Friday, June 22, 2012

Book jacket photo by Steven Rothfeld, / photo of Frances Mayes and two others, taken at Bramasole, by Peggy Harrison,

"Food!  The obsesssion of every Tuscan."  -- Frances Mayes

My most recent interview with Frances Mayes ("Catching Up with Frances Mayes") appears in the current issue of Dream of Italy!  (If you are already a subscriber you've likely read it by now, and if you're not a subscriber, you should be!  Seriously, when you subscribe to DOI you become part of a passionate community of Italy enthusiasts, and in addition to the monthly newsletter you have access to the archive, receive some special discounts, etc., etc., plus Kathy maintains a blog which she updates daily.)  

Dream of Italy Founder, Editor, and Publisher, Kathy McCabe, still receives lots of queries about Frances from her readers, so the publication of a new book by Frances and her husband, Edward Mayes -- The Tuscan Sun Cookbook: Recipes From our Italian Kitchen (Clarkson Potter) -- seemed like an opportune moment for another interview (I interviewed Mayes in 2005 for Dream of Italy and I had the very great pleasure of meeting her at Bramasole when I was working on my Tuscany and Umbria book -- my interview with her appears on pages 160-169).   

Frances and Ed collected their favorite recipes for this book, and as Frances writes in the 'La Cucina' chapter, "If you came to visit me in Tuscany, we would cook the food described in this book."  What I didn't have space for in Dream of Italy is to mention some of the recipes I've had the chance to make over the last few months.  Here I can report to you that I had great success with the following:
*Chicken with Olives and Tomatoes (I didn't use the recipe for roasted tomato that appears on page 42, but rather I used one I'd cut out of some publication or another that simply calls for cherry tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary)
*Farro Salad (double delicious if you love farro as much as I do)
*Fiorella's Red Pepper Tart (though Fiorella apparently purchases ready-made piecrusts, I don't, ever, after buying one once and it was horrible -- perhaps in Italy there are good quality crusts available; so I made the pate brisee crust in the first edition of Martha Stewart's Pies and Tarts, which has long been my go-to, never-fail, recipe though probably more authentic would be a pasta frolla (recipe on page 192) minus the sugar)
*Onion Soup in the Arezzo Style (as the recipe states, you eat this with a fork -- it gets baked in the oven and still comes out a little bit soupy)    
*Pici with Fresh Fava Beans (A friend had given me some pici pasta, unique to Tuscany, that she'd bought at O & Co. and this recipe was calling as I love, love, love fava beans)
*Green Beans with Black Olives (the recipe also calls for orange peel, which my husband absolutely detests, so I used lemon instead)
*Ed's Crostini Neri (I've made a fair number of recipes for this classic Tuscan starter of chicken liver on toast but I'm making this one exclusively from now on)

In truth, a number of recipes in the book are quite similar to those in other Tuscan or Italian cookbooks, so home cooks should not expect to find 150 unique recipes; but many feature a unique twist on a well-known favorite, and still others are from local places in and around Cortona and elsewhere in Tuscany that Ed and Frances particularly like, as well as from places like The Catering Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, run by Franca Dotti who is originally from Milan. 

I have bookmarked lots more pages with recipes, and I'll make them over the next few months.  But for me, this book is more about inspiration: I love reading about the seasonal rhythm at Bramasole; about local traditions; and about all the friends Frances and Ed have made in and around Cortona, notably Sylvia Regi at the lovely and trendsetting Relais Il Falconiere (Sylvia is pictured in my book on page 499) and Ann Cornelisen, author of a treasured book, Torregreca: Life, Death, and Miracles in a Southern Italian Village, originally published in 1969 and reissued by Steerforth Italia in 1998; Frances loves it also as she wrote the Foreword to the Steerforth edition.  I also love looking at the photographs of the tables set alfreso, and as I note in my Dream of Italy piece, I love that the label for Bramasole's olive oil features a detail from 'The Birth of the Baptist' fresco in the Cappella Tornabuoni in Santa Maria Novella by Ghirlandaio. I'm sorry to say I haven't yet tried Bramasole oil, but I'm now hugely anticipating it.  The oil is only available by mail order -- essentially you become a member of the Bramasole convivium and commit to purchase the oil in advance of the harvest.  Ed and Frances only import the amount of oil that has been pre-purchased, and it's not available in retail stores (I suppose it might be at some point in the future, but not now).  For all the details about the oil and for ordering, browse  

Perhaps the best reason for reading and cooking from this book is expressed by Frances: "Most recipes are simple and the few that are not are fun.  This is real Tuscan food from a small hill town we have grown to love as home.  Because of our  many years here, we've had the great luck to learn about Tuscan food from the inside, not as visitors...what I hope becomes real for you is the astonishing range of Tuscan food, and the sense of joy that permeates the Tuscan kitchen."   


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Photos above the book are of the Villa Aurelia and the Mercedes and Sid R. Bass Gardens, American Academy in Rome, taken from the AAR website,

At the end of March, I was invited to a swell party to launch a terrific little book, Zuppe: Soups From the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome by Mona Talbott with photographs by Annie Schlechter. This volume is actually the second in a series which is devoted to the Rome Sustainable Food Project, published by The Little Bookroom – you may remember that I kvelled about the first book, Biscotti, when it was published in the fall of 2010.

