Retro Cuisine: A Celebration of the Ordinary
River Café Cook Book Green
That smarmy anti-Semite sumbitch T. S. Eliot got it wrong in more ways than one, not the least of which was thinking April the cruellest month. It is by no means, at least not in London. This distinction falls to January, when plucky daffodils, newly risen, fall into limp detumescence under the driving force of lashing winter rains. It was in just this month, on just such an afternoon a couple of years ago, that a sodden wayfarer with a solution in search of a problem took shelter in a north London bistro. There he considered his damp and dampening plight. He knew the answer. It was panna cotta. What eluded him was the question.
It is never a very good idea to leave Italy, where it is not uncommon among foodcentric stranieri to feel loved and understood and welcome, unless one departs for a place where one is loved, understood, and welcomed in another way. Notting Hill Gate promised as much. It would have been better if she had joined him in the Apuan Alps. Alas, career demands made it impossible. It seemed only natural, then, to bring the tastes of the congeries of principalities and statelets that form Italy to her.
All went well for several days. Markets in the Portobello Road sold bright-eyed little red mullets and veal as pale as a Vestal Virgin's lips. New Covent Garden offered treviso from Verona, artichokes from Rome, borlotti beans from Puglia, Bufala mozzarella, cime di rapa, chickpeas, dried porcinis, savoy cabbage, and more. But what about dessert? Sad to say, no baker he -- which effectively eliminated cakes and pastries. Just as daunting, no great appliance owner she -- which rendered orange-pomegranate gelato more of an idea than a possibility. And then it came to him, yes, panna cotta with some fruit, drizzled with a grappa caramel, just as it had been served, in cracked bowls, in an otherwise unpromising trattoria beside the Arno. In prospect, the shimmering dish was simplicity itself, but, in practice, it proved a disaster. Three tries at cooked cream emerged dense, denser, and so dense it qualified as the Black Hole of London. What was needed was a surefire recipe. Which meant, of course, what was needed even more was a rain suit. Lacking either, he set out in search of a bookstore. He found two before taking sanctuary, neither of which filled his bill.
The waiter at Mediteranneo, who presented a dish of warm octopus and potato and celery and olives in a lush bay-scented vinaigrette, proved helpful beyond the menu. He suggested a tiny enclave in Blenheim Crescent, just down the road. There the traveler felt the sun shine on him once more as he walked in the door of a shop no bigger than a toilet on a provincial Turkish train. It was filled with 9,500 cookbooks. Imagine his delight when, asking for one containing a recipe for panna cotta, he was offered three. The volume he chose was the second of the "River Café Cook Book" series. His life in the scullery has not been the same since.
Comes now the third volume in this series that raises Italian home cooking to an art form, this the most appealing yet, River Café Cook Book Green. The first two River Café cookbooks were landmarks in cookery publishing. The present opus, with its focus on seasonal vegetables and fruits, is sure to bring about another change in the way informed cooks approach food. Over 200 new recipes have been gathered by chef/authors Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers on their thrice yearly visits to the provinces and outposts of the Italian peninsula. These have been tested and refined in the kitchen of their renowned River Café (where two entirely new and different menus are offered each day) in ways that encourage you to cook through 464 pages and never get bored.
Here is a book that deserves to be called green, for it is mostly about superb, organically-grown produce -- everything from artichokes to sea kale, peaches to chestnuts. The key to Gray and Roger's thinking is that the best fruit and vegetables are grown organically and harvested in season. Accordingly, they organize their material not by order of course within a meal but by month of the year. (Yes, Boulud did a useful seasonal market buying list in his first book, but his was not nearly as central to the philosophical underpinnings of his book as theirs is to Green). For each month they suggest what to buy and cook. For each ingredient there is information on purchase criteria and a series of recipes (actually, hardly recipes at all but, rather, the careful pulling together of the finest ingredients to achieve classic dishes such as a simple summer vegetarian carpaccio) ranging from Anchovy and Polenta Fritters to White Asparagus Risotto, Penne with Tomato and Nutmeg to a cake of Pear, Honey, and Polenta.
Sicily, Bologna, Liguria, Roma, the Piedmont, Lombardy, Tuscany, Abruzzi, the Veneto -- all of these and more are amply represented in text and visuals that confirm that there is no such thing as an Italian cuisine but no shortage of food from Italy. A celebration of the ordinary, theirs is a cookery largely born of poverty and peasant savvy developed over centuries by people who have learned from experience to use what is at hand, and use it well. In this regard it is clearly a world apart from trendy kitchen work, and might be thought of as Retro Cuisine--part of that tectonic and welcome shift in thinking that is leading us back to eat best by eating simplest.
And, oh yes, their panna cotta with strawberries in a grappa caramel? Ethereal, ivory-hued eggless custard with an amazing texture somewhere between satin and sour cream, held together by hardly more than sheer determination.