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What a year for cookbooks!
I struggled to whittle my favorites down to a list of just five books. My Best
of 2013 contains both eagerly awaited offerings and serendipitous discoveries.
In alphabetical order, I offer up my choices for the top five cookbooks of the
I Love New York: Ingredients and recipes by David Humm and Will Guidara. Ten Speed Press.
Ivan Ramen: Love, obsession, and recipes from
Toyko’s most unlikely noodle joint
by Ivan Orkin. Ten Speed Press.
Pizza: Seasonal recipes from Rome’s legendary
Pizzarium by Gabriele Bonci with
Elisia Menduni; translated by Natalie Danford. Rizzoli International
Roberta’s Cookbook by Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini
and Katherine Wheelock. Clarkson Potter/Publications.
Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian way by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant. W.W.
Norton & Company, Inc.
So, why did I pick these
In I Love New York, Humm and Guidara explore the idea of a regional New
York cuisine by showcasing the state’s farmers, fishermen, ranchers and craft
food purveyors. The authors organize their book alphabetically by ingredient
with each foodstuff section featuring a different New York State food artisan
and dishes built around the ingredient. Fabulous recipes beautifully presented
make this outstanding book from the chef and general manager of Eleven Madison
Park one of the best cookbooks of recent memory.
For years I searched for a
decent ramen recipe, especially information—any information—on making fresh ramen
noodles. Nothing! Then came David
Chang’s Momofuku , the first cookbook
I found that seriously explores the different components that make up a great bowl
of ramen. Now we have a worthy ramen-centric successor to Momofuku, Orkin’s Ivan Ramen.
Talk about an amazing (and, as the book’s subtitle states, unlikely) story:
New York-born kid travels to Japan and, long story short, opens up a wildly
successful ramen shop by applying his stateside-taught culinary skills to his
beloved Japanese noodle soup. And talk about generous! I now quote from page 96
of Ivan Ramen: “So this book includes
the entire recipe for Ivan Ramen shio ramen, exactly as it’s made at the shop
in Rokakoen.” What a rarity: a ramen chef that shares his techniques and secrets
with all! But perhaps the best part of Ivan
Ramen lies in Orkin’s story of loss and purpose. Orkin has penned a great read,
whether you love noodles or not.
What Ivan Ramen is to shio ramen, Pizza
by Gabriele Bonci is to Roman-style pizza. Here’s another example of a successful,
micro-focused chef sharing his beloved craft. Bonci classically trained as an Italian
chef, but decided to apply his cooking skills to his passion, baking. Bonci
makes Roman-style pizzas—think long, rectangular pies—that he slices up and
sells out of his tiny pizzeria in Rome. Although Neapolitan-style pizza needs a
very hot oven temperature that is difficult to approximate at home, Bonci’s
Roman-style pizza works great in a home oven set to 475°F. If you
buy Bonci’s book, make sure you watch Elizabeth Minchilli’s YouTube video
entitled Pizza Dough with Bonci – January 20, 2011 Rome (here). This
video makes the process of shaping Roman-style pizza clear and easy.
And speaking of pizza, the
folks behind Roberta’s in Brooklyn wanted to open a small pizza place, but they
had almost zero money and the same amount of restaurant experience. How can you
not love a book that contains the following sentence: “We arrived in the
northern Italian town of Fossano early on a summer afternoon, a journey we’d
made because we were about to open a pizzeria and—small detail—we’d never
actually made pizza before.” All’s well that ends well: Roberta’s the
restaurant succeeded beyond their wildest dreams and now we have the playful Roberta’s Cookbook. The book covers more
than just pizza; you’ll find an array of simple recipes—most feel Italian in
spirit—that focus on dishes that contain only a few carefully chosen
ingredients. Highly recommended.
Last, and by no means
least, I encourage everyone to buy Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant’s
outstanding Sauces & Shapes: Pasta
the Italian way. I wrote about this cookbook last month (here). Sauces & Shapes was my most eagerly
anticipated 2013 cookbook, and it lived up to my high expectations. It gets my
vote as the best Italian cookbook of the year.
Here’s hoping that 2014
turns out as many excellent cookbooks as 2013!
Oretta Zanini De Vita and
Maureen B. Fant have collaborated on an outstanding new book entitled Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way
. Zanini De Vita’s previous two US publications, the celebrated Encyclopedia of Pasta  and Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds – Recipes and
Lore from Rome and Lazio , both translated into English by Fant, document
Italian culinary traditions. Although one can certainly cook from the Encyclopedia of Pasta (e.g., here
and here), and while Popes, Peasants,
and Shepherds includes recipes, neither work is a traditional cookbook. Happily
and at last, Zanini De Vita has penned a bona
fide English-language cookbook, but one with the focus of a passionate
Italian food historian and expert. If you enjoy learning about and cooking
Italian food, especially pasta, then I highly recommend this excellent book.
