There are some days when I am looking for a cookbook and other days when a cookbook finds me, so to speak. I am usually very deliberate in what I am looking for, keeping my kind of notorious amazon wish list perpetually up to date with what I am interested in, from new books to books I’ve come across at cookbooker or by amazon itself recommending it to me.
But as we know there’s thousands of cookbooks that come out each year, dozens and dozens of chefs and general areas of interest, and winnowing these down to the essentials isn’t always easy. Thinking to yourself, “Hey, I really like Italian food” is a good start, for instance, but then you will find there are seemingly endless books on Italian food, especially since there are so many variations on dishes, so many regions and dishes to begin with, that it is easy to get overwhelmed and even baffled by some of these books. They also – with the best will in the world – naturally assume that if you are going to cook Italian food, you’re going to do it the good old fashioned Italian way, which by and large is the best way; this includes making your own pasta, as it is supposed to be easy.
What if, though, you barely have enough kitchen space for a toaster and a cutting board, let alone enough space to make pasta (water, flour, egg, a place to roll it out, some way of drying it, the machine, oh the machine…)? Chefs tend to think you should just make the space or naturally have it anyway, just as they assume that you have the time to make the mess, make the pasta, clean it up, and then cook. This may be easy in a restaurant kitchen, but at home, it nears impossibility.
One chef who understands this is Andrew Carmellini, whose book Urban Italian I found just a couple of weeks ago, by accident. He spent half a year cooking at home, working on his recipes, as he waited for his restaurant to be opened; he makes his pasta in a machine (the much-longed for if quite heavy KitchenAid). With all due respect to those who make it by hand, he hasn’t got the time; he also did all the shopping for those six months, admitting that he had forgotten just how time-consuming and stressful it is to go out, forage, buy and then schlep everything home, hands and feet tired from the long journey.
Unlike some chefs, who are a bit presumptuous or lofty (naming no names, I’m sure you know who I mean), Carmellini is on the would-be cook’s side, is practically there with you as you cook, not tut-tutting but encouraging. His life has been, since his teens, all about restaurant work, but those six months at home taught him how difficult cooking at home can be. (He had a propensity to set off the fire alarm, for instance.) I have made two main courses from his book so far – Ziti with Tuna, Red Onions and Cannellini Beans and Tagliatelle with Herbs, Caprino and Marinated Tomatoes – each a hit, each quite doable in a modest kitchen. There are other recipes I look forward to making (Rigatoni Pugliese, Penne with Bacon, Radicchio, and Piave Cheese) and others, well, not so much (I avoid anything that calls for tripe, veal, swordfish or sardines). It is Carmellini’s voice and experience that are the real stars of this book; the recipes simply come out of those, are truly Italian and truly urban. I would rather have this book than The Silver Spoon, the encyclopaedic national cookbook of Italy which may well be comprehensive but doesn’t have that empathy that I find is necessary in any real cookbook – that the writer/chef is on your side, is trying to help you as best s/he can. I was lucky to find this book, one written by a man who, given his credentials, could have been haughty and faux-friendly, but he isn’t; he’s the real thing, a chef who knows what that tiny kitchen at home is really like.
And now, I hope Mr. Carmellini doesn't mind my paraphrasing one of his recipes!
Tagliatelle with Herbs, Caprino and Marinated Tomatoes
This recipe has a lot of ingredients, but doesn't require a lot of skills or space if you do things neatly and in order.
First, get some water for your pasta and salt it; bring it to the boil slowly (Carmellini's home stove is gas, mine is electric, so slow's a given for me) as you cut a bunch of cherry tomatoes (a cup for two, two cups for more) in half. Then get some shallots-one if you're just cooking for two, if more, two then - and mince them. (They will make your eyes water if you cry cutting onions, by the way.) Get a bowl and put the tomatoes and shallots together with I teaspoon of both balsamic and red wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons of olive oil and some salt and pepper (tiny amounts, 1/4 teaspoon). Also add in some nice fresh chopped up parsely, enough so that it mixes in well and is visible (about as much as the oil). Obviously you can adjust everything for the number of people you're serving; beware, this is a dish that doesn't keep well, so make only as much as you need. Right!
In a saucepan, combine a quarter cup each of milk and cream (I used single cream) and a half cup of chicken stock (or if you're vegan/vegetarian, vegetable stock) and blend away. Add the cup goat cheese (caprino is a soft goat cheese) and turn up the heat, until it blends all nicely together. Add some fresh thyme leaves, some fresh rosemary chopped up, salt and pepper. By now your water should be boiling and the tagliatelle can go in. While it's in the pot, grate some Parmesean (1/4 cup but really as much as you like) and chop/tear up as much basil. Cook and drain the pasta, putting it in the goat cheese sauce directly, then stir in the cheese and basil, mixing it all up. Serve hot in hot bowls (always heat serving dishes!) and put the marinated tomatoes on top, with a bit more cheese if you have the time. Sharp and glorious, tricolore and zingy. Good Eats!