In the cookbook world, we are still tasting the residual effects of the recession. Books sold three years ago continue to trickle off printing presses, promising to bring us down home comfort. Of them, we've seen more than our share of DIY books like Canning for a New Generation and Home Made, and enough Italian cookbooks -- arguably the nonna of comfort food cooking -- to fill a Tuscan farmhouse. Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking, the latest on the Italian comfort food list, happens to be written by Pamela Sheldon Johns, a longstanding cooking instructor and cookbook author who lives on a farm in Tuscany.
As part of the greener pastures mantra, the Introduction includes a section titled "Cucina buona in tempi brutti" (Good food for hard times). Wild greens, fresh hearth-baked breads, homemade salumi. The sort of foods that are the topic of multi-generation family dinner table conversations today: As grandparents "remember when" pig ears were simply part of a poor-but-delicious everyday life, their great-grandchildren politely listen just long enough to be excused -- and shell out $15 for those same leftover porcine body parts at a celebrity chef's restaurant.
And so, as to be expected, "comforting" ribollitas (Tuscan bread soup) and bruschetta variations abound here. Stuffed squid, roasted chicken (here, with a Vin Santo sauce), ricotta cakes and biscotti of various pedigrees, too.
Which is to say, if you are already a seasoned Italo-phile, this book probably isn't for you. It is a small and compact cookbook, without the Italian food primer success of Recipes for an Italian Summer or The Glorious Pastas of Italy that appeal to multiple levels of Italian-inspired cooks. But Cucina Povera is still a pretty great pocket guide for the newly gaunciale (beef cheeks, here braised) curious. Of course, today, those beef cheeks and bone marrow aren't exactly budget ingredients.
Still, there are plenty of budget recipes, like in the "Pasta and Grains" chapter, a well-edited (only 11 recipes) introduction to Italian food for those still stuck in a jarred pasta sauce era. It focuses on accessible dried pastas and stone ground polenta, without dressing them up for the camera a la Giada De Laurentiis. This is simple, rustic Sunday supper fare like tagliatelle with a meaty homemade ragu sauce, baked pasta with béchamel-basil sauce, basic cornmeal polenta and a more traditional country chestnut version with sausage.
The sort of classic recipes, like this farro salad with chickpeas and salami, that we aspire to share with our friends who may not spend quite as much time at the stove as we do. You know, to introduce them to cucina buono.
Insalata di Farro (Farro Salad)
From: Cucina Povera by Pamela Sheldon Johns.
Note: Per the author: "This dish can be served warm as a winter side dish, or chilled for a summer salad."
2 cups whole-grain farro
3 tablespoons plus ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 green onions, including 1 inch of green parts, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 zucchini, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded, deveined, and diced
2 cups chicken stock (page 173), heated
1 cup canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 ounces spicy salame, diced
Grated zest and juice of ½ lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Romaine lettuce leaves for serving
1. Soak the farro in water to cover for at least 1 hour or overnight.
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2. In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the green onions, garlic, zucchini, and bell pepper and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil.
3. Drain the farro and add to the pan, cover, and decrease the heat to a simmer. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the farro is tender and the stock has been absorbed. Stir in the chickpeas and salame. Cover and set aside to keep warm.
4. In a small bowl, whisk the lemon zest, lemon juice, and the remaining ¼ cup olive oil together. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
5. Fluff the farro with a fork. Stir in the dressing. Serve warm or chilled, on lettuce leaves.