Wednesday, 23 September 2009
review: Easy Tasty Italian, by Laura Santtini
There are recipe books, and then there are recipe books which set out to transform our expectations of a ‘recipe book’. Laura Santtini’s new publication drives with a turbo-boosted charge straight through the former category, and parks itself – with a natty handbrake turn – straight into the latter. But then, Ms Santtini is Italian (or half Italian, as she’s keen to explain in the preface). And Italians have, of course, always set the standard when it comes to driving. But is that standard a force for good or bad?
There’s no doubt that, visually, the book is as appealing as a shiny new Ferrari. It goes for the ‘food as porn’ appeal, with a black and gold cover, with a rich spectrum of full, glossy colours splashed across the interior, and lots of lavish photography. But the content, I hear you ask – what about the actual content, nay, the performance? Well, so long as you can suspend any thoughts about what you might expect of a ‘normal’ recipe book, the performance is as beguiling as the flashy exterior.
Even the opening section, which at first glance seems to be broadly conformist, serves up twists on old themes. It’s divided in two: kitchen tools, and basic procedures and preparations. So far, so ho-hum. But look closer, and ‘Tools’ reveals not only kitchen equipment details, but pages on ‘the umami larder’ (complete with full explanation for the uninitiated) and ‘the alchemic larder’(which, in case you’re wondering, should ideally contain edible gold, silver, dried florals, various elixirs, beetroot powder, 100% Venezuelan Black... the list goes on).
Similarly, ‘Basic Procedures and Preparations’ opens with a paragraph headed ‘flavour bombs’. Move over, Heston - Ms Santtini has been busy with the alchemy, too. And I quote:
For years I have been plotting to extract and combine power-packed glutamates with igniting inosinates to build The U (for umami)-BOMB, the ultimate taste explosion and a culinary force to be reckoned with...
(Don’t say you haven’t been warned.)
This sets the tone for all that follows – for most recipes, you have the option of sticking with the ‘basic’ recipe, or of making things distinctly more interesting for your tastebuds by adding a flavour bomb. For example, there are instructions for preparing a ‘basic red wine marinade’ – completely fine and dandy in itself. But if you want to jolly or umami it along, Santtini suggests 7 variations on the theme, including such enticing prospects as ‘orange, anchovy, and cinnamon marinade’ and ‘mocha chilli barbecue marinade’. Whatever else this book is, it’s certainly not your ordinary ‘Easy, Tasty, Italian’ recipe collection.
The slightly fantastical theme permeates the rest of the book. Not for Santtini the more conventional ways of dividing recipe books into sections. You won’t find ‘Starters’ here, any more than you’ll find ‘Desserts’. Instead, you’ll be given a tour of the elements: Air, Water, Fire, Earth, Spirit (and Ether).
‘Air’ turns out to comprise recipes ‘using only truly raw ingredients’, and the key to success here will surely rely on you being able to get your hands on the best, uber-fresh ingredients. Flavour/umami bombs abound. You can have good old ‘basic’, i.e. beef, carpaccio, or you can have any of 4 variations including, for example, salmon and rose carpaccio. You want dips? You can have ricotta. Or, if you want to go fancy, aubergine and lavender.
‘Water’ unsurprisingly features soups. You’ve no doubt come across sweet potato soup. But have you topped it with lemon mascarpone and scorched almonds before? Or thrown a bomb into it of tomato, pepper, orange, and cinnamon paste? Well, have you? If not, now’s your chance. But ‘Water’ also covers pasta (with a useful guide on how to best cook the stuff), an exposé of tomato sauces, ‘the top 10 classic pasta sauces of all time’, risotto, and then 2 poached fish recipes, a recipe for bagna cauda, and a page on meatloaf.
‘Fire’ takes us into the realms of grilling – including techniques, rubs/seasonings, toppings, and bits to have on the side. There are some mind-boggling recipes in this section, and I only wish I’d had the time to try them before writing this review. Consider, for example, ‘Beef Tagliata with Radicchio and Black Chocolate Elixir’ or ‘Martino’s Coppiette Skewers Al Modo Romano with Bitter Orange and Renaissance Stardust’. Failing that, you can always choose from recipes from the ‘Roll, Wrap, and Splash’ pages (rolling the main ingredient in a coating of some sort, wrapping the whole thing with another ingredient, e.g. prosciutto, and then splashing with say, olive oil and grappa). Another part of ‘Fire’ deals with ‘Rub and Roast’ – ideal for that Sunday ‘what-shall-I-do-with-the-roast?’ dilemma. Roast never looked like this when I was a kid – beef fillet with mascarpone and rose horseradish, I ask you? Some children are going to have quite a childhood.
‘Earth’ opens with slow cooking, swiftly followed by the ‘Top 10 Italian Vegetable Dishes’. The latter includes ‘Magic Pink Broccoli, and ‘Sweet Lavender Parsnips’. Clearly I’ve been missing something in my Italian vegetable sampling to date. Then we’re into ‘12 Quick and Easy Desserts’. These really live up to the billing – none will take you more than about 10 minutes to prepare, if that. Perhaps the most enticing is the parmesan ice cream with balsamic strawberries and black pepper – sure to be a hit with the umami-seekers. The ‘Earth’ section ends with suggestions as to how to ‘pimp your plate’. If making your food look dressy isn’t your forte, this short and snappy guide will give you some handy pointers.
‘Spirit and Ether’ opens with a bedazzling photo of ‘Aqua degli Angeli’ – a gorgeous, clear, artisan-type bottle filled with a clear spirit of choice (vodka, grappa, eau-de-vie), jazzed up with a bright red chilli and swirling gold flakes. Also included are ‘Rhubarbcello’, the more classic ‘Sgroppino’, and a ‘botanic’ cocktail comprising vodka, rosemary syrup, and prosecco.
As bewitching as the book is (I defy you not to feel like you’re in middle of a Venetian masked ball while you’re reading it), there are niggles. The font is a tad on the small side, and the division of some pages into columns of recipes means that the recipes themselves aren’t the easiest to read. The categorisation of some of the recipes isn’t always intuitive or user-friendly (although a comprehensive index helps). Oh, and unless I’m mistaken (I stand to be corrected here), I couldn’t find indications as to how many servings each recipe will make.
The final verdict? It certainly fulfils the brief. Easy? Check. Tasty? I confess to not having tried the recipes, but they look as though they’ll deliver, particularly on the all-important umami taste experiences. Italian? Well, yes, albeit in ways you might not always recognise.
Overall, this is a book which will amuse, entertain, educate, enthrall, and possibly frustrate (if you don’t stockpile edible metals, florals, etc , in your larder), depending on the reader. One thing you’ll never be able to accuse it of being, though, is dull. To revisit my initial metaphor, Ms Santtini’s book is what Ferraris are to Fords. It’s bold, beautiful, and daring.
If you like your kitchen a little on the zippy side, then zoom to your nearest bookshop and get yourself a copy now. Even if you’d rather stay in the slow lane, you’d do well to take a look – the basics are given plenty of coverage, and you’ll have some fun along the way, too. You never know, you might even want to use the throttle from time to time. Just don’t let Nonna catch you.
Easy Tasty Italian, by Laura Santtini
Published by Quadrille, 2009.
Hardback, full colour photographs, 192 pages.