Pros: seasonal recipes, fresh produce, beautiful illustrations and photographs
Cons: vague directions, not enough photos of food, unwieldy size
Reviewed by: Sara Powell
When the sweltering days of summer start to make the kitchen into an enemy instead of a friend, it’s time for some recipes that get you out of the kitchen and let you spend a little more time with family fun. The ideal summer cookbook needs to be many things: a survey of the freshest produce of the season, a grilling guide to inspire any backyard chef, and a encouragement to get outside with family and friends. This means the book should include numerous salad recipes, savory meats on the grill, and cool desserts for steamy evenings.
Of course it doesn’t hurt if the cookbook also features the cooking of Italy, known for its beautiful summers and abundant produce. You can’t think of Italy without also tasting the fresh ripe tomatoes and the salty olives, the deep rich wine and pungent cheeses. The best of Italy is also the best of summer.
The same publishers that brought us the Silver Spoon cookbook have released Recipes from an Italian Summer, with recipes designed exactly to compliment the hot days and warm nights of that season. The recipes are deliberately fresh and seasonal, with lots of fruits and vegetables, ideally straight from the farm stand. And the book itself is even organized in the way we eat in the summer, with chapters on salads, grilled meats, and refreshing desserts. To make it even more irresistible, whimsical matte photographs are sprinkled throughout the book, of both food and place, to create the right mood in the cook.
Probably the most delicious dish that I tested was the spinach pie. I took advantage of the summer bounty and bought a bag full of fresh greens, which I then cooked down, mixed with cheese, and baked in a puff pastry shell. While the rule of summer is generally no ovens, I found this dish to be well worth the bake time. The pie can be eaten hot or cold, so it’s perfect for a picnic if made ahead of time. The only drawbacks are that the pie requires quite a lot of salt to season up the spinach, and despite the garlic, it almost seems to be monotone. I kept wishing I had added some sautéed mushrooms or onions before baking, but this is an easy fix for an inventive cook.
One of my favorite fruits of the summer is the avocado, so I couldn’t resist the avocado salad when I browsed through the book. The crunchy lettuce forms a brilliant counterpoint to the creamy avocado and the brightness of the mandarin orange. I was initially excited for the vinaigrette, but once on the salad, the mustard flavor disappears, and it loses its edge. I really wished I could have still tasted those flavors with the other salad ingredients.
When picking a dessert, I wanted something that could be transported easily without melting or spoiling, so the apple cake seemed ideal. The cake bakes up dense and hearty, and the apples retain just enough crunch to be interesting against the softer cake. The cake was good both hot and cold with whipped cream, but I kept wishing for something more. Next time I would probably add some cinnamon to the batter to spice up an otherwise rather bland cake. It also took a bit longer to bake than the recipe indicated.
Overall, the book is a beautiful paean to summer cooking, and the layout almost seems like a sweet Italian dream. A few of the drawbacks I found were the rather bland results and some vague directions that might confuse a less-experienced cook. The book is also rather large, so some cooks might find it a bit unwieldy for use in the kitchen. I could have also have done with more pictures of the recipes and less of streets in Italy. However, with this beautiful summer inspiration, fresh ingredients, and some creativity, I think these recipes could lead to some amazing summer eating.
Recipe: Spinach Pie (Torta di Spinaci)
2¼ pounds spinach, coarse stalks removed
4 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing
1 clove garlic
Generous 1 cup ricotta cheese
Scant ½ cup heavy cream
1 pound 2 ounces puff pastry dough, thawed if frozen
All purpose flour, for dusting
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
Salt and pepper
Wash the spinach and put it into a pan over low heat with just the water clinging to its leaves. Cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the spinach well, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Melt the butter in a skillet, add the garlic clove and cook, stirring frequently, for a few minutes, until golden brown, and then remove and discard the garlic. Add the spinach to the skillet, and cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes, then remove the skillet from the heat and let cool slightly.
Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a pie plate with butter. Finely chop the spinach, put it into a bowl, and stir in the ricotta, eggs, and cream. Season with salt and pepper.
Roll out ⅔ of the pastry dough on a lightly floured counter and use it to line the prepared pie plate. Spoon the spinach mixture into the pastry shell. Roll out the remaining dough. Brush the rim of the pastry shell with egg yolk, place the dough on top, and press the edges together to seal. Brush the pie with egg yolk and prick the lid all over with a fork. Put the pie plate on a baking sheet and bake for about 40 minutes, until the pastry is risen and golden brown. Serve warm or cold.