She's done it again. My friend Domenica Marchetti that is. Her newest cookbook has just been published and it's every bit as enticing as the last four: "The Glorious Pasta of Italy," "The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy," "Rustic Italian," and "Big Night In." The new book, "The Glorious Vegetables of Italy," contains so many delicious recipes that combine the flavors and techniques of Italian cooking with the array of vegetables that are available there and here in the states too. Interspersed throughout are mouth-watering photographs that could be on a gallery wall.
We spoke recently about the new book, our common background as news reporters, and many other things. At the end of the post is a recipe from the book that's so simple to make yet so satisfying and delicious.
Q. How did you transition from being a reporter to writing cookbooks?
A. I had written about health, fitness and nutrition and occasional pieces for the food section of the Detroit News. I always loved food writing and always coveted the food writer's job. After moving to D.C. (where her husband is deputy managing editor of the Washington Post) and writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I decided to work freelance from home when I had kids. I decided to write about food. I used my newspaper contacts to pitch stories and that's how I got into food writing. I went to the Food Writer's Symposium at the Greenbrier and that's where I met the cookbooks editor for my publisher, Chronicle books. I sent in a proposal for my first cookbook, The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy.
Q. What's your personal connection with Italy, and Abruzzo in particular?
A. Abruzzo is where my mother comes from. She was born and raised in Chieti. Since the time we were little, we would go back to Italy for the summer. We had a beach house on the Adriatic coast. That's where my affection for Abruzzo comes from – from spending many years there. I have wonderful memories, and friendships that I still have with people I used to hang out with at the beach as a teenager.
Q. The book is not only about Abruzzese cooking, or vegetables that can be found only in Italy, is it?
A. No, you can't assign a nationality to vegetables. I really mean vegetables in Italian cooking. The book is also not just Abruzzese recipes. My cooking has always been more eclectic Italian, rather than focused on one region. That's probably because my mother didn't just cook Abruzzese food. I grew up eating a variety of regional Italian cooking and so that's what I learned to do. My books are a mishmash of family recipes, regional recipes. They're classic, they're contemporary takes on classic, they're stuff I made up in my own kitchen – so they're "Italianish." I can't say they cling to any one part of Italy or they're just traditional, or just family recipes. They're a little bit of everything.
Q. What made you choose vegetables as the topic for this cookbook?
A. In 2008, we took a trip to the Veneto during Easter week, and I just remember the market under the Rialto bridge. I saw an incredible array of vegetables, from fat winter squashes from the north of Italy to tomatoes that were already ripe from the South of Italy. There were all kinds of artichokes, and all the different types of radicchio in the Veneto. It got me thinking.
Q. Do people have a misconception of Italian cooking?
A. I think we've come a long way in our perception and understanding of Italian cooking, but I do feel that people still have this "Olive Garden" view of Italian cooking - that it's spaghetti and meatballs, it's pasta, it's pizza, it's roasts, breads, starchy, and heavy. I honestly think that nothing could be further from the truth. When we were in Abruzzo in July, we stayed at an agriturismo. We got there right after lunch, and the owner put out a snack for us – cheese and charcuterie. Then she brought out a plate of tender green beans that had been boiled, past al dente. They were actually tender - because Italians aren't afraid to overcook their vegetables. That's one of the things I love about Italian vegetables is that they're not all crunchy. They were tossed with olive oil and the tiniest hint of vinegar and they were so good. I'll remember that plate of beans forever. I think Italian diets are much more vegetable-centric than people perceive in this country.
