Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen

Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich
432 pages; Black and White Sketches, Color and Black and White Photography
Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2001
Review by Jill Santopietro for Good Cooking, Inc., Summer of 02

Lidia Matticchio Bastianich compiles the essence of her Italian traditions and experience with Italian-American cuisine into Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen, a wonderful cookbook with many simple, classic Italian-American dishes. Bastianich clearly presents cooking techniques, products, and a history of Italian-American cuisine, how certain traditional Italian dishes are transformed based on the availability of ingredients in the United States. Her recipes are authentic and delicious, a wonderful tribute to Italian-American culture!

The recipe for Penne alla Vodka on page 108 was written with timing in mind. She starts it out by instructing you to begin cooking the sauce as soon as you add the penne to the boiling water. Yet, while every stovetop burner is different, consistency based on timing is difficult. Having started the sauce just a few minutes before adding the pasta, most of the vodka I added seemed to have evaporated by the time the pasta was ready. As a result the vodka flavor in the sauce was not as pronounced as I would have liked. I will certainly have to try the recipe again to further test the timing and flavors. However, I liked the recipe for its speed, method and overall taste. I would have used less cream and less cheese. The grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, when mixed into the dish just before serving, stuck to my fork and made eating the pasta difficult. Use fresh Parmigiano and grate it fine. For those who like a rich creamy pasta sauce, try this dish. You will not be disappointed!

I found it! Finally, the closest ribollita recipe I've seen to the classic Tuscan twice-boiled porridge. This hearty dish is the product of poorer days in Italy, a dish made by adding leftovers, including stale bread, cannellini beans, potatoes, and greens to a large pot and allowing the flavors to meld slowly together. Lidia Bastianich's ribollita recipe is divine. I must admit that I was a bit reluctant to grate the carrots. Most recipes I've seen call for chopped carrots, not grated. But, grated carrots and the instructions to boil the soup once and then a second time are the essence of what make this ribollita recipe so authentic. After all, "Ribollita" is a whitish colored soup and literally means twice boiled. Bastianich's recipe depends on timing, timing that has the potential to be inconsistent due to variations in burners. I kept hoping for a description of the soup and the desired consistency to assure I was on the right track. For example, midway through the cooking process there didn't seem to be enough liquid in the soup. My familiarity with this dish made it easy for me to adjust the thickness, but for those new to the soup, a picture or explicit descriptions would be useful. Overall though, a wonderful authentic Tuscan recipe for a truly delicious winter comfort soup.

Ribollita, Tuscan Twice-Boiled Soup (page 94),

makes 12 servings

3 cups dried cannellini (white kidney) beans
8 cups cold water
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling over the soup
2 medium onions, chopped (about 2 cups)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 pound kale, washed and cut into1/2-inch strips (about 8 cups)
4 cups savoy cabbage, cored and cut into '/2-inch strips (about 8 ounces)
1/2 pound Swiss chard leaves washed and cut into1/2-inch strips (about 4 cups)
2 large Yukon Gold or Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
4 medium carrots, peeled and grated (about 2 cups)
2 medium stalks celery, with leaves, chopped (about 1 cup)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups 1/2-inch pieces day-old country bread, crusts removed
1 medium red onion, chopped

Dump the beans into a 2- to 3-quart container and pour in enough cold water to cover them by at least 4 inches. Let soak in a cool place at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours. Drain thoroughly. (Alternatively you may quick-soak the beans as follows: Place the beans in a large saucepan of cold water. Bring to a boil, boil 1 minute, and remove from the heat. Let stand 1 hour, then drain and continue with the recipe.)

Pour 8 cups of cold water into a 4- to 5-quart pot and add the beans. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to simmering, and cook until the beans are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Fish out the tender beans from the cooking liquid with a wire skimmer or slotted spoon, and cool them as described on page 91. Put about three-quarters of them into a food-processor bowl or blender. Add a ladle or two of the cooking liquid and process the beans until smooth. Stir the bean puree into the cooking liquid. Set aside the remaining whole beans.

