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Graduate Level Courses on Prima Materia
on December 1, 2003
You buy this book for culinary inspiration and insights into how the very greatest chefs think. It's most proper neighbors on your bookshelf are titles such as Eric Rippert's `A Return to Cooking', James Beard's `Delights and Prejudices', and Mario Batali's `Simple Italian Food'. Each of these volumes, in their own very personal ways explore the authors' inspirations and love of food.
This volume combines monographs on ingredients, personal memoirs, and exacting techniques into a web of very enlightening recipes and insights.
Paul Bertolli is the owner and executive chef of the restaurant Oliveto in Oakland, California and a former head chef at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse. Unlike Jeremiah Tower, Bertolli makes no mention of Waters except for the obviously shared devotion to fine, local ingredients. Instead, I am delighted to see him acknowledge assistance from Harold Magee and several other culinary academics.
If Mario Batali gives us the college courses in proper Italian cuisine, then Paul Bertolli gives us the post-graduate training, citing in the introduction the Elizabeth David epigram that `Good Cooking is Trouble' meaning that good cooking requires painstaking effort with lots of circles and switchbacks in one's path to mastery.
The book is in no way a traditional cookbook and anyone who buys it just for the recipes will be missing over half the value. The eight chapters comprising the bulk of the book deal with some materials and techniques at the heart of Italian cuisine.
The first topic deals with respect for fresh ingredients. This begins Bertolli's illuminations on the life of ingredients such as polenta, artichokes, zucchini, spring vegetables, eggplant, olives, mushrooms, and pears. The book reveals something new and exciting about each material and breaks a few rules along the way. In explaining the methods for curing olives, the author also begins offering the reader an entrance into a wonderland of new ways to be involved with our food.
The second main topic is an essay on `Ripeness'. It stresses that good cooking does not come from recipes but from looking at and listening to your ingredients.
The third topic is tomatoes and looking at them for color, juice, essence, shape, sauce, conserva, complement, braise, container, condiment, and side dish. This section contains many tomato based recipes, but the real gem is the discussion of `conserva', a preparation similar to tomato paste, but a much more potent carrier of flavor.
The fourth topic is an essay on the techniques for making balsamic vinegar plus the ways of using young, middle-aged, and old balsamico.
The fifth topic is a primer on pasta making. This takes one beyond Mario's well method into a world of fussiness about the quality of the wheat which rivals the obsessions of the very best artisinal bakers. This chapter is worth the price of admission.
The sixth topic is entitled `Bottom up cooking' and introduces at the reader to meat `sugo' which is created by the repeated browning and deglazing of meat and broth until you reach a concentration of flavor I have never seen discussed before in depth, although it is similar to the French notion of `jus'.
The seventh topic treats pork and the many ways of curing pork including the making of sausage and ham. While there is enough information here to give one a credible start at salume, the author points out that this is a skill which requires a substantial amount of practice. Even if one never touches a sausage casing or a meat grinder, this chapter is well worth the background it gives to assist one in respecting their ingredients.
The last major topic is devoted to menu building, mostly by working backward from the dessert. This section should be very familiar to Chez Panisse devotees, where daily menus were built upon the produce of the day. Like Chez Panisse and some other very high end restaurants, Olivato presents fixed price tasting menus with several courses, each paired with an appropriate bottle of wine.
I suspect there are people who will buy this book and be disappointed because all they wanted was a book of good Italian recipes. If that is what you want, check out Marcella Hazan, Lidia Bastianich, or Giuliano Bugialli. This book has very good recipes, but it includes so much more. I give Bertolli and his editors extra credit for giving a complete list of all the recipes at the beginning of the book, since the recipes are not organized by chapters one commonly uses to find them.
The book also includes a better than average list of sources to support the author's emphasis on excellence. There are few photographs and very few color photographs. I don't miss them.