I am split down the middle for Jamie's Italy. For a cookbook reader, Jamie Oliver's latest is everything one could hope for: beautiful photographs (one for nearly every recipe), transporting imagery, playful and passionate writing. But, for the cookbook user, the recipes I'd actually want to cook are few and far between. Out of 120 recipes, there are only 28 that I would actually want to make. Some recipes are really so simple you can't call them recipes and others go down roads I just don't want to travel, such as rabbit or pasta with sardines.
I didn't hold out much hope for the recipes I finally did choose. Nothing felt truly inspired and I thought I might have an embarrassing evening, since we invited our friend Laurie (Not Her Real Name... she and I share a... um... well... an obsession) to dinner... Boy, was I pleasantly surprised.
- Crostini (Squashed Cannellini Beans with Garlic & Tomatoes and Olives)
- Pasta e Ceci (Pasta with Chickpeas)
- Insalata di Farro con Vedure al Forno (Farro Salad with Roasted Vegetables)
- Costolette di Maiale con Salvia (Pork Chops with Sage)
- Bustrengo (Bolognese Polenta and Apple Cake)
- Risotto ai Finocchi con Ricotta e Peperoncino (Fennel Risotto with Ricotta and Dried Chili)
Crostini was one of the recipes that I just felt was "filler" in the book. And he devotes several pages to both crostini and bruschette. I mean, who doesn't know how to chop up a couple of cherry tomatoes and some olives, add some oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and throw it on a slice of toasted ciabatta? But the thing is, I rarely do it. In fact, never. And why not? It was so damn good and so damn easy, I should be doing this all the time. And that's where I think I get Jamie. He's teaching me about simplicity, something that I always resist because I think I am such a foodie. Why do I think that something must be complicated to be spectacular?
I served another crostini: mashed cannellini beans with some fried garlic and then drizzled with rosemary bashed in a mortar with olive oil and salt. Again, super simple, but what a combination. Earthy, aromatic, and rustic. This was just a sign of things to come.
I love pasta and bean soups. The Mayor and I used to go to Lanza's nearly every Friday night when we lived in the East Village. It was our favorite neighborhood Italian, the kinda place you see in movies and say, "I wish we had a local like that." We even thought about having our wedding reception there... Anyway, after 9:00pm, they offered a "Late Night Pasta Dinner" that included an appetizer, pasta main course and dessert for under ten bucks, and we were regulars. We'd take visiting friends and relatives there just to show off. The appetizer we always chose was the White Bean and Escarole soup. It was especially welcome after the twenty minute walk through blustry New York winter streets.
Jamie listed several pasta and bean soups and I chose Pasta e Ceci (Pasta with Chickpeas), which is really more of a pasta than a soup, but delicious all the same. Again, completely simple and utilizing canned beans and broth (I am not such a foodie that I believe in making my own stock), the result was totally satisfying and comforting. Sitting in Venice Beach, I was just momentarily wistful for Lanza's.
I chose Insalata di Farro con Vedure al Forno (Farro Salad with Roasted Vegetables) because Jamie wrote it was his favorite salad. Unfortunately, I could not find authentic farro, but he listed bulgar wheat as an acceptable substitute. The biggest surprise here for me were the roasted vegetables. He instructed to splash vinegar on the vegetables as soon as you remove them from the oven. I was completely surprised by the flavor and couldn't stop eating them straight off the sheet pan. Again, we're talking simplicity: roasted vegetables, salt, pepper, oil and vinegar. And I am eating them like Skittles. The roasted vegetables are tossed with the cooked farro and the result was lovely. The farro was flecked with colored vegetables like confetti -- and mine looked identical to the photograph in the book. I love it when that happens.
The main course I chose was Costolette di Maiale con Salvia (Pork Chops with Sage). The potatoes are diced and parboiled, then tossed into a roasting pan with pancetta, oil, salt and pepper and put into the oven. The chops are stuffed with a proscuitto, dried apricot and sage butter and then seared on both sides and then plopped on top of the potatoes to finish cooking. Spectacular. There is just nothing better than potatoes cooked in pig fat. And the chops were beautiful, oozing with the flavored butter. And I appreciated the small attention to detail, placing sage leaves on each side of the chops. It was really elegant.