In Sauces & Shapes’ Introduction, Fant asks the question “What is
in this Book?” The answer lies in the book’s subtitle: Pasta the Italian Way.
Zanini De Vita and Fant give “advice for: cooking, serving and eating pasta;
stocking a pantry and choosing ingredients; and generally approaching pasta as
much like an Italian as anyone outside Italy can.” To this end, the authors
include pasta do’s and don’ts: do add cheese to pasta before adding sauce
(unless their recipe instructs otherwise); don’t use a fork and spoon to twirl
and eat pasta (unless eating capelli
d’angelo served in soup); and do serve tortellini
in broth (“That is not a suggestion; it’s an order.”). This goodhearted and wry
counsel isn’t born from a persnickety mindset, but rather comes from a palpable
desire to share authentic Italian cooking.
I have read through the
book a couple of times now and have cooked a number of dishes. The recipes come
from Zanini De Vita’s research and treasure trove of over 2,200 recipes. Sauces & Shapes includes classics
such as Sugo alla marinara; Puttanesca; Amatriciana; and Carbonara. The book also presents more
unique offerings such as Boscaiola
made with canned tuna and mushrooms; Ragù
con le spuntature, a pork rib sauce that includes horseradish; and an agnolotti filled with broccoli rabe and served in a clam sauce.
One of my favorite dishes
from the book is a simple soup, Sagne e lenticchie
(Lentils and noodles). The recipe’s introduction offers a primer on where the
best lentils grow in Italy. Luckily, the Internet makes sourcing these beautiful
Italian lentils fairly easy. The soup—more dense than liquid—tastes comforting
and utterly delicious. Sauces &
Shapes’ version uses fresh pasta that, in my opinion, transforms this
classic dish from very good to great.
1 pound (450 grams)
lentils, washed and picked over
at least 1½ level teaspoons
3 tablespoons extra virgin
1 white onion, finely
2 cups (550 grams) tomato
1 small piece dried chile
8 ounces (225 grams) or
2 tablespoons, or more,
best-quality extra virgin olive oil for finishing
Put the lentils in a
4-quart (4-liter) pot, preferably terracotta, with 6 cups (1.5 liters) water
and the bay leaf. Add 1 level teaspoon salt, bring to a boil, then cook,
covered, over low heat until tender. The cooling time can range from 20 minutes
(for the best-quality tiny Italian lentils) to about 45 minutes, so keep your
eye on them and check often. They should be tender but not mushy.
Keep a supply of boiling
hot lightly salted water available on the stove and add it by the ladleful in
the unlikely event your lentils begin to look dry. You can also use the water
to make the soup more liquid.
Put the oil in a saucepan
and add the onion and garlic. Sauté gently over low heat until transparent,
about 10 minutes. Add the tomato puree, the chile, and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook
for 20 minutes, or until the sauce is visibly reduced and the oil comes to the
surface. Add this sauce to the lentils. You should have about 8 cups total. Taste
Make ahead note: At this point, the process can be interrupted and the lentils kept
until you are ready to complete the dish. The lentils freeze very well, too.
They are best reheated in a double boiler.
When you are ready to
continue, heat the lentils gently (if they are not already hot), add 2 cups
(400 milliliters) lightly salted hot water, stir in the pasta, cover the pot,
and cook over low heat until the pasta is al
dente, which may be very quick.
Discard the bay leaf, stir
in the oil, and let the soup rest for a few minutes before serving. It is also
excellent served at room temperature.
Lentils continue to absorb water like a sponge long after they’ve finished
cooking. In this case, you can certainly add water before reheating, but you
will need to taste for salt. You can also just let them absorb as much as they
want and eat the dish with a fork.
Sauces & Shapes includes a recipe for fresh pasta all’uovo (egg dough): 450 grams tipo 00 flour to 5 medium or
large eggs, or 4 extra-large or jumbo eggs. It also includes a detailed
description on how to hand-roll and machine-roll fresh pasta.
To my mind, Sauces & Shapes’ section on Basic
Dough is reason enough to buy this book. The introduction to the pasta all’uovo recipe begins: “As
important as it is to develop feel and instinct when making dough, there is a
metric formula for making pasta
all’uovo.” Zanini De Vita presents what any Bolognesi no doubt instinctively
knows at birth: mix 100 grams of 00 flour with an egg (i.e., a medium egg weighing
near 50 grams without its shell) per serving. I use this 2:1 ratio all the time
as my general rule of thumb when making fresh egg pasta. Certainly the type and
blend of flour and level of workplace humidity impact dough, but it’s hard to
go too far off the rails when making fresh egg pasta if you stick to 100 grams
of flour to 50 grams of egg.
A final note on Sauces & Shapes: Ms. Fant writes really well. And call me a prude, but I think it refreshing to read a new cookbook that doesn’t drop an f-bomb or other colorful
expletive on every other page. Fant is a wonderful writer and it’s a pleasure
to read her carefully crafted text. Let’s hope that Zanini De Vita and Fant have
another book or two (or three) in the works.