Viana La Place, the woman who transformed Italian sandwiches into panini and vegetables into verdura, pulls the plug on fancy techniques and electrical equipment and gets back to basics. She reconnects with the simple joys of cooking and turns us on to preparing food with Italian flair in this beautifully illustrated book, where good flavor is more dependent on taste, touch, and smell than on level tablespoons and electrical appliances. Viana's recipes are nothing less than inspired. With 350 pages of heartfelt lyrical writing and stories with nearly 200 tastefully evocative recipes, she cooks the food she loves, including: Vegetable Carpaccio, Artichoke Stuffed with Artichoke Salad, Eggplant and Chick Pea Stew, Mashed Potatoes with Watercress, Fava Bean and Spring Onion Pasta and Sweet Rum Ricotta.
The book takes us on a personal journey through Viana's home in San Francisco, where she explores her Italian roots which have been incorporated into her daily life. Her genius helps readers to cook casually and deliciously, with their senses fully engaged -- by recognizing the smell of a good tomato, or measuring olive oil in puddles and flour by the fistful. The first chapter examines the rites and rituals of cooking. Viana feels, "cooking requires responsiveness and being in the moment." She does this by relying on her senses. Viana urges readers to return to a more natural style of cooking that doesn't require the need for measuring cups and spoons, and appliances. "I want people to get away from the pseudo-scientific idea of cooking, like you have to don a lab coat." Instead, she says, people can measure in the relaxed ways their great-grandmothers did: with coffee cups, wine glasses, egg shells and soup spoons. Viana firmly believes "the process of cooking should be: natural, free-flowing, and heartfelt."
Viana takes us through the many lives of bread, the quintessential food of every ethnic cuisine. She explains, "freshly baked and cooled, bread is eaten with dinner; the next day, slightly dried out, it is grilled for bruschetta or used as a base for country soups; completely dried, it is broken up to make salads, turned into bread crumbs to line baking dishes, or toasted to sprinkle on pasta." She provides recipes for straightforward breads such as Pizza Dough, a type of flatbread; Sicilian Semolina Bread, a golden all-purpose bread; and Twisted Cornbread and Wild Black Walnut Bread, both quick breads and made without yeast, relying on other ingredients to lighten the texture. Viana's simple guidelines for bread making, like how to properly measure flour and knead dough, make you feel comfortable yet excited about the fun experience bread making should be.
Her chapter on how to make great panini (Italian for sandwiches) gives us tips on how to treat the sandwich with respect and how to turn it into really good food--that's good to eat. Viana says "we are a sandwich-eating society and by carefully choosing ingredients and keeping freshness and quality in mind, we can be proud of our sandwich tradition." Whether you call it panino or a sandwich, here are some of Viana's rules to make it great: Don't assume all sandwiches must contain either meat or cheese--some of the best sandwiches contain just vegetables; tomato and lettuce shouldn't automatically be added to all sandwiches--but vine-ripened tomatoes and tender lettuce can be a filling on its own; don't always spread on mustard or mayonnaise--try lemon juice, olive oil, vinegar, or a pesto; avoid plastic wraps--place prepared sandwiches in wax paper, brown paper, napkins or clean white tea towels to allow it to breathe. Viana shares her favorite sandwiches like her father's ricotta based Panino di Pap, Monster Mushroom Panino, Vinegared Eggplant Panino, Tiny Garlic Sandwiches, Green Olive Panino and Tomato and Mozzarella Toast, the Italian version of our grilled cheese.
Ending on a sweet note, Viana feels the best way to have a spectacular finish to a meal is with luscious tree-ripened fruit for dessert. A long-standing custom in the Mediterranean, fruit is always served with wine, and Viana captures the taste of this delectable combination of Peaches in Asti Spumante. Another fruit dessert is Frutta e Verdura, made for an Italian offering called sopratavola. This recipe uses a selection of raw fruits and vegetables such as fennel bulbs, celery hearts, melon, and grape clusters, known specifically to cool and refresh the body, lightly sweeten the mouth, and aid digestion. "The fresh, sweet juices, mineral essences, mingled soft earthy scents, and absence of pretense are at the very heart of what eating is all about," she says.