|Nancy Harmon Jenkins divides her time between Camden, Maine, and Tuscany.|
Savoring the slow-cooked cuisine of southern Italy
It's not hard to know when you're in southern Italian culinary terrain. Miraculously, you can make a week's worth of meals out of bread, pasta, tomatoes, greens, and an occasional piece of fish. For seasoning, use garlic, lemons, olives, parsley, anchovies, red chilies, and Parmesan or pecorino - strong or salty flavors that make whatever they're served with sweet and succulent by contrast.
This is the taste of the Mezzogiorno, the subject of Nancy Harmon Jenkins's thorough new book, "Cucina del Sole." , who divides her time between Camden, Maine, and Tuscany, presents slow food at its best, built up in layers of flavor out of a minimum of ingredients. That's not to say they're quick. Few recipes took me less than an hour, but for some of them I would have waited all day.
These dishes are perfect for a New England autumn, when the tomatoes are still abundant, but evenings are cool. Not every recipe is foolproof, but there's enough buried treasure here to keep Mediterranean-minded cooks digging happily for months.
Bean soup with escarole, in particular, was simplicity raised to an art. It was nothing more than white beans and slightly bitter greens, but the aromatics - garlic, celery, chili, parsley - infused the beans with earthy virtue, and naturally sweetened the escarole. Orecchiette with broccoli rabe had a salty, insolent quality (if somewhat one-dimensional) reminiscent of a good puttanesca sauce, thanks to a hefty dose of garlic and anchovies. Jenkins's instructions yielded a thick but not overly doughy homemade pasta.
The frittata-like ciambutella started with a deeply fragrant, thick, and savory sauce of tomatoes and sausages, and evolved into a hearty egg dish generous with basil and oregano. Our favorite by far was the humble braised squid and potatoes. Cooked in a little wine and baked in the oven, the squid were coaxed right past their rubbery stage. The result was a mass of flavorfully tender rings and tentacles crusted with Parmesan- and parsley-flavored bread crumbs. By the end, even the 6-year-old at our table was fighting over the brown bits in the bottom of the pan.
Not every dish met with such success: Lemon and garlic chicken, baked with rosemary and a pile of lemons and garlic, somehow failed to develop into more than the sum of its parts. What I thought of as braised cauliflower with the usual suspects (red onion, chili, cherry tomatoes, olives, pecorino) was underwhelming in the same way, not an inspired experience I couldn't have discovered on my own.
Baked goods were a similar mixed bag of the triumphant and so-so. It took two slow rises over a day and a half to make golden semolina bread, but its sunny yellow crumb and gorgeous, chewy crust convinced me to do it twice in a week. I thought three-onion focaccia was a sure bet, but instead of the chewy, spongy, savory bread I expected, it turned out to be just like an overbaked pizza crust (I suspect the dough should have had a final rise, as in Jenkins's basic focaccia recipe, but it was nowhere indicated in this one.)
There was the memorable lemon delight, which involved lemon sponge cake, lemon syrup, lemon pastry cream, and whipped lemon icing. But what a celestial outcome! I was later to discover that the cake is at its most delicious after chilling several hours, but by then, I am sorry to say, it was half gone.
Books like Jenkins's encourage you to savor a longer journey from raw ingredients to finished dish. I am sure I can taste the hours of devotion in a slow-simmered tomato sauce. Funny thing is, it gets eaten just as fast.