July 23, 2011
The premise of this book is a focus on what Reusing, an award-winning chef at Lantern in Chapel Hill, cooks at home for herself and her family, including recipes she’s borrowed or adapted from others. In this way, readers benefit from her culinary mind and training, without stumbling through the difficulty or inscrutability of a book that attempts to translate restaurant recipes for the home kitchen.
The result is inventive and inspiring food that you can make without a lot of fuss (there are more elaborate recipes if you want those too), recipes that take the familiar and make it unexpected, like cherries pickled with rice vinegar and ginger, which are an excellent homemade addition to a cheese or charcuterie plate. The spicy melon salad with peanuts and mint is a far cry from a traditional summer fruit salad, yet the initial bracing hit of fish sauce is tempered by that familiar melon-y sweetness. Asparagus with a pan-sauce of soy sauce, butter, and water (which gets topped with a poached egg) is indicative of how Reusing’s culinary training and thoughtfulness create a transformative dish with just a few basic ingredients and techniques.
The book is not a comprehensive survey of a subject or a technique-driven guide, so it’s not necessarily a “must-have.” If, like me, you are always (futilely) questing to keep your cookbook library pared down, this might be one to borrow from the library rather than purchase. However, it will be hard to resist, given the abundance of smart recipes, lovely photos, and thoughtful personal essays by Reusing. There’s a fresh, clean, bright quality to the design and the photography that really captures the simple but profound surprises of Reusing’s recipes.
July 20, 2011
There are so many fine cookbooks out there that inspire and instruct us on Italian cookery, whether delving into a regional specialty or providing modern, restaurant-style twists and updates. Yet, this cookbook is unique in its ability to use recipes, photos, and stories to forge a deep sense of connection in its readers to the women in the narrative and to the regional food of Italy. Although Cooking with Italian Grandmothers is not a comprehensive guide, there’s something compelling in Jessica Theroux’s personal, idiosyncratic choices. In short, I don’t know that I’ve encountered a cookbook that has ever moved me like this one did.
The basic premise is that we have something to learn from our grandmothers, that paying attention to our elders can help preserve food traditions. Admittedly, there’s a personal resonance here—when my Sicilian grandmother passed away, one of her recipes, for a micro-regional pizza from Modica called scacce or socaccia, became a source of family contention. No one had learned to make this beautiful dish, with its layers of delicate, oily dough flecked with tomato sauce and a cheese called cacio cavallo. Each December after her passing, my brother and I would insist that we try to recreate the dish from some (rather cryptic) notes in my grandmother’s hand. Each year, my mom would resist, perhaps fearing that our attempts would fail, serving as yet another reminder of my mother’s loss.
I bring up this personal anecdote because as much as the book is a celebration of these women and the vibrancy of their family and micro-regional dishes, there’s also an underlying sense of fragility—both in the literal mortality of some of the women we encounter, like the nonagenarian Armida, and in the cultural and environmental threats to their foodways.
Even if you are no sentimentalist, the recipes alone, for anyone who loves to discover regional Italian cooking, are excellent. Favorites include the bread and kale soup, the minestrone di verdura con pesto, and the boldly seasoned tuna steaks with coriander and fennel. Even simple tweaks to classic preparations are instructive—like adding some minced chile pepper to a tomato-bread salad, the mild heat of which wakes up the flavors of the other ingredients, or making a quick pan-sauce for pasta with both fresh tomatoes and sun-dried ones, the latter deepening the tomato-y essence.
My one complaint is that Theroux’s prose is sometimes lackluster, and the text can be typo-laden—a bit more editorial guidance would have served the book well. However, this is a minor quibble compared to the book’s value: a cookbook that shows the multifaceted nature of a country often relegated to confining clichés like “sun-drenched charm.” Although the notion of “Italian grandmothers” might conjure up benevolent nonnas churning out pasta in the kitchen (and, ok, many of them do make beautiful pastas), this is a diverse, intriguing group of women (and one man): strong, vulnerable, foul-mouthed, intellectual—who graciously share with us their stories and recipes and whose worlds Theroux enters with openness and respect.