While we are content to measure our summer vacations in single day increments (Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day), Italians prefer to measure their holidays in months. Particularly in the summer, when everyone in Italy seems to be on the beach, craggy rocks and sunbathing crowds be damned. The rest of us are left to flip through Recipes From an Italian Summer beneath fluorescent lighting, a sea of strawberry risotto and seafood linguine on our cluttered-desk horizon. Actually, it's a pretty fantastic view.
The cookbook, from the editors behind The Silver Spoon cookbook, is comprised of a glorious 400+ pages of recipes for picnics, barbecues, light suppers and summer entertaining (with the chapters thus organized, along with chapters on salads, desserts and ice cream/beverages). It's a compilation of dishes from popular Italian vacation regions -- the beaches of Sicily and Sardinia, the rolling Tuscan countryside. The point, we are told in the introduction, is to cook "according to the different ways we like to eat in the summer." Or perhaps dream of eating in the summer.
The dishes are simple yet glorious in that Italian way (meaning without good ingredients -- first press olive oil, farmers market greens, real Parmigiano-Reggiano, there's little point in making many of the recipes). And you need to truly love the art of cooking to really get into this book. Or just dig the idea of spending a little extra time to make two omelets for that frittata "cake" (between which you'll sandwich an eggplant-red pepper filling) and finding pesticide-free sunflowers for your summer salad (the yellow petals are sprinkled over baby lettuce and thinly sliced raw mushrooms and dressed in a simple vinaigrette).
You'll also find cold pastas for picnics (spaghetti with tuna and chives, farfalle with red bell peppers, eggplant and pine nuts) and interesting dishes for summer entertaining (speck and apple cream crostini, zucchini flower soup). The desserts are simple and focus on summer fruit (blueberry rice pudding, peach aspic).
Do note that in typical Italian fashion, many things are left to the imagination, so if you're an uptight cook (um, we mean prefer detailed recipes), this book might not be for you. There are no precise quantities for ingredients that vary in size greatly, such as eggplant (two whole, rather than two cups, is simply what you need for the minted eggplant salad). Or say, how to slice a tomato for those baked tomatoes stuffed with zucchini and mozzarella. The recipe instructs: "thinly slice the tomatoes without cutting all the way through" (Which direction? We went with horizontal, as it seemed logical). The tomatoes need to hold together so you can slip thin slices of zucchini and mozzarella between the slices before baking (with a sprinkle of garlic, parsley and olive oil).
And you know, it worked -- and tasted -- just great. Particularly paired with this melon and arugula salad and a glass of good Italian Pinot Grigio.
Melon balls with arugula (Palline di melone con rucola)
From: Recipes for an Italian Summer.
Note: We used a small cantaloupe, and didn't bother to scoop out balls, We let the flesh curl as we scooped it out, as it seemed the Italian vacationer thing to do. If you don't have white pepper on hand, freshly ground black pepper works well, too.
1 small melon
¾ cup of shredded arugula
¼ cup of olive oil
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2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1. Halve the melon and remove and discard the seeds. Using a melon baller, scoop out small balls from the melon flesh. Put them into a large bowl and add the arugula.
2. Whisk together the olive oil and vinegar in a small bowl and season with salt and pepper. Pour the dressing over the salad, stir gently, and serve.