow Cooked Meats, Seafood, Pasta and Vegetables
There's slow food and then there's slow cooking.
Slow Food is a relatively recent movement launched to counteract "fast food, fast life, the disappearance of local food, and people's dwindling interesting the food they eat…." (from Slow Food.com).
Slow cooking, however, has been with us for centuries, especially in Italy and France. The term generally refers to one pot meals that take more time to cook than to prepare the ingredients, making them the satisfying opposite of 30-minute meals -- ones that we savor both in the cooking and in the eating.
In her new book, Ciao Italia Slow and Easy (St. Martin's Press, $27.95, hardcover, with color photographs), Mary Ann Esposito brings us 88 recipes -- stews, braises, casseroles, lasagnas, baked pastas, bread puddings, all vegetable gratin-like baked dishes -- that make Italian slow cooking a poster child for the Slow Food movement.
Ms. Esposito is the creator and host of Ciao Italia, the longest-running cooking show on PBS. For 18 years she has been bringing Italian home cooking into American homes. Despite this tenure, she remains warm, authentic, and passionately dedicated to making Italian regional cuisines available and accessible to home cooks here. Her program is cozy, patient, and appetizing -- as if she were a friend who invites you into her home to cook with her but instead you step back to watch, listen and learn. (In the New York area, Ciao Italia is seen on WLIW-TV, Channel 21.)
You can hear Mary Ann Esposito talk about her new cookbook and Italian slow cooking in The City Cook's Media & Podcast section.
A Primer on Methods, Flavors and Ingredients
This is Ms. Esposito's tenth cookbook and her experience brings together methods and flavors with clear and practical explanations. Instead of trying to constantly parse the differences between stews, braises, and other long-cooked methods, she uses the word casserole as an umbrella term for foods cooking in a single pan for a long period of time either on top of the stove or in the oven.
Nearly every recipe features a dominant ingredient -- seafood, meat, poultry, pasta, vegetables or fruit -- and many, although not all, have a fix-it-and-forget-it method. Others require more process and maintenance, and a few are assembly-intensive masterpieces, as with her Timballos.
Throughout the book there are practical tips and useful information. Showing Ms. Esposito's appreciation of what a home cook really experiences (and has angst about), the advice shows up just as you need it. There's a primer on Italian cheeses, primarialy ones that are easy for us to buy here; notes on buying, storing and cooking with herbs and spices; and a really helpful list of the time it takes to successfully braise different cuts of meat and poultry.
The book is attractive (with a photo of a pan-cooked lasagna on the cover that may prompt you to buy it even without reading a single recipe), easy to read, and has a center section of color photographs that demonstrate final results, assembly and presentation.
I really appreciate that most of this book makes the case for cooking with easily available ingredients that are not expensive. I confess to loving exotic and esoteric Italian ingredients, like bottarga (pressed fish roe from Sardinia) and guanciale (bacon-like cured pig jowls) but these ingredients are hard to find, even in New York. And they're costly. Ms. Esposito instead gives us great flavors and variety using far more quotidian ingredients like fresh vegetables, chicken (although she makes a strong case for buying organic poultry), inexpensive cuts of beef, and dry pasta. She even tells us when it's smart to make selective use of canned and frozen ingredients, like frozen artichoke hearts and canned clams.
A number of the recipes have a southern Italian bent, not surprising given Ms. Esposito's Sicilian roots. But she cooks all of Italy and knows the entire regional (and sub-regional) Italian canon. There are homey dishes, well-known classics like osso buco and Chicken Tetrazzini, and a tour de force called Timballo di Maccarun that will remind you of Stanley Tucci in "Big Night."
The Art of the Well-Prepared Casserole: This is a really useful 4-page introduction that teaches the language, technique, principles and tools of slow cooking, all of which would apply to dishes from almost any cuisine. These tips will let you make a better Coq au Vin as much as a Tuscan stew.
Catch of the Day: Most are made with fresh fish and seafood such as Classic Fish Stew from Livorno, Mixed Fish Casserole with Cracker Topping, and Lobster and Shrimp Casserole with Fennel; but there's also a pantry-friendly Stuffed Tomatoes with Tuna and Potatoes made with canned tuna that will easily work for a week-night supper.
Meat: This 20-recipe chapter gets serious with braising technique and offers versions made with flank steak, lamb, rabbit, beef short ribs, veal and ham. Some are perfect for using leftovers from a holiday baked ham, like the Ham and Broccoli Casserole in White Sauce, others are reasonably quick to make as the Pork Sausage with Potatoes and Zucchini, while others, like the Sunday Night Beef Short Ribs with Rigatoni are a satisfying 2-hour journey.
Pasta: Ms. Esposito gives us some familiar baked pastas, such as lasagnas, plus some unexpected flavor combinations and methods of cooking. I was intrigued by her Skillet Lasagne with Artichokes and Cheese that's done entirely on top of the stove. Several are combos of pasta, cheese and vegetables (Rigatoni with Broccoli Rabe, Eggplant and Bucatini) and some are virtuoso dishes, including the fabled "timballos" or molded pasta cassaroles.
Poultry: This section is mostly about chicken, including classics like Chicken Marengo, but there's one with duck (Duck with Olives, Herbs and Mushrooms) and another with turkey (Stuffed and Rolled Turkey Breast). Some of these are kid friendly (not too spicy) and others down-right fast, including her Crusty and Cheesy Chicken Casserole made with a store-bought rotisserie chicken.
Common Sauces: Handy and classic ways to make white, cheese, and tomato sauces that are referred to throughout the book.
Vegetable: This may be my favorite chapter, with 18 recipes -- artichoke and potato, stuffed red peppers, spinach and potato, vegetable stew, and a hearty cabbage casserole from the Val d'Aosta. Most are made with cheese or other dairy ingredients. The recipes move through the seasons of the garden: a Zucchini and Tomato Casserole will be perfect at the end of next summer when these vegetables are at their peak, a Mixed Bell Pepper Casserole for early fall, and a Spinach and Potato Casserole, made with yogurt, that can be a year-round side dish.
Tutte Frutte: This is the most unexpected chapter, with 8 recipes that use slow cooking methods to bring out flavors in fresh and dried fruit. There are budinos, or puddings, including an Apple Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce, another that is a sweet and savory combination of dried figs with fennel, onions and wine, and bread puddings made with the Italian sweet yeast bread called Panettone that is easy to find during the Christmas holidays but also available in many NYC Italian markets year-round.
Maybe this is the winter when we can turn away from warp speed cooking to instead let time and slow heat turn simple ingredients into big flavors. If so, this is a delicious book that can help us achieve both slow food and slow cooking.