Jamie is woefully light on the dessert section. He does recommend drizzling vanilla ice cream with olive oil and sea salt. I wasn't comfortable springing that on our guest, so I settled on Bustrengo (Bolognese Polenta and Apple Cake). It wasn't spectacular and not something I would make again, but it wasn't an embarrassment either. My only major complaint was the batter filled two 11" tart pans, instead of just one... I didn't need two of these laying about the house.
The last recipe, Risotto ai Finocchi con Ricotta e Peperoncino (Fennel Risotto with Ricotta and Dried Chili), was tested by The Mayor himself. I had to work late so he broke out the pots. What a treat to walk into the Bungalow and be hit with a waft of risotto. I walked straight to the Aga and started eating it out of the pot with a wooden spoon. I could not have been happier. When I got up in the morning, The Mayor called out from bed, "Taste the risotto!" It was still just as good, even though cold and thick from a night in the fridge. And, I think I see some arancini in this risotto's future (Mayor: hint hint).
So, where does this leave me with Jamie's Italy? The recipes I tested were outstanding. They were simple, easy, quick and full of flavor. But there are so many recipes here that I would not try, mainly because they just are not my taste (I hate that I limit myself -- I want to like squid and pheasant... I just can't do it). I have a feeling, though, that if I liked rabbit, I'd love Jamie's versions. For a cookbook reader, it is a wonderful book to add to the collection. Jamie writes like he talks and is obviously very passionate about food and cooking. So, with all of that under consideration, I am recommending the book: highly to cookbook readers, highly to those with tastes for rabbits and sardines, and moderately to the rest. I have full confidence that nearly every recipe will work beautifully and set your taste buds exploding.
Also, the companion television show, Jamie's Great Italian Escape, shown on the Travel Channel is well-worth watching. He seems to be such a nice guy it breaks my heart.
Risotto ai Finocchi con Ricotta e Peperoncino
Fennel Risotto with Ricotta and Dried Chili
Excerpted from Jamie's Italy
by Jamie Oliver
*I did not reprint Jamie's wonderful recipe instructions due to copyright issues, since his writing style is so distinct. Suffice it to say that cookbook readers will have a ball reading his delightful instructions.*
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
Extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
2 bulbs of fennel, finely sliced, herby tops reserved
Sea salt & pepper
1 risotto bianco (recipe follows below)
2 small dried chilies (we used red pepper flakes)
4 tablespoons good crumbly ricotta (we used goat's cheese -- Jamie wrote it was an acceptable substitute)
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Parmesan cheese, for grating
Grind fennel seeds with a mortar and pestle. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and fry the garlic until soft, and then add the ground fennel seeds and the sliced fennel. Season with salt and pepper and turn the heat down to medium-low. Cover with a lid and cook slowly for about 20 minutes, until the fennel is soft.
Start the risotto bianco and continue through the recipe until the rice is half-cooked. Halfway through Stage 3, stir in the fennel, then continue to cook the risotto until the rice is cooked.
Grind the dried chilies in a mortar and pestle until fine. At Stage 4, when you add the butter and Parmesan, add the crumbled ricotta and lemon zest. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding as much lemon juice as you like.
Serve with fennel tops and ground chili sprinkled over risotto, then top with grated Parmesan.
2 pints stock (chicken, fish or vegetable, as appropriate)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 a head of celery, trimmed and finely chopped
2 cups risotto (Arborio) rice
2 wineglasses of dry white vermouth or dry white wine
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 tablespoons butter
4 oz. freshly grated Parmesan
Stage 1: Heat the stock in a saucepan. In a separate pan, heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter, then add the onion, garlic, and celery and cook over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes without browning. When the vegetables have softened, add the rice and turn up the heat.
Stage 2: Keep stirring the rice until translucent. Add the vermouth or wine and keep stirring.
Stage 3: Once the vermouth or wine has cooked into the rice, add a ladle of hot stock and a pinch of salt. Turn the heat down to a simmer. Continue adding ladles of stock, one at a time, allowing liquid to be absorbed before adding the next ladleful. This will take about 15 minutes. Taste the rice to see if it is cooked. If not, continue to add more stock until the rice is soft but with a slight bite. Season with salt and pepper.
Stage 4: Remove risotto from heat and add butter and Parmesan, stirring well. Cover and let sit for 2 minutes. Serve immediately.