Though the festa for the book was almost three months ago, I have waited to post anything about it because I wanted to make enough of the recipes so I could accurately talk about it (though for the record, my aim is not to post about stuff I don’t like, which seems wasteful and mean spirited, so if it’s on my blog it’s something I want to enthuse about). Oddly perhaps, since everyone loves soup and soup recipes are very forgiving, I love the Biscotti book a little more than Zuppe, but that’s because I’m a baker and I am crazy for biscotti. However, Zuppe is a keeper and has earned a deserved spot on my (crowded) kitchen bookshelves.

At the American Academy (more about this below), soup is served every day. As Talbott writes in her Introduction, “we fill a large glazed terracotta zuppiera at the very last possible minute and carry it out to the lunch table…The vast Italian vocabulary for soup – aquacotta, brodo, crema, minestra, minestrina, minestrone, pappa, passata, ribollita, vellutata, zuppa – has become part of daily life here on the Janiculum Hill.” Some of these recipes are also found in other Italian cookbooks (though they are not identical) but most are original to the Academy’s cucina. Here are the soups I have made:

Spicy Carrot Soup (simple but quite delicious)

Lentil, Rice, and Chicory Soup (really good; I substituted Grana Padana for Pecorino Romano)

Potato and Fennel Soup (great combination of ingredients)

Chicken and Farro Soup (my husband and I love farro, and this one is a winner)

Chickpea, Pumpkin, and Farro Soup (another no-brainer; I used butternut squash)

Tomato and Rice Soup (I’ve always liked this minestra but this is a better version than the recipe I’d been making)

Chickpea and Pasta Soup (again, this version is far better than my former go-to one)

Soups I’m trying over the next few weeks: Fava Bean, English Pea, and Chicken Meatball Soup, Asparagus and Small Pasta Soup, Very Green Spring Vegetable Soup, Pureed Pea Soup with Mint, Pea and New Potato Soup.

In my house, my husband, daughter, and I have a lot of meals that are soup and salad, year-round. If some recipes are time consuming to make and eat on the same weeknight, it’s completely doable to make a soup for the next night’s dinner, or to make soup on Sunday night and eat it one night over the next few days. With Zuppe in hand you will not lack choices, and a bonus I didn’t expect is that the majority of these recipes feature inexpensive ingredients, and when you consider that soups typically provide more than one meal they are quite economical indeed. I also really like that the recipes are arranged by season, and honestly, I believe I will work my way through every single recipe in this book. (And by the way, what appear to be food stains on the book jacket really aren’t – they’re supposed to be there, I like to think because it’s an indication that this book will be a well-used volume in anyone’s kitchen.)

Author Mona Talbott was at the Zuppe book party, and though I didn’t have the opportunity to meet her, I enjoyed her remarks to the gathered guests. She’s certainly had some of the best jobs I can think of: working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and at Eli’s Vinegar Factory and E.A.T. in New York; consulting for Hillary Clinton at her home in Chappaqua, New York; chef for photographer Annie Leibovitz; and designing a children’s gardening and cooking program for Bette Midler’s Restoration Project in New York. Since 2007, Talbott has been Executive Chef at the Rome Sustainable Food Project (her best job yet in my opinion!), a fabulous idea that was envisioned by Alice Waters in 2006. According to Talbott, the food served at the American Academy had traditionally been fairly mediocre; but according to the Academy’s website, now the RSFP “has transformed the community of the American Academy in Rome…Our food inspired by la cucina romana, Chez Panisse, and the collective experience of those working in the AAR kitchen, has created an edible narrative in our communal meals.” RSFP is a member of Rome’s Slow Food Community, and its menus reflect inspiration from the history of food in the Lazio region as well as from the culture of the AAR.

I am dying to visit the AAR (via Angelo Masina 5), and yes, I’m also dreaming about applying for the Visiting Artist and Scholars program so I may live there while working on a book about Rome. (There are tours of the Academy, by appointment, Monday through Friday; and there are lots of events that are open to the public – check the site, and note there are also events in its New York office, 7 East 60th Street / (212) 751.7200 / Founded in 1894, the AAR is my kind of paradiso: officially, the mission of the Academy is to “foster the pursuit of advanced research and independent study in the fine arts and humanities” and it was chartered as a private institution by an act of Congress in 1905. But more appealingly the AAR offers a chance for American artists and scholars “to spend significant time interacting and working in one of the oldest, most cosmopolitan cities in the world. The richness of Rome’s artistic and cultural legacy and its power to stimulate creative thinking served as the initial impetus for the Academy’s founding.” In addition to the beautiful Villa Aurelia and its surrounding gardens pictured above, there is the Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library and the Photo Archive, plus there are more gardens – about eight additional acres – on the property.

Additionally, the opportunity to share RSFP meals from the Academy’s kitchen is enormously appealing. Brad Kessler, an AAR Fellow in 2009, wrote on the AAR site that “today in Rome, one never feels far removed from Latium’s agricultural roots. Shepherds still graze their sheep along the airport road in Ostia. Wild arugula and fennel thrive in the city parks. Capers spill and bloom from the Aurelian walls. The kitchen at the academy knits together the seemingly disparate worlds of scholarship and eating. Culture and agriculture. Art on the page (canvas or mosaics) and art on the table. In Rome these arts have never been far removed.” Kessler concludes by noting that every meal at the Academy was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the Roman Campagna, and “we learned to live there, as we did back home, inside a landscape.” Positively the next best thing to being at the Academy (or anyplace you’re dreaming about) is to eat like you’re there, and Zuppe, like Biscotti, will transport you to the top of the second-highest hill in Rome. (Stay tuned for the next book in the series: Pasta!)