Cookbooks that cover Italy's toe, heel, knee and more

Posted: August 26, 2004

Southern Italian cooking has long taken a back seat to the more complex and sophisticated cuisines of northern environs, such as Rome, Florence, Bologna and Venice. These are the areas tourists visit most, hence the perception that the culinary experiences there represent all of Italy.

The traditional cuisines from the "toe" and "heel" of Italy's boot and the island it is "kicking" - Sicily - are often overlooked. But a new cookbook takes a closer look at this intriguing region.

The Flavors of Southern Italy by Erica De Mane (Wiley, $29.95) tours the territory via 225 enticing recipes accompanied by an extensive and engaging text. The author, whose heritage is southern Italian, shares her homework with the reader by exploring the traditional dishes and the ways to prepare them, then "adding savor to them."

"There is much overlapping of flavors and styles in Italy's deep south," she writes. "That's why a sauce from Sicily can often blend effortlessly with a fish-cooking technique from Naples."

By the same token, De Mane has taken some regional recipes and blended them with "un-Italian ingredients, such as avocado, fresh corn, salmon, Maine lobsters, endive . . . and shiitake mushrooms."

The essential southern Italian ingredients are all examined at some length at the beginning of the book. The contemplative text, covering the use of such items as oranges and lemons, capers, anchovies, nutmeg, basil, pine nuts and wine, provides some great reading. For example, in Sicily she became fascinated with the many ways oranges were used.

"I couldn't believe a culture had come up with a dish that mixed sweet oranges with sea salt, black pepper, olive oil, green olives, anchovies, fennel and red onion in one dish."

Eye-catching recipes include Coleslaw With Sicilian Flavors; Chicken Salad With Pine Nuts, Currants and Basil; Sauteed Flounder With Butter, Orange and Basil; Big Shrimp Gratin With Spicy Orange Bread Crumbs; Baked Tagliatelle With Braised Duck, Black Olives and Bechamel; and Peach and Basil Pizza, served as a dessert.

The book offers a dozen menus (most for large groups), a glimpse of regional wines, a list of mail-order purveyors, and many hours of cooking and reading pleasure. In the above recipe from the Puglia region, De Mane describes the shape of cavatelli as "little curled lozenges."

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The cuisine of central Italy is addressed in Roma: Authentic Recipes From In and Around the Eternal City by Julia Della Croce (Chronicle, $19.95 paperback). The author gives cooks and travelers a lively if somewhat superficial look at what Romans eat and serve.

Inviting recipes in this attractive small cookbook include Stewed Baby Back Ribs and Sausages With Polenta, Bruschetta With Mushroom Topping, Bread Salad, Roasted Fish Fillets With Fennel Crust, and Roasted Onions With Vinegar Dressing.

Della Croce includes lists of popular eateries and accommodations, local festivals, and places to take Italian cooking classes in Rome and the United States.

To set the mood, try an appetizing snack of Bull's-Eye (Occhio di Bue): For each serving, pour 3 to 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil on an individual appetizer plate. Pour about 2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar in the center of each pool of oil to create the pupil of the eye. Sprinkle with sea salt to taste and serve with good Italian bread, two slices per person.

Cavatelli With Zucchini, Potatoes and Ricotta Salata

Makes 4 entree or 6 first-course servings

4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 pound cavatelli pasta

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

6 scallions, white and tender green parts, cut in thin rounds

8 or 9 young zucchini (about 4 inches) or smallest available, cut into 1/2-inch dice

Leaves from 3 or 4 thyme sprigs, chopped fine

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons dry white wine

1/2 cup grated ricotta salata, plus some garnish (see note)

Generous handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped

1. In a pot of salted boiling water, cook the potatoes until just tender and still hold their shape, about 4 minutes. Using a skimmer, transfer the potatoes to a colander; drain.

2. Return water to a boil, add the pasta. Cook just tender.

3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the 3 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add the scallions and zucchini. Season with thyme, salt and pepper. Saute until zucchini is tender but holds its shape, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the potatoes. Saute 1 to 2 minutes to flavor. Reserve vegetables; keep warm.

4. Add the wine to the pan. Stir to scrape up the pan juices to blend into your sauce. (This adds a lot of flavor to the dish.)

5. In a warm serving bowl, mix the grated ricotta salata and basil. Season with fresh pepper and drizzle with olive oil.

6. Drain the pasta (reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water). Add the pasta to the sauce in bowl and toss to coat the pasta.

7. Add the vegetables and sauce to the bowl and toss gently, adding a little of the pasta cooking water if needed to loosen the sauce. Serve with more grated ricotta salata at the table.

Note: Sicily's ricotta salata, milder and smoother than Romano, is a hard cheese made from lightly salted sheep's milk curd.

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 448 calories, 15 grams protein, 73 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 94 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

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