So many times when I have been out talking about my new book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, or joining in panel discussions about food, someone in the audience will ask what I think of the current crop of television food shows, and I have to admit that I don’t think much of them. In fact, it irritates me profoundly when the Food Network boasts, “We’re more than about food.” Why should they want to be “more” when food alone is such an endlessly fascinating subject? Why do they have to turn cooking into a competition, with testosterone as the main ingredient? But then I’ll pause: there is one exception, and often before I’ve said her name, someone will cry, “Lidia!” Everyone loves Lidia Bastianich—and with good reason. Lidia loves food with a passion and conveys her pleasure in cooking so persuasively that you can’t wait to get the pasta water boiling and to follow her lead creating yet one more delicious and often unexpected way of dressing it. Furthermore with every show we learn from her invaluable lessons in the finesse of cooking really good Italian food.
Recently I was in Boston with her where both of us were promoting our latest books, and we did a joint appearance at the Brattle Theatre. Talking about the research that she did for her just published, wonderful new book, Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy, she described vividly and lovingly the people she had met in some of the little-known parts of Italy she explored. Because the subject was food and food immediately creates a common denominator, she was able to get to the heart of each recipe, confirming her long-held conviction that what gives a regional dish its special distinction is the terroir, the soil and the environment that produces the fruits and vegetables, the olives and wine and cheeses, that lend a special character. In carefully ferreting out these secrets, she has been able to recreate the genuine flavors and bring them home to our kitchens.
But there was a deeper revelation that emerged in her search for recipes from the heart of Italy. In her introduction to the book, she says: “As overconsumption and greed have come to haunt us, it is now a time for reflection, for looking back at the generations before us, to understand their approach to the table. In my research into the twelve regions of Italy that I explore here, some answers came to light. The recipes I share with you reflect a respect for food—growing it, shepherding the animals, foraging for the gifts of nature in the wild, and hunting respectfully to put meat on the table, not just for sport. Nothing is wasted . . . This kind of respect also leads to a much more sensible and balanced intake of proteins, legumes, vegetables, and so on. In most of the recipes, it is evident that the dish is rooted in the reality of the times, when frugality went along with hard work, and home cooks made do with what was on hand. And of course they wanted dishes that would taste good. So you’ll find these recipes tasty, satisfying, relatively easy to prepare. But, most of all, they are a testimony to the harmony of elements that result in a harmony of taste.”
As we chatted together on the stage of the Brattle Theatre, sparring with one another about whether it’s more fun to cook for oneself or for a tableful of family and friends (both quite different experiences, we agreed) and whether or not almost any recipe can be successfully reduced to serve one (some disagreement there), I realized how much I have learned over the years from this extraordinarily creative, ever curious, and deeply responsible woman. In fact, my own theories about cooking for one took shape as I absorbed some of Lidia’s techniques for recycling leftovers in creative ways.
Several years ago when I was in her kitchen watching her prepare a lasagna with fresh pasta, after the dish had been assembled, there was just one stocking-like strip of pasta left, and I asked her (knowing full well the answer) if she was going to throw it out. “Of course not,” she answered, and promptly picked up the pasta, fit one end into a small baking dish and plopped a bit of yesterday’s bits of cooked meat lurking in her fridge on top. Then she folded and swung another portion of the pasta strip on top and covered that with her own tomato sauce (always on hand), and, of course, there was a layer of cheese. When the baking dish was filled she put it away for tomorrow when it could be quickly baked. Cook’s treat, she declared.
As our onstage conversation continued, Lidia offered a few examples from her book of the inventive ways in which yesterday’s bread can be used. One was a soup for which you first make a pasticciata, or layered casserole, of bread and fontina from Valle d’Aosta as well as Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, all moistened with chicken broth, and when that has baked, portions of it are transferred to bowls and broth is ladled over it. The other treasure she revealed with an enthusiasm that was contagious was of Chocolate Bread Parfait. Here the leftover bread is soaked in chocolate and espresso and then spooned into glass parfait dishes with layers of whipped cream and sliced almonds.
This is the kind of cooking that is so satisfying, particularly in these days of soaring food prices, and we can all say grazie to Lidia for giving such a wealth of recipes to have fun with.