Friday, 20 February 2015

Book Review: Southern Italian Family Cooking by Carmela Sophia Sereno

Before buying this book I had tried a bruschetta recipe from it which had been shared on the Carmela’s Kitchen web site: click here for link.The bruschetta was included as part of our recent ‘Evening of Verdi and Italian Country Fare’ click here for link and proved a big hit.
The theme of simple but tasty food is continued throughout the book, which has been written with a clear confidence drawn from a wealth of experience.  This is a prerequisite for any author presenting recipes for such familiar dishes as Lasagne, Pizza and Tiramisu; all now household names far beyond Italy.

As the title suggests, this is a collection of recipes which have been passed down over the years for preparing at home and served to family members both young and old.  Because a number of ‘base’ stocks and sauces are used as a starting point for many of the recipes, the task of catering for groups of diners becomes easily manageable once the initial preparation is completed.  The instructions are simple, nothing is intimidating, making this a good starting point for newcomers to Italian cucina povera (in English this is 'poor kitchen' but its true definition is of a rustic style of cooking, using the great flavours of fresh, seasonal ingredients).  In addition to the recipes themselves, there are also cook’s tips, which provide a nice extra touch.

The recipes are divided into chapters covering antipasti, savoury and sweet baking, vegetables, meats, fish, pasta and risotto.  The final chapter provides a list of recommended store cupboard essentials.  Most of what is listed here is readily available, though some of the meats and cheeses may prove tricky to find away from a good delicatessen.  That said, the list also acts a useful glossary for the new cook.
We were quite confident that the recipes would work out well, and chose a main course, a side and a baked dessert.  Jay did the cooking and managed to co-ordinate all three dishes without any problems.

For the side dish, we made Spinaci al Pomodoro (Seasonal Spinach with Crushed Tomatoes). 
We’re just at the beginning of the best season for spinach, so this recipe fitted in well with the cucina povera spirit.  It was recommended to be enjoyed with crusty bread and a glass of red wine, neither of which we had this time, but we still enjoyed it with our main courses and a glass of white wine.  The spinach, tomatoes, garlic and basil could all be tasted, and it also turned out to be just as enjoyable when eaten cold, as we discovered the next day.

For the main, we chose one of the four pizza recipes in the book: Pizza Marinara.
This cheeseless pizza is described in the book as being the first ever Neapolitan pizza, with toppings of tomato sauce, garlic and dried oregano.  Because of the relatively short ingredient list, we paid a little more for the passata used in the tomato sauce than we normally do, and the difference in taste was far greater than the difference in price.  Definitely a lesson learned there.  Another lesson, from the pages of the book was to place the pizza dough onto the baking stone before adding the toppings.  This proved a revelation for us, and we would have been happy to pay the cover price of the book for this tip alone.  We had managed to get our fully-loaded pizzas in the oven prior to this, but only by enlisting the help of liberal quantities of semolina.  
This was a seriously good pizza.  The base had a nice light texture, admittedly without the charred spotted look of pizzas baked in specialist ovens, but cut easily and had a crisp outside and softer inside.  As previously mentioned, the passata made for a fantastically rich tomato sauce.  The garlic and oregano were both distinguishable in the taste.  This proved to be another example of ingredients being allowed to deliver great flavours on their own terms.  Jay’s preference was for a pizza with mozzarella, which we made the next day, but I preferred this one.

To finish, we went for Torta con Limone e Polenta (Lemon and Polenta Cake)
Often lemon can overpower a cake but it was kept under control in this one.  I liked the crunchy texture that was provided by the polenta, and the finished cake yielded a much lighter texture than I was expecting.  It was baked in a loaf tin, and we ended up leaving it in the oven for 5 minutes longer than the time specified in the recipe, but once it was done it was a good even bake with a soft crumbly texture.  It firmed up as it cooled to room temperature, but we were so eager to try it that we cut the first slices off as soon as it was cool enough to handle.
The book recommends dunking slices of the cake into a cup of espresso coffee, but we had some mascarpone left over so mixed some icing sugar in with it and used that as a rich, sweet, creamy accompaniment.  Delicious.

Before closing it’s also worth saying a few words about the book itself.  It is a 216 page paperback with a cover price of 8.99GBP.  All of the text and illustrations are printed in black and white and there are no photographs.  Considering the size of the marketplace that recipe books now compete in, the book still manages to exude a style and charm all of its own.  The cover, with its off-white colour, illustrated logo and slightly distressed text communicate perfectly the idea that this is a collection of tried and tested family recipes.  Another plus point is that the recipes are arranged in such a way that there is no frustrating page turning with recipes which run onto more than one page.  The order of the chapters is easy to follow and the index at the back is organised by ingredient as well as by recipe.

We only sampled a few of the recipes for this review but I can say with confidence that we will be cooking from it again, and we are both very happy to welcome it into our collection.

Reviewed by Dee 20th February 2015

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