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The very best regional Italian cookbook! Buy It!
on July 26, 2005
`The Splendid Table' by Lynne Rossetto Kasper is simply the most splendid book I have read on a regional cuisine and it is by far and away the best of the three books on the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, even though the other two, `Biba's Taste of Italy' by Biba Caggiano and `Recipes from My Two Villages' by Mario Batali are excellent, as far as they go. Ms. Caggiano's book is simply a collection of recipes from Emilia-Romagna and Mario's book is more of a personal diary of recipes than a thorough examination of a historical cuisine.
Ms. Kasper's book, in the year it was published, won both the James Beard and Julia Child (IACP) cookbook awards, which is roughly the same as winning both the Academy award and the Foreign Press Writers award for best picture. And, I believe this book deserved all the attention it has received. Even Mario, who has his own book on the subject, made a special point to mention this book on his `Molto Mario' show. Since I have owned the book for over a year, it is one of those cases where I deeply regret having taken so long to get to studying the volume.
All that remains, then, is to point out what it is which makes the book so good.
For starters, it covers every aspect of a region's cuisine. That is, it deals with the history, the agriculture, and the economy of the region as well as the great recipes. And, what a background we have to relate. Emilia-Romagna is not just another region in one of the world's great culinary countries. It is THE very heart and soul of that culinary tradition, even more than the fabled provinces of Tuscany (Florence) in the north and Campagna (Naples) in the south. It is the home of Italy's three most important non-wine food products, Proscuitto de Parma, Parmesano-Reggiano, and Balsamic Vinegar. On top of that, it is also the home of some of the most famous fresh pasta dishes to come out of Italy plus several of the most famous salume products from Italy (witness the name Bologna, the region's capital city, given to some of these products).
While this coverage is necessary for a complete book on this subject, it is not enough. And, this book gives us the most important component, an excellent selection of very well written recipes. And, with over five hundred pages to fill, Ms. Kasper has given us several different takes on many of the more interesting recipes. A fine example is the famous ragu Bolognese, which is offered up in at least six different variations, each for a slightly different purpose or from a different background.
Never having studied this northern (generally tomatoless) sauce in detail before, I am struck by how similar it is to the most common recipes for Texas chili. It has no beans, the meat is diced and browned, not ground, and tomato and other spices are added sparingly. In the place of dried chiles, the ragu includes cinnamon (in several of the more traditional recipes). One very odd facet of these recipes is that where a Bay leaf is specified, the author calls for the California bay leaf rather than the milder Turkish bay leaf.
The recipes are organized like all good Italian cookbooks, by course. The chapters are:
The Antipasto Course
Essential Sauces and Stocks (In no other book have I seen such a thorough treatment of Italian broths and stocks. Ms. Kasper includes the simple traditional `brodo' but adds much more, highlighted by the rich `Il sugo de carne' or meat essence.)
The Sweet Pastas of the Renaissance (So, not only do we get modern dishes, we also get recipes for historical dishes which one usually never finds outside a book specializing in Renaissance cooking).
Risotto, Soup, and Vegetable First Courses
Vegetable Side Dishes
Aside from the atypical choice of the California bay, nothing in this book disagrees with anything I have seen from any other authority on Italian cooking. In fact, Ms. Kasper generally improves on other advice by giving more details and a finer turn to her information on ingredients, techniques, and background. I am especially happy to see recipes for some of the more complicated dishes which simply never find their way into less ambitious books, such as `bomba di riso', a northern Italian analogue to the pasta `timbale' of the south. And, while many books cover bread making in a very superficial manner, this book not only does justice to this difficult subject, it covers many of the more arcane flatbreads which tend to be overshadowed by pizza from Naples and foccacia from Genoa. Her chapter on desserts also gives the lie to Sr. Batali's often-repeated statement that the Italians are not big on sweet desserts. While many of these may have grown out of French and Austrian influences, there are tortes and tarts aplenty to enliven an Italian themed entertainment.
Ms. Kasper also gives us a very nice little guide to ingredients, mail order sources, and a bibliography composed almost entirely of Italian language sources.
It is not hard to see how Ms. Kasper has been able to produce such a great book. Elizabeth David lived in Italy and studied its cuisine for a year before producing her excellent `Italian Food'. Ms. Kasper has spent the better part of a lifetime, including five years living in Bologna, studying this cuisine. It is no surprise that the recipe writing in this book rivals that of Julia Child in `Mastering the Art of French Cooking', as this author has spent about the same time mastering her subject before committing it to paper.
Any culinary library that has any pretensions to being complete must include a copy of this book!