Heat the oil in an 8- to 10-quart stockpot. Stir in the onions and cook, stirring, until wilted, about 4 minutes. Stir the tomato paste and 1/2 cup water together in a small bowl, and stir into the wilted onions. Pour in the bean puree, then add the kale, cabbage, Swiss chard, potatoes, carrots, and celery. Pour in the beans and their cooking liquid. Bring to a boil, then adjust the heat to simmering. Season lightly with salt and pepper and cook 45 minutes. Let rest at least 30 minutes, or cool completely and refrigerate until the next day.

Stir the bread into the soup. Taste, adding salt and pepper if necessary. Cook until thickened and dense, about 30 minutes, or longer if the soup has been refrigerated. Remove from the heat, stir well, and let stand about 15 minutes before serving.

Ladle the soup into warm bowls. Sprinkle some of the chopped red onion over each serving and drizzle a little olive oil on top.

To reheat leftover ribollita in the oven: preheat the oven to 400 F. Ladle the soup into individual 10- to 12-ounce ovenproof crocks (French onion-soup crocks work well). Scatter some of the chopped onion over each serving. Drizzle a little olive oil over each, set the crocks on a sturdy baking sheet, and bake until the soup is bubbling around the edges and the onions are golden, about 20 minutes. Let the crocks of soup rest about 5 minutes before serving.

Good Cooking thinks that this is a really good cookbook and recommends its purchase. Recipes are Italian classics alla Lidia. Particularly tasty was the recipe below. Often the dish is bastardized in many restaurants with everything from whole eggs, cups and cups of heavy cream and even ricotta cheese. It is usually a thick paste-like sauce loaded with wasted calories. The real version, as Lidia prepares, is smooth as silk, velvety and packed with flavor. After consuming a rather large portion, I could easily get up from the table without feeling stuffed. I would have only reserved the bacon after frying, putting it on paper towels to drain, then adding it back to the linguine at the last minute before serving so it was still crisp.

Linguine alla Carbonara, Linguine with Bacon and Onions, makes 6 servings

6 ounces slab bacon, in 1 piece
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
2 large yellow onions, sliced 1/2 inch thick (about 3 cups)
1 1/2 cups hot Chicken Stock or canned chicken
broth, or as needed
1 pound linguine
3 egg yolks
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Coarsely ground black pepper

The Importance of Coarsely Ground Pepper: Coarsely ground black pepper is essential to this dish. If your mill doesn't grind pepper coarsely, try the following trick: Place the peppercorns on a flat surface. Holding the rim of a small, heavy saucepan or skillet with one hand, and pressing down on the center of the pan with the other, crush the peppercorns until coarsely ground.

Bring 6 quarts of salted water to the boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat. Remove the rind, if necessary, from the bacon. Cut the bacon into 1/4-inch slices, then cut the slices crosswise into 1/4-inch strips. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring, until the bacon is lightly browned but still soft in the center, about 6 minutes. The amount of fat in the skillet will vary depending on the bacon. If there is more than 3 to 4 tablespoons of fat in the pan, pour off the excess. If there is less than 3 to 4 tablespoons, add enough olive oil to measure that amount. Add the onions and cook until wilted but still crunchy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the stock, bring to a boil, and adjust the heat to a lively simmer. Cook until the liquid is reduced by about half.

Meanwhile, stir the linguine into the boiling salted wafer. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until done, about 8 minutes.

Ladle off about a cup of the pasta-cooking water. If the skillet is large enough to accommodate the sauce and pasta, fish the pasta out of the boiling water with a large wire skimmer and drop it directly into the sauce in the skillet. If not, drain the pasta, return it to the pot, and pour in the sauce. Bring the sauce and pasta to a boil, stirring to coat the pasta with sauce. Check the seasoning, adding salt if necessary. If necessary, add as much chicken stock or pasta-cooking water as needed to make enough sauce to coat the pasta generously. Remove the pan from the heat and add the egg yolks one at a time, tossing well after each. (A salad fork and spoon work well for this.) Add the grated cheese, then the black pepper, tossing well, and serve immediately in warmed bowls.