I've formed a bad habit of turning away from Italian restaurants in favor of Mexican, Indian or "creative American" (a term I don't much care for, but I like a lot of what's served up at dining spots that identify themselves that way). That's because I grew up in a time when Italian was synonymous with spaghetti and lasagna and not much else.
Heavy; that's the sad word that's rubber-stamped all over the Italian file in my gastronomic memory.
Now, though the Italian cuisine that's available to me is no longer stereotyped, my stereotyped notion of the food that comes from the homeland of Verdi, Michelangelo, Fellini and Bertolucci persists. And thinking of those beloved masters isn't much help. Food historians say Verdi's favorite dish was parmigiano-reggiano flan stuffed with pork. Celeste Aida! A cholesterol bomb.
So it was a happy surprise last week to open a review copy of an Italian cookbook with recipes for light Italian dishes. For lots of grilled vegetables in vivid colors. For a cuisine with a varied flavor palette and very few items that demand to be drowned in tomato sauce.
Cookbooks with a family angle are popular these days, and with good reason. First, they invite us to view them through the prisms of our own family memories; we look at the authors' family photos and see our own mothers and grandmothers in those aprons. Then on the practical side, there's not much question about whether a recipe works when it's been executed by tried-and-true methods for 50 years or more.
Giuliano Hazan's Hazan Family Favorites: Beloved Italian Recipes is an appealing contribution to this genre and a gift to those who want to incorporate Italian light (not "lite," not faux "low-cal") into their culinary vocabularies. Its publisher, Abrams, scores a point for the book's health cred by enhancing its press cover page, not with the formula for a rich, showy piece de resistance, but with Hazan's grandfather's favorite recipe for beans: cannellini beans with parsley and tomatoes. The book has a back-to-basics feel that's refreshing; flavor is not sacrificed, and the recipes seldom call for expensive, hard-to-find ingredients.
The "Photo-Shoot Chicken," for example, uses chicken, onion, zucchini, tomatoes, bell pepper, olive oil and black pepper: familiar, easily available elements. Braised leeks and peas; Brussels sprouts braised with pancetta; grilled Belgian endive and radicchio; risotto with mushroom medley; grilled eggplant, and grilled fruit (a dish combining peaches, apricots, bananas, figs and plums) all use ingredients that are quite within reach, and appeal to the tastes of people who like serious good food that can be managed within the frame of an everyday routine.
There are dishes for special occasions: veal scaloppini with black truffles, artistically presented insalata Russa with its decorative flower contrived from pieces of wine-red beet. There are variations on pizza. There are desserts: Nutella ice cream, strawberry gelato, polenta cookies.
These are dishes you can imagine people making in a quiet home kitchen, and not necessarily an affluent kitchen; dishes you can imagine yourself making, and working their preparation into your daily routine quite efficiently with a little practice.
For an example of easy, affordable, tasty comfort food, let's get back to Grandpa Fin's beans. Hazan recalls a family cookbook with a picture of "a rugged-looking man hungrily eating a bowl of beans" on its cover: "There's something very manly," he says, "about a dish of beans."
Nonno Fin's Beans
Preparation time: 30 minutes
2 medium cloves garlic
5 to 6 sprigs flat-leaf Italian
3 Tbsps. extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup canned whole peeled
tomatoes with their juice
3 cups cannellini beans,
Freshly ground black pepper
Peel and finely chop the garlic. Finely chop enough parsley leaves to measure about 2 Tbsps. Put the garlic, parsley and olive oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat.
When all the garlic is sizzling, add the canned tomatoes and break them into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Cook for about 1 minute, then add the beans and season with salt and pepper. Once the contents of the pan are bubbling, reduce the heat to medium low, cover the pan and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve hot or warm.?