Cooking From Above - Italian
This review was prepared by Lisa of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives.
This is not your Nonna’s Italian cookbook, or recipe box for that matter, but not for the reasons I initially thought. Upon receiving the book Cooking From Above - Italian by Laura Zavan (photographed by Pierre Javelle), my first thought was, “Wow, what a sleek, modern looking cookbook – cooking from above must mean a lot of unique, modern twists on classic Italian favorites!” Boy, was I wrong! "Cooking from Above" refers to the aerial photography in the book, and is actually part of a series of cookbooks by different authors, that range from Baking, to Classics, to Asian.
Cooking From Above - Italian is very basic, mostly Northern Italian, cooking - a tiny twist here and there, but nothing off the beaten path. Remember this line “This dish was good, but I’ve had or it could be, better”, as that was pretty much my main gripe about this cookbook.
The book contains six sections: Starters, Vegetables, Pasta & Co, Fish, Meat and Desserts. Each recipe contains an aerial photo layout of 1)Ingredients, 2)Step-by-step demonstrations and 3)The completed dish. To give this book a fair review, I decided to tackle two recipes from each section. However, the Fish section was extremely sparse, containing only 5 recipes (one for octopus, carpaccio-style; another for stuffed sardines; then sea bream, sword fish and sea bass, all baked). Nothing scintillating or far from what any novice or advanced Italian cook (or all cooks in general) has/have encountered, so I decided to skip over it.
From the Starter section, I chose to try the Pistachio Pesto and homemade breadsticks (Grissini). The Pistachio Pesto was made using toasted pistachios, pecorino romano and arugula, but what really stunned me was the omission of garlic. OK, fresh ingredients, well-seasoned, it should be ok, and it was, but is "ok" what you really want? The pesto was a beautiful shade of green, and very fresh tasting, but it was lacking something, most probably the garlic. What’s nice about this book is that it gives you many ingredient additions/substitutions, pairings and/or serving ideas with most of the dishes, and Grissini was one to pair with the pesto. The author also recommends wrapping the Grissini with prosciutto, mascarpone, and lots of other meats, tomato paste, sunchokes, etc, but I stuck with prosciutto, as the breadsticks were, well, good breadsticks, and didn’t need any extra froo froo when served with the pesto. The only thing I did a little differently was roll my Grissini really thin, so they turned out more on the crispy side. The author rolls them thicker, for a more bready, chewy breadstick, but that’s entirely up to the cook.
The Starter section also contains several other pestos, plus bruschetta with various toppings, crackers (lingue), pizzas, focaccia, fried mini calzones, all with different takes and serving ideas.
The Vegetable section looked lovely, but again, most of the recipes were very basic. There are three-salad offerings (Yes, of course Panzanella is one of the three – along with Orange & Fennel and Raw Sunchoke), but I chose to sway from the raw and focus on the cooked. It also includes two soups, Minestrone and Borlotti Bean, and other various preparations of vegetables, but I decided to try the Tomato Gratin aka stuffed plum tomatoes and the stewed peppers (Pepperonata). Once again, I’ve had better stuffed tomatoes, and although these were good, with an anchovy, garlic, cheese and fresh herb bread stuffing, it needed more anchovies, more garlic, more cheese, more flavor in general. The Pepperonata was exactly how Pepperonata should taste (like stewed, seasoned bell peppers – not very difficult to execute), and it paired well with some chicken breasts I made, not to mention it was very colorful, due to the use of red, orange and yellow bell peppers, resulting in a nice presentation. One thing I did find a little odd is that a Zucchini Frittata containing 12 whole eggs was placed in the "light" category of the Vegetable section, as well as an Herb & Vegetable pie containing bacon! One would think the simple broiled and baked vegetables would trump both of the above when it came to lightness.
The pasta section gives you a lot of offerings, from homemade egg pastas to hard wheat pastas (the stuff in the bags or box), plus sauces – basic to a little off that beaten path, lasagnes, ravioli, risotto and gnocchi. I chose to to stick with the basics, as a good homemade egg pasta and fresh, basic tomato sauce are the true test when it comes to Italian cooking, and served throughout the world on a more consistent basis than most other Italian dishes. The one thing that surprised me was the ingredients for the egg pasta. Bread flour and milk being a twist/addition I’d never seen nor tried before. I’m used to 00 flour and lots of eggs/yolks. It definitely had a different texture, and seemed to break apart more easily when drying (I cut the pasta into fettuccine), but it wasn’t bad. That said, I’ll continue to stick with my old standby, as this little step off the cliff didn’t "wow" me enough to make it that way again. On the other hand, the tomato sauce was simple, fresh and nice. containing carrots, celery, garlic, fresh plum tomatoes, and olive oil – but again, I prefer my old standby for basic tomato sauce, minus the carrots and celery. However, the Pistachio Pesto made a lovely sauce for the pasta, as suggested in the book.
