Posted: July 09, 2009

A Southern Chef's Love Affair With Italian Food

Artisan Books, $40.

This cookbook could easily be overlooked as a coffee table book, but that would be an injustice to the author. Stitt is the chef/owner of restaurants in Birmingham, Ala., including the Highlands Bar & Grill, and Bottega Restaurant & Cafe. Winner of the James Beard Foundation's Award for the Best Chef in the Southeast, he was also nominated for 2008 Outstanding Chef. He cooks imaginative Italian food with a Southern twist: pizza with tomato chutney and roasted sweet peppers; potato ravioli with crawfish, candied lemon and Tabasco.

While his recipes are full of fresh, local ingredients, I appreciate Stitt's practical substitutions. Don't feel like roasting your own peppers? Buy good quality jarred peppers. Can't find rapini (broccoli rabe)? Use spinach. The bold flavors and step-by-step instructions make Stitt's food accessible to the home cook. It's not just food you want to make; it's food you can make. And to complete the meal, there are wine suggestions after each recipe.

There are also helpful chapters on techniques, tools and sources, and one chapter devoted to cocktails. The Mirtillo (blueberry) Martini and the Southside - which is described as a gin mojito - are delicious and refreshing. Spot on for a summer gathering.

The first recipes I tried were the Roasted Peppers Stuffed With Goat Cheese, and the Tortellini Salad With Chicken, Pine Nuts, Sultanas, and Balsamic. I loved that these dishes combined both sweet and savory elements. The roasted pepper dish paired sultanas (golden raisins) with tart goat cheese and a fresh basil chiffonade, while the tortellini salad included the sultanas with the pasta and a simple balsamic dressing. A wonderful crunchy bread-crumb coating added great texture to the roasted pepper and warm goat cheese, making this an excellent vegetarian option for antipasti or entrée. The salad ingredients were mostly things I had in the pantry, making it an easy, yet satisfying dinner to throw together. The tortellini is a much needed alternative to the usual summer party pasta salad, but truthfully, I did not think this dish needed the 1/4 cup mayo, so I omitted it with great results. (I don't like using mayo in the heat of summer for outdoor dining due to spoiling.)

Stitt's understanding and passion for what he does shows throughout the book. The hanger steak with panzanella salad is a simple dish, but full of clean, bold flavors. The toasted bread salad, composed of tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted peppers, onions, basil and parsley, is seasoned with nothing more than olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. The flavors are so simple, but I could not get enough of it. This is a perfect spring/summer dinner as you could grill the bread, peppers, and steak with very little else to prep.

We finished dinner with the wonderful apple crostada. First, the crust is amazing. It's literally put together in seconds in the food processor, chilled for 30 minutes, and so easy to work with. It rolled out like a dream and was flaky and delicious. The flavors of the frangipane layer mix perfectly with the lightly sweetened apples. It is a lovely rustic tart and, surprisingly, just as good from the refrigerator the next day.

Bottega Favorita is what a cookbook should be: intelligent, full of inspired recipes, beautifully photographed, and still fully functional. Stitt sets the bar high for all chefs writing restaurant cookbooks.

Apple Crostata

Makes 6 servings

For the crust:

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and chilled

3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

For the frangipane:

2/3 cup sugar

1 cup slivered almonds

Tiny pinch of salt

9 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

1 1/2 teaspoons all-purpose flour

For the apple filling:

4 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/2-inch thick wedges

2 tablespoons unsalted    butter, melted

3 tablespoons light brown sugar

1. To prepare the crust, combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the chilled butter cubes and mix until the butter is partially broken up, but still very chunky. Add 3 tablespoons of ice water and mix until the dough just comes together. If needed, add additional ice water in very small increments. Gather the dough together, shape it into a disk, and wrap in plastic. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

2. While the dough chills, prepare the frangipane by placing 1/4 cup of the sugar, the almonds, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and process until the almonds are finely ground, about 1 minute. Set aside.

3. Wipe out the bowl of the mixer, add the softened butter and the remaining sugar, and beat on high speed with the paddle attachment until well combined, about 1 minute. Add the pulverized almond mixture and mix on low speed until well combined. Add the egg and then the egg yolk, beating well after each addition. Continue beating the mixture on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Mix in the flour until just combined. Set the frangipane aside.

4. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.

5. Lightly flour your work surface and roll the chilled dough out into a circle 15 inches in diameter. Transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Spread half (1 cup) of the frangipane evenly over the dough, leaving a 2-inch border around the perimeter. Arrange the apples in an even layer over the frangipane. Fold the border of the crust over toward the center of the circle, partially covering the apples. Brush the crust with the melted butter. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar over the crust, and the remaining tablespoon of sugar over the apples.

6. Bake the crostata for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the apples are tender and the crust is golden brown. Slide the tart off the pan onto a wire rack, remove the parchment paper, and let cool before slicing into wedges to serve.

- From Frank Stitt's Bottega Favorita (Artisan, 2008)

Note: The dough can be prepared in advance, but must be kept chilled right up until baking time. This recipe makes twice as much frangipane as you will need, but it also freezes well. Use it later for another crostata.

Per serving:

701 calories, 9 grams protein, 66 grams carbohydrates, 43 grams sugar, 47 grams fat, 159 milligrams cholesterol, 217 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

Robin Currie is a writer who lives in Narberth.

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