Q. What vegetables did you exclude from the book that you wished you could have included?
A. Cucumbers. The reason is I really never associated them much with Italian cooking and Italian food. I didn't eat them growing up. My dad had a slight allergy to them. They were never on our table. I don't ever remember having them in Italy. I do know a lot of Italian Americans grow them in their gardens. After being in Puglia last summer, I realized this might be a regional thing. Because in Puglia, they were everywhere. They had these amazing cucumbers that looked like very small personal melons -pale, pale green, and you cut them open and they were the same color as a honeydew melon. But they were cucumbers. They were slightly sweet but definitely in the cucumber family. At that point, I was in the final stages of the manuscript and I thought about trying to add cucumbers, just so I could talk about this Pugliese cucumber, but then I thought that would have unnecessarily complicated things. I have enough recipes to write another vegetable book, because there are an infinite number of ways that Italians use them - so many variations and riffs. I love just tossing pasta with fresh vegetables. People always think that pasta has to be sauced. The sauce is a condiment. There's nothing better than tossing fresh pasta with seasonal vegetables, a little olive oil and cheese.
Q. What are some of your favorite recipes in the book?
A. One of my favorite recipes – and it's so easy – is the baked delicata squash with cream and parmigiano. This is one of the "Italianish" recipes. Delicata squash has a lovely golden flesh and it's sweet, with a dense texture. it's just brushed with cream and parmigiano and baked in the oven. It's so simple and easy but makes a great side dish for any roast. I really love the vegetable lasagna and the eggplant meatballs. You just can't imagine that they would be as good as real meatballs, but they are and a lot of people have been writing about them.
Q. I made your smashed potatoes and green beans with pancetta for dinner the other night. Tell me a little about your inspiration for the dish.
A. I ate it at La Loggia Antica – a little restaurant in Bisenti in the Teramo province. All of these little vegetable dishes were coming out of the kitchen. One of them was these green beans and potatoes. I never had it before. It's very simple - you boil green beans and potatoes together, smash them and add some pancetta, olive oil and seasonings. I would never have thought to do that. That's one of my favorite recipes in the book.
Q. Do you have a book tour set up?
A. I've sort of cobbled together a little tour, mostly in September. They're usually piecemeal because I still have kids in the house and I can't go away for long periods. I don't like to anyway. I'm really a homebody. But I'm going to the West Coast – Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. I have a couple of cooking demos and classes and talks. I'll be going to St. Paul, Minnesota to do a cooking class and then some local events in the D.C. area, near where I live. I'm also hitting Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There's a wonderful huge kitchenware store with a wonderful cooking school, called “A Southern Season.” I love teaching there. I'm coming up to Dorothea's House in Princeton in November, but I would love to do more Northeast stuff, so I'm working on that leg of it.
Q. What's on the agenda for your next cookbook?
A. A book on biscotti, scheduled to be published in 2015.
You can also follow Domenica on her blog, Domenica Cooks.
You can also follow Domenica on her blog, Domenica Cooks.
Smashed Green Beans and Potatoes With Pancetta
From "The Glorious Vegetables of Italy" by Domenica Marchetti
1 lb./455 g. medium size yellow potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and cut in half crosswise
1 lb./455 g. fresh young green beans, ends trimmed
4 oz./115 g. pancetta, diced
1/3 cup/75 ml. good quality extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
Put the potatoes and green beans in a large pot and fill with cold water to cover. Set the pot over high heat and salt generously. Bring the water to a boil and reduce the heat to medium high to maintain a lively (but not violent) simmer. Boil the vegetables until they are very tender, about 25 minutes.
While the potatoes and green beans are cooking, place the pancetta in a medium skillet (I use a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet) and set over medium heat. Sauté the pancetta, turning it frequently, for about 10 minutes, until it has rendered some of its fat and has just begun to crisp and turn brown. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.
When the vegetables are tender, drain them in a colander. Return them to the pot and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Use a potato masher to mash the potatoes and green beans together as you drizzle. What you're aiming for is a somewhat lumpy, textured mash -- not need to purée completely.
With a spatula or wooden spoon, scrape the pancetta and drippings into the pot and stir to combine with the potato-bean mash. Season with salt and pepper.
Spoon the mixture into a serving bowl and drizzle with a little more olive oil if you like. Serve warm or at room temperature.