On to the Meat section. Not a lot of offerings here, a total of ten, including Saltimbocca, Osso Bucco, Chicken & Ricotta Parcels, Filet of Beef and Guinea Fowl, but it all looked good and I couldn’t wait to dig into the recipes I chose. The Meat section offers you a choice of In Slices, Pan-Fried, and In Sauce, and seems to be dominated by veal ... OK, four of the ten are veal, but you’re given substitutions, like beef, chicken or lamb in some. I tried the Milan-style veal escalopes, known as breaded veal cutlets to most, and the veal stew, in which I used beef in lieu of the veal as suggested in a side note of the recipe. The veal cutlets were good, but ”I’ve had better!” The beef stew over polenta wasn’t your typical stew with chunks of potatoes, veggies etc, but more of a mire poix plus garlic to flavor the meat, along with fresh or canned plum tomatoes, white wine, herbs and seasonings. The polenta, cooked soft, was nice too once I added the recommended ‘add ins’. To put it simply, I liked the dish a lot, as did my tasters. A very rustic, hearty, comforting, cold weather dish, with loads of flavor. Although you could kick it up several levels (remember, a lot of cooking is about a pinch of this, a pinch of that, and an "Oh, I’ll just throw this in"), I felt it was delicious as is.
Finally, one section where the line of “It’s good, but I’ve had better’ ceased to exist. This is where Cooking from Above - Italian, shines. Once again, not a great amount of desserts (11) to choose from, but the two I made were phenomenal. Initially, upon reading the ingredients for the Chocolate-Amaretti cake, I was a bit suspicious of the flour in it. The chocolate amaretti cake/tortes I make usually contain almond meal/flour, but no all-purpose flour (then again, the word "cake" does connote the use of all-purpose flour –as opposed to "torte"). I was expecting this cake to be more cakey and dry instead of fudgy and dense. I was MORE than pleasantly surprised by the outcome. The all-purpose flour added a lightness to the chocolate density that was melt-in-your-mouth wonderful and the flavor (as long as you use good quality chocolate) was magnificent. This is rich enough, but not rich to the point where one or two bites are enough. You will eat the whole slice, trust me and no sugar overload or heavy feeling afterward. Did I mention I had to make my own amaretti cookies because I couldn’t find any in or around the NYC metropolitan area? The land of Italians and Italian markets, no less ... LOL
The second dessert I made was simple, Baked Peaches, stuffed with an amaretti, egg yolk and cocoa mixture. “YUM” and “MMMM” were about the only audible sounds that came from my tasters as they were devoured. The book also offers up Tiramisu, a rich Pandoro dessert, pies, tarts, and a unique, sweet rice cake that I’m looking forward to trying.
To try and sum this up as best I can, the negatives and positives. There are a few "technical" caveats in this book that were slightly annoying. First off, in some recipes, they don’t give you pan sizes. For a novice cook, this is trouble, for an advanced cook, unless you can gauge the size from the aerial photo (although you cannot tell whether it’s a sheet or roasting pan in some of the photos), it’s a conundrum that can affect the outcome of the dish. Secondly, I wish they gave you the page number of each section at the front of the book. You need to go to the back of the book to find that or skim through the book to find the section you want, unless you feel like looking through the index for a particular recipe - which is rather inconvenient. Finally, although the aerial photography makes this book unique, and the photos are colorful, clear and sharp, they’re still not close enough when you might need them to be, especially when it comes to the final result. I would have loved to see a close up of each finished dish.
All in all, I would recommend this book to someone who isn’t very well-versed in Italian cooking and wants to start with simple recipes that are not loaded with steps and ingredients that are hard to follow or overwhelming. For the advanced cook, outside of the desserts, I don’t think it’s a book you need, since there’s nothing in there you probably aren’t familiar with. Although this cookbook covers a little bit of everything in Northern Italian cooking, there are better "simple" Northern Italian cookbooks out there that would satiate your love of cooking and flavor much, much more. Bottom line, it’s a good cookbook, BUT..well, you know the rest!