The Book: Lidia’s Celebrate Like an Italian by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali, $45
Although this cookbook is designed with entertaining in mind, Lidia Bastianich also promises that her “foolproof” recipes will make every meal a party. This is part and parcel of Lidia’s philosophy of sharing her love for friends and family through every meal. Food, to Lidia, is about nurturing people and celebrating life. That’s also my platonic ideal, but reality often intrudes on fantasy — usually at some point on hump-day when you start wondering if there’s any IKEA food left in the freezer. Can Lidia’s foolproof instructions get me living the dream? We’ll find out.
No question, this a great-looking book. Even though some recipe pictures are jaw-droppingly beautiful (I’m looking at you, Polenta Torta with Gorgonzola and Savoy Cabbage), the photos aren’t intimidating. It all looks pretty approachable, especially if you start with one of her cocktail suggestions, like the Campari Americano (page 11). When first flipping through the book, I immediately dismissed any recipes that started with advice about advance prep, such as suggesting you could assemble a tart the day before serving. Honestly, I’m unlikely to spend two days on any one meal (no matter how much I want to show my love through food). Still, at first glance, more than half of the dishes seem like things I might make. Side note: It was impossible not to notice the inclusion of Grana Padano in, like, almost a quarter of the recipes (an excellent excuse to stock up on cheese), so I was pretty pumped.
Spaghetti with Anchovies and Bread Crumbs, page 236
Braised Veal Shank, page 288
Roasted Olives with Orange and Rosemary, page 34
Salad of Warm Greens with Bacon and Mushrooms, page 107
Crispy Baked Tomatoes, page 179
Do The Recipes Actually Work?
Since the book is devoted to both party food and every-day Italian, I decided to try cooking from each category. The chief advantage of Italian food is that it can often be ridiculously cheap, easy and still delicious. I picked a night when I’d usually be tempted to order in (late meeting) and, instead, hit the market with a grocery list for Spaghetti with Anchovies and Bread Crumbs (it requires seven simple, easy-to-find ingredients). With the help from my sous chef, who minced the garlic and chopped the parsley, we were eating our pasta in front of Godless, Episode 5, less than an hour after leaving the checkout line. At first bite, I thought the dish was lacking something, and then I hit a little pocket of crunchy bread crumbs and realized the dish was perfect just the way it was. Clean plates.
Feeling emboldened, I jumped right into the Braised Veal Shank (Osso Bucco), which I made for a small dinner party. Osso Bucco is sort of a white whale for me — I fell in love with a restaurant version years ago and, following the advice of chef friends, tried to duplicate it at home. It fell short of my fantasy shanks, and I gave up trying to make them.
Lidia’s recipe is a commitment, both in terms of time (hand-crushed tomatoes) and finances ($100 for four veal shanks), but I have to admit, I’m a total convert because it blew my guests’ minds. Finding good, thick-cut veal shanks involves calling the butcher in advance and the dish took almost two hours to prep. The process involved grating carrots, chopping celery and dicing onions for the mirepoix; the aforementioned tomato-crushing; folding cheesecloth for a spice sachet; zesting citrus; plus prepping stock and searing meat. After that, though, it was totally low-maintenance, laissez-faire cook — a three-hour braise in a Dutch oven.
Ultimately, it was well worth the effort (and expense) for this special-occasion meal. The priceless takeaway was that I sharpened my cooking skills while learning her braise technique, which involves close attention to detail in the grating, crushing and fine chop. I will never braise anything again without referring to Lidia’s approach.
While we waited for the shanks, I served my guests Roasted Olives with Orange and Rosemary — a big hit and dead simple to execute. You essentially add some chilies, oil, rosemary, orange zest and juice to olives and roast them for half an hour. It’s actually hard to imagine not serving warm olives at any future party, large or small.
Another weeknight, when I was feeling plant-centric, I made the Salad of Warm Greens with Bacon and Mushrooms and the Crispy Baked Tomatoes for a quick dinner. As before, the ingredients were easy to find, the execution was simple and straightforward and I finally got to experience the joy of Grana Padano. Bonus: There was enough leftover for a substantial lunch the next day.
This book is a winner. Not every recipe is a revelation as most are based in classic Italian formulas. But they’re solid recipes with clear instructions that are, for the large part, easy to shop for and easy to throw together. With delicious results.
The show-stopping recipes, such as the veal shanks, will get you to open the book and start cooking, but it’s the inspiration for weekday meals that will keep you coming back.
My prediction? After a short time cooking from Lidia’s Celebrate Like An Italian, most people will refer to it less and less frequently, since the real value in this book is as a solid primer in basic techniques. Once you master the bulk of them, you’ll be able to apply those methods to anything — making it possible to eventually make a meal from nothing but flour and garlic — and Grana Padano cheese, of course.
Who To Buy It For:
People who love to entertain and need inspiration but aren’t expert cooks
The starter cook, who loves Italian food but is afraid to make sauce from scratch.
Where It Will Live:
This is reference-bookshelf material, but don’t stowe it away before finding a few keepers to learn by heart for your regular recipe rotation.
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