The most popular cookbooks, and the ones prominently displayed in book stores, usually come from celebrity chefs or nationally acclaimed restaurants. But if you ask many of those chefs about their favorite meals, and the ones that inspired them to cook in the first place, you hear about mothers, grandmothers, and the traditional meals of their native land. Cuisine, like language, evolves. The older bits become archaic, and in many cases, irrelevant. But while recipes by Giada De Laurentiis can be quite good, and indicative of modern lifestyle, there is also something diluted every time a home cook follows her recipe for, say, turkey Milanese.
That is why La Cucina, a rather hefty cookbook containing 2,000 recipes, and published in English only recently, is so important. To fully realize what it means to place that many recipes in one book, understand that it contains no pictures, recipes seldom take up no more than a few inches of space, and the whole thing clocks in at over 900 pages. It is as much a cookbook as it is a database -- a literal act of cultural preservation from The Italian Academy of Cuisine, which supposedly sent 7,000 associates across Italy, where they learned at the stoves of grandmothers and farmers alike. But none of that would be relevant if it weren't that the food turned out so consistently well.
The recipes are expressed with surprisingly simple directives, though they seem fitting too, as if told by an old Italian woman who gave three steps in one sentence, then left you on your own while she went outside to hang up the laundry. Some of the recipes are very familiar. The eggplant parmigiana from Campania still calls for fried eggplant, tomato sauce, and is finished in the oven -- though it feels very good to know that you're making it properly. Other dishes contain ingredients that are difficult, or even impossible to procure. Much as we enjoy the story of the battle between the Lombards and the Veronese which left hundreds of dead horses on the battlefield, we will probably never get around to making the horsemeat stew from Veneto.
The book's focus on regions is a big draw, particularly for Italian-Americans who want to get in touch with the specific foods of their family's region. But it's also a lot of fun to note the differences between the broccoli pastas from Siracusa (using caciocavallo and pecorino cheeses with ditalini pasta), Palermo, (containing raisins, saffron and pine nuts) and Puglia (calling for broccoli rabe, homemade pasta, toasted breadcrumbs, and salt-cured anchovies). It is also easier to navigate than expected, with 8 chapters, and the recipes indexed both by ingredient and region.
Ultimately, it is a cookbook that should be on the shelf of anyone who loves to cook, or even read about Italian food. We believe that one could easily devote their life to such a book, which would no doubt make them rather popular amongst their friends, family, and neighbors.
Sorbetto di Limone
Lemon Sorbet from Campania
For 8 Persons
Serve the sorbet in champagne flutes for an elegant presentation.
1 lb. lemons
1 1/2 cups sugar
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3 large egg whites, beaten until stiff (optional)
Remove the zest from 3 of the lemons and set aside. Squeeze the lemons and strain their juice. • Make a syrup by mixing the sugar and lemon zest with 3 cups water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. • When this cools strain it, then stir in the lemon juice. Pour it into a loaf pan. • Put this in the freezer, removing it to stir it from time to time to avoid the formation of ice crystals. • When it begins to solidify you can fold in the beaten egg whites to make it more frothy. Freeze until nearly solid, about 4 hours.
© from La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy, Rizzoli New York, 2009.
Noah Galuten can also be followed on Twitter via @ManBitesWorld.