Thursday, December 23, 2010

This is my last post for 2010, and I'm devoting it to two recently published books that are terrific and must-haves: Biscotti: Recipes from the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome (The Little Bookroom) and Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy's 89 Finest Wines (Clarkson Potter).
I no longer buy biscotti, the generic word for cookies in Italian, since I started making them myself. I can't bring myself to pay upwards of $2, $3, or $4 for something that is just not very hard to make. Plus, I can't stand all those newfangled versions, with white chocolate stripes and odd combinations of dried fruit and spices and triple milk and dark chocolate, etc. As I mention in my Tuscany and Umbria book, I have for many years now been baking the Biscotti di Prato recipe from Biscotti by Lou Siebert Pappas (Chronicle Books, 1992) and the basic Biscotti recipe in Corby Kummer's The Joy of Coffee (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), and both of these recipes have been unfailingly delicious. So when I heard about this new Biscotti book, I wasn't all that tempted. But then I got a copy and made a few recipes, and I will now proclaim that this is positively the best book on Italian cookies currently available, and is on a short list of best cookbooks for Italian desserts. Alice Waters, who contributed the Foreword, helped to create the Rome Sustainable Food Project, which is dedicated to providing organic, local, and sustainable meals for the community of the American Academy in Rome. Waters hired Mona Talbott, a Chez Panisse alum, to head up the Project, and Talbott has co-authored this book with Mirella Misenti, the pastry cook at the Academy. Talbott informs readers that "at noon each day a plate of freshly baked biscotti is placed on the end of the AAR bar to tempt the noisy crowd that drinks espresso after lunch. We know from experience that warm cioccolata e nocciole sell out quickly and that the handsome AAR gardeners are particularly fond of the baci di cocco. The library staff who come for coffee at precisely 3:30 love the biscotti di fichi; bolle di neve is relished by the friendly library reader from Bologna. It seems that everyone has a favorite." There are recipes for Milk & Wine Biscotti, Nut Biscotti, Honey, Citrus and Spice Biscotti, Meringues, and five recipes for biscotti with chocolate. For me, the recipes in the Honey, Citrus and Spice section were a revelation: I'd previously thought that the biscotti I'd seen with all those dried fruit in them were contrived; actually, I still think most of them are. But when I learned that the Academy has a large citrus grove, and that the cooking staff is always looking to use lemons and oranges in their cooking, it made perfect sense to me to use ingredients in your backyard, so to speak. This little (approximately 5 1/2 " x 7 1/4") book is filled with color photographs and is great for gift-giving, but is also essenziale in any Italophile's kitchen!
My question for Joe Bastianiach, the author of Grandi Vini, is, why only 89 wines? Or, why not just 50? Why not go for 100? It doesn't really matter. I believe anyone reading this knows that Joe is a partner, with Mario Batali, of a number of acclaimed Italian restaurants, and is also the son of Lidia Bastianich, cookbook author and star of her own PBS show. Joe is also one of America's foremost authorities on Italian wine, and he has been honored with a James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional. He is also the proprietor of four wine estates in Italy, and most recently, he opened Eataly New York -- a fabulous Italian culinary marketplace -- with Oscar Farinetti, Batali, and his Mom, and if you have visited Eataly you know how wonderful an outpost it is! The reason I love this book so much is that Joe tells the stories behind the people who make these noteworthy wines. I'm attracted to this because I, too, am a teller of stories, and in fact it is what makes my Collected Traveler books so unique. When I was younger, in what I will refer to as my salad days, I worked as a news and feature reporter in print, radio, and television, and what I loved most about my job was meeting the people I was to interview and hearing their stories. This is what makes the world an interesting place. Yes, travel is about seeing things but it is equally about meeting people and finding out how these people are connected to places and to sites. As Joe notes, "I handpicked these wines not only for their absolute quality but also for what they represent in the current Italian enological landscape; each wine and its maker tells us a story. Although the wines often speak for themselves in the glass, the details of their journey from grape to bottle are likewise illuminating." This is a great book to give to someone who is new to Italian wine or to someone who is very familiar with lots of Italian wines; but it's also great for you. Granted, Mario Batali may be biased, but I think he's got it absolutely right when he notes that "Reading Grandi Vini is like being a member of a secret wine geek club, with access to the previously private whole magilla on the modern Italian wine world."

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