Friday, September 29, 2006

Reading. the silver spoon.

The shelf next to my bed is reserved for cookbooks, which I take to bed with me and pore over for hours, dreaming of dinners with friends, dinners of roast meats or braised stews, of pastas and potatoes, of chocolate cakes oozing on the plate or puddings like a warm hug. Each one is an old friend, either one I cook from all the time, or one I've never tried, only dreaming about the recipes within. Pages are marked with post-its. Some of these books have been discovered randomly, or recommended by a friend, or seen in the pages of a magazine.

The Silver Spoon is the bible of Italian cooking, with over 2,000 recipes. It is to Italy what The Joy of Cooking is to America, and has been a classic for some fifty years. Last year it was translated into English, and now it is mine. When it was mentioned in one magazine, I noticed. When yet another magazine burbled on about its extensive repertoire of recipes, I remembered it. When I came across it a third time, I knew I had to have it. There are cookbooks which have loads of pictures showing you each step, so you know the proper way to debone a chicken, stuff it with pâté, and tie it with string so it looks like a melon. There are cookbooks where the writer chummily expounds on how her daughter loves pink frosting on her cupcakes or her sister made her salads with this dressing. The Silver Spoon is neither of these.

There are few pictures, color photographs of the finished dish, or little pen-and-ink drawings of ingredients, the former seductive in their simplicity, the latter adorably amusing. There are recipes for things I've never heard of, such as buck's horn plaintain (a 'uniquely Italian vegetable...not a common vegetable in other countries and is difficult to obtain outside of Italy'), and vegetables that I wouldn't recognize if one bit me in the ass (cardoons), even if I've heard of them. Each recipe is a brief paragraph or two, organized by genre and then again by ingredient. There are eight recipes for sweetbreads, nine recipes for brains, not to mention recipes for hearts, livers, and what are translated as 'lights' - lungs. I can hardly wait to try them all.

Everything looks simple and mouth-wateringly enticing, a deadly combination. It reminds me of what I love most about Italian food, that at its best it is about the ingredients, without anything to distract from the purity of the main ingredient. It is unfussy, uncomplicated, and still refined. The writing is clear, and occasionally funny, in the way that things translated from another language often are. (The chapter on globe artichokes makes the point that their considerable fiber content makes them useful for the digestive system). I cannot wait to try the artichoke clafoutis, or the mozzarella pumpkin sandwich, or perhaps a braised beef with Barolo, and what would life be without a tiramisu or a chestnut cake?

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