Pros: Enticing photos, variety of recipes
Cons: Some recipes were better than others
Reviewed by Sharyn Harding
Italian food for dinner? Sì, grazie.
I grew up on Italian food, though the very Americanized version. It has only been as an adult that I have discovered more authentic Italian dishes and grown to love those, too.
Italian Cooking is part of the Culinary Institute of America’s At Home cooking series. This is the style of cookbook that can really grab my attention from the moment I start flipping the pages. The photo on the cover, of sausage sauce over polenta, makes my mouth water. In fact, many of the recipes have gorgeous photos of the type of food that makes me hungry. There aren’t any fancy plates or charming backgrounds, just close ups of the dishes. Another component of the cookbook that appealed to me right away was the wine pairing suggestions for each recipe. This part includes basic suggestions, such as noting that the rice and squash tart calls for a medium-bodied white, to specific varieties that embody the suggestion.
In the beginning of the book, as well as certain chapters, there are instructions on making handmade pasta, notes on cooking styles of the different regions of Italy as well as substitutions for some ingredients that might be hard to locate at a local grocery. For example, in the beginning of the fish section, they list several varieties of fish for each category of Lean, Firm/Flaky, Firm/Moderately Fatty and Firm/Meaty. So if you like the sound of the sea bream with potatoes and capers, you can use their suggestions for replacing the sea bream with an easier to find fish, such as snapper.
The first recipe I tried, was Pollo al Diavolo. This involved butterflying a whole chicken, marinating it with a variety of herbs, roasting it, then spreading it with a topping and broiling it briefly before serving. Though there were many steps involved, none were terribly difficult or time-consuming. The results were delicious, yet disappointing. The marinade included lemon juice, a variety of herbs plus ½ teaspoon of crushed red pepper and was to be used on the chicken for at least 20 minutes or up to a day before cooking. I marinated mine for about two hours and had followed the wine pairing suggestion of buying a gewürztraminer to go with the supposed spicy dish. The chicken was incredibly tender and juicy, but surprisingly had no heat to it. The final step of brushing the chicken with a wine and mustard sauce before topping with cheese and bread crumbs seemed wasted. The sauce was so thin that it simply sheeted off the chicken and though the bread crumbs and cheese did brown, the skin of the chicken was not crisp and the underside of the topping was somewhat soggy. I had been expecting a very full-flavored dish, but it was not, and did not pair well with the sweet wine.
For dessert, I tried the pear cake. This was a very simple cake that was suggested for breakfast or tea. I did like the cake somewhat, but grew tired of it quickly. The recipe used quite a bit of cornstarch with the flour. This created a unique texture that was initially pleasing, but then left a decidedly unpleasant, starchy feeling in my mouth.
The second meal I prepared from the book featured gnocchi, something I haven’t made (successfully) before. I chose the puffed gnocchi because I was intrigued by the method that looked exactly like pate a choux to me. Since I was making this for company, I was happy to find a recipe that could be prepared early in the day and then baked just before serving. This recipe was quite different than the gnocchi I am used to seeing that is made with cooked potato. The dough is piped directly into boiling water, poached and then cooled. Before serving I tossed it with sauce and baked it. These gnocchi puff up almost double and the result is incredibly light and delicious. The introduction to the recipe had said to toss the gnocchi with sauce before baking, but no sauce suggestion was made. I chose the tomato fondue recipe and was so glad that it paired perfectly with such a light dish. I did have trouble mixing the eggs into the dough, as the recipe instructed using a dough hook. This simply pushed the dough around the bowl and as soon as I switched it to a paddle, the eggs incorporated much easier.
Overall, I am very happy with the book. Even though I wasn’t blown away by the first two dishes I prepared, I am still interested in trying several of the other recipes. There are some small areas they could have tweaked for improvement or clarification. Some of the recipes that include herbs specify fresh, some don’t. But by the quantity and context, I assume fresh instead of dried, but I would prefer they state it as such. After being slightly disappointed with the chicken al diavolo, I immediately re-read the recipe to see if I had done something wrong. I believe the ratios for the topping might have been off some. There was far too much of the bread crumb mixture to go on the requested 3-4 lb chicken and the mustard sauce was too thin to adhere and flavor the bird.
However, these points are somewhat minor and there was plenty to like from this book. I am glad to have it and would recommend as a gift to anyone interested in an authentic style of Italian cuisine.
Gnocchi soffiati alla parigna
(Puffed Gnocche Parisian)
1 c water
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
2 tbsp unsalted butter, plus 1 tbsp melted
1 c all-purpose flour or “oo” flour
¾ c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (3 oz)
- Put the water, salt, nutmeg and 2 tbsp butter in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. As soon as it boils, drop the flour into the mixture at once and mix quickly with a wooden spoon. Stir until the mixture forms a smooth mass that separates easily from the sides of the pan. Cook and stir for about 40 seconds longer to dry the mixture further.
- Transfer the dough to a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, or you may want to use a regular bowl and mix with your hands. Let the mixture cool slightly, and then add half of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and 1 of the eggs. Mix at low speed (or by hand) until the egg is incorporated. Add another egg and mix again, and then repeat with the third egg. At first the mixture will seem to separate, but keep mixing and eventually it will tighten up. Cover and let cool.
- Place 3 inches of salted water in a large saucepan and heat it over medium heat until there are several small bubbles rising around the edges (180°F). It shouldn’t boil completely; if the water is too hot the dumplings will cook too fast, which will cause them to expand and eventually (once baked) deflate. They should just poach and expand later in the oven when baked.
- Using 2 spoons to shape the dough or a pastry bag with a plain 1-inch tip, drop dumplings into the water; they should be 1 to 1 ½ inches long. Work close to the surface of the water so you don’t get splashed.
- Poach the gnocchi until they rise to the surface, about 3 minutes. Lift the gnocchi out with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl of ice water to cool. They will sink to the bottom of the bowl when cool. Drain and use them right away or refrigerate for later use.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch baking dishes and arrange the gnocchi in them so they have enough space to expand in the oven (they will almost double in size).
- Sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano, drizzle 1 tablespoon melted butter on top, and bake until doubled in size and golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Serve the gnocchi right away, before they begin to deflate.