This week’s TBT Cookbook Review is timely. Summer has begun and now the flow of veggies and fruits is soaring towards its peak — later this month or perhaps in July. You may not be a fan of veggies but if there was ever a time to try, it is this summer peak. The richness of flavor is especially important. Those tomatoes you buy in February? Not the same as June and July and August. So give veggies a chance and do that with a superior cookbook from the brilliant Michele Scicolone.
Michele Scicolone’s newest book, The Italian Vegetable Cookbook, came out in March. I haven’t blogged it until now for good reason. I want my veggies farm fresh and local. Do you remember last March? If your farmers market was open, it was only because they had shoved a tunnel through the snow.
No, now people are mowing their grass. Within a week, all the farmers markets will be open. So now, now is the time to pick, to buy, and to exploit the treasures of Michele’s latest book. Michele’s first book was in 1987: a slim volume of 83 steak and fish recipes. She progressed, writing for example 1000 Italian Recipes. Along her journey approaching 20 books, she ganged up with folks for the two Sopranos cookbooks. Do you have a slow cooker? She has three books that can keep you going, slowly, for a decade.
Ask yourself a simple question: what’s the hardest topic to select for a mass market cookbook. The Mt. Everest of foods. Well, we know that it is easy to write about cocktails or chocolate or barbeque. But vegetables? That’s hard, yet that has what Michele has triumphantly tackled in The Italian Vegetable Cookbook.
What is it about vegetables? My opinion? It’s how they taste. Now, wait, don’t begin to rage at me for that comment. Remember, I blogged the book Taste here recently and there is real, hard science about how we sense food: taste, smell, and feel [texture]. Our ability to taste food changes through life, so, yes, that picky kid of yours may grow up liking veggies. Or they may not. People vary substantially in how many taste buds they have. For some of us sensitive types, veggies are not automatically pleasant.
I have to note Michele is one of these people who talk about sweet tomatoes and sweet carrots. I know that if you hooked electrodes up to my tongue and fed me a “sweet carrot” that not one of my sweetness taste buds would fire. For me, at least, vegetables are monotone. I bite into a carrot and I taste carrot. I chew a carrot and I taste carrot. I swallow and I still taste carrot. There is none of that wine-tasting complexity here: bouquet, body, forward, middle palate, aftertaste, …
So, for most people the flavor of a vegetable — carrot, onion, cauliflower, tomato — is uniform, from bite to swallow. That’s not to call them boring, but it can be a challenge then to render them interesting. Genetically, we seem to relish taste complexity.
Michele knows how to generate interest. Her family comes from Naples and she grew up in an Italian-American kitchen where tradition with mixed with the bounty of a new country. Michele’s husband Charles is Sicilian and will win any debate with you about the premier site for Italian food — although he does acknowledge the occasional Greek and Norman and Arab conquests that just might have affected the menu.
With those family backgrounds, decades of travel to Italy and cookbook writing and teaching, there simply is no one else who could tackle vegetables from the Italian perspective. Michele has gathered recipes, some just with vegetables and some using them as key ingredients, and created a series of chapters with ideas that you’ll enjoy reading and delight in tasting.
Here are the major chapters with some representative recipes. You’ll see that Michele addresses that “monotone” flavor issue by including recipes that do have the complete flavor spectrum of, say, a great wine. In these dishes, there is a forward flavor, main notes, and that aftertaste everyone craves. The aftertaste is always satisfying.
Antipasti: Minted Sweet-and-Sour Eggplant [with sugar and vinegar, a heritage of that Arab rule]; Stuffed Cremini Mushrooms [from her mom]; Stuffed Zucchini flowers [mozzarella and anchovies]
Crostini, Panini and Pizza: Avocado and Bottarga [fish roe] crostini; Spicy Onion Marmalade Crostini; Eggplant and Roasted Pepper Panini with Caper Mayonnaise
Soups: Cold Cucumber Cream with Tomato Salsa; Ribollita [Tuscan Bread and Vegetable Soup]
Risotto, Farro, Legumes, and Polenta: Spring Risotto with Asparagus, Peas and Fontina; Farro, Zucchini and Sun-Dried Tomato Salad
Pasta: Green Fettuccine with Spring Vegetable Ragu, Spaghetti with Artichokes, Peas and Eggs, Whole Wheat Linguine with Kale and Chickpeas, Penne with Butternut Squash and Bacon
Sauces, Pestos and Condiments: Fresh Tomato-Butter Sauce, Uncooked Tomato Sauce, Pistachio-Parsley Pesto
Main Dishes: Sweet Pea Frittata with Scallions and Ham, Pasta-Stuffed Peppers [anchovies and capers and olives!]
Side Dishes: Baked Balsamic Butternut Squash, Roasted Cauliflower with Raisins and Capers, Creamy Fennel Gratin, Tomato Mashed Potatoes
Salads: Peach, Tomato and Burrata; Arugula, Fig, and Pecorino with Honey, Warm Potato Salad with Bacon and Tomatoes
Cookies, Cakes, and Tarts: Hazelnut Cake with Chocolate-Espresso Sauce, Apricot and Mascarpone Tart
Fruits, Spoon Desserts, Ices and Ice Creams: Honey Roasted Plums, Peach Cremolata, Olive Oil Gelato
There are 200+ recipes in The Italian Vegetable Cookbook and you can see how, on just a first pass, you can compile quite a list of “gotta try this” ideas. Not only are the flavors intense here, they are diverse and the complexity of the recipes varies to meet your lifestyle demands. That Cold Cucumber Cream soup can be knocked off in seconds [well, 5 minutes]. But the Ribollita is something you can lovingly spend hours on — it can devour every awaiting veggie in your garden!
No Scicolone book could ignore pasta dishes and there are 33 of them here, all graceful combinations of pasta with veggies. Suzen and I are true friends of Charles and Michele and I remember the time we were eating a banquet at her home and I asked her about dessert.
“I’m not really much of a dessert person,” she said to me. Straight face, no eye twitching. I think she believed herself. Michele wrote La Dolce Vita, 170 dessert recipes with enough sugar to eliminate a herd of diabetics.
I did not challenge her that night about her dessert perspective. I just waited for the next book because all her books have sweet endings. In this vegetable volume she provides two, not one but two, dessert chapters. Baked goods and frozen delicacies. You can choose or, better, you can pick one from each chapter.
Cooking wonderful veggie dishes should not be a burden for you, one of those climbs to the top of Mt. Everest. You don’t need Sherpa guides, or oxygen tanks or a base camp high in the clouds. What you need is The Italian Vegetable Cookbook.