I recently spent three weeks in Northern Italy, including Tuscany (Siena, Volterra, Pisa, and Florence). Along the way, I had the opportunity to sample regional Tuscan specialties at numerous osterias, including several Slow Food restaurants. Upon returning home, I was looking for a cookbook that would capture the magical essence of the Tuscan landscapes, honeyed sunsets, and simple but soulful cooking that I’d enjoyed. When I heard about “Cucina Povera,” I contacted the author, who was kind enough to write back almost immediately and send a review copy via her publicist.
Pamela Sheldon Johns gives culinary workshops in several regions of Italy, and is the owner of an agriturismo in Montepulciano that has a 1,250-tree olive farm. A regular visitor to Italy for nearly three decades, she has written sixteen cookbooks, many with distinctly Italian themes (Gelato!: Italian Ice Creams, Sorbetti, and Granite, The Williams-Sonoma Collection: Risotto,Prosciutto, Pancetta, Salame, etc.). Her latest work “Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking” focuses on peasant dishes borne of necessity and hardship that are now served in restaurants around the world.
Hit particularly hard during and after WWII, many Tuscan families lived on the brink of starvation, forced to forage and hunt. Leftovers were scrupulously reused, particularly unsalted bread. This gave rise to dishes like ribollita (“reboiled” soup made from vegetables, olive oil, and stale bread) and panzanella (bread salad dressed with tomatoes and olive oil). “Cucina Povera” includes several personal stories from elderly Italians who lived through dire poverty, and their memories of special foods that brightened otherwise difficult times. The memoirs provide a historical footnote to the recipes within without overwhelming the main function as cookbook (roughly the first forty pages are taken up by various interviews and introductions to various areas of Tuscany). There are interesting historical tidbits scattered throughout.
Recipe titles are given in Italian in a large, flowing font with a smaller English translation underneath (both Italian and English titles are indexed, with the Italian recipe names printed in italics). Ingredients and instructions are straightforward and brief for many recipes. Most ingredients are limited largely to pantry staples and bread, olive oil, herbs, and fresh produce (the notable exception are the recipes calling for chestnut flour). If you want to speed things along, using canned stock and canned cooked beans will speed up your cooking time.
Some of the more unusual recipes that caught my eye were schiacciata all’uva (grape foccacia studded with walnuts), farinata toscana (cornmeal, kale, and bean soup), and pomodori, fagoioli e cipolline (roasted tomatoes, beans and onions). You’ll also find simple, comfort food favorites pici (fat rolled noodles), frittatas, polenta (including a chestnut variation), meat and game, and regional sweets like Sienese cantucci, ricciarelli, and brutti ma buoni.
I tried making several of the recipes, starting with the roasted tomatoes, beans and onions. The recipe, like many in the book, relies on a few star ingredients, allowing the flavor of each to shine through. I tracked down cipolline onions and fennel to go with the potatoes, tomatoes, and cannellini beans. Perhaps it was the type of potato I used (baby Dutch yellow), but despite baking for the 35 minutes at 400 called for in the recipe, even after an additional hour of roasting, the potatoes remained hard (the other ingredients softened into a buttery sweetness, particularly the cipolline onions and fennel). The next time I make this, I may parboil the potatoes first. The next recipe was the farro soup, which uses a simple base of onion, garlic, carrot and celery to complement the nutty sweetness of the farro. A garnish of parsley adds a dash of bright flavor. Finally, the roasted chicken with vin santo is massaged with aromatic herbs and olive oil, and the pan drippings are then deglazed with marsala (or another fortified wine). The end result was soul-warming comfort food perfect for a blustery fall or winter’s day.
The cookbook is gorgeous to look at as well, with heavy paper and deckled edges. The photography vividly captures various aspects of the Tuscan landscapes, from medieval skylines to its interviewed elderly residents cooking and preparing local food. There are a number of historic photographs as well as ample photos of finished dishes. The photographs and pages are matte, so there is no issue of glare if using a cookbook holder. At the back are a list of resources and metric conversions and equivalents.
This is a lovely cookbook that captures the flavors and history behind some of Tuscany’s well-known dishes, and a beautiful souvenir for those fortunate enough to have visited some of the varied Tuscan provinces highlighted within.
(Review copy courtesy of Andrews McMeel Publishing)