Friday, 18 September 2009

review: Simple Cooking, by Antonio Carluccio

As we approach the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, nothing is as it used to be. The last couple of years have brought with them public panic, uncertainty, and anger as the world’s financial institutions have crumbled in front of our eyes, plunging us all into an economic and social maelstrom of the kind no one has seen before.

No wonder, then, that we seem to be casting around for something to hang our hats on - something cheering and comforting amidst the gloom, and capable of transporting us back to supposedly happier, more innocent times.

Cookbook publishers, like everyone else, have picked up on the zeitgeist. Hardly a week goes by at the moment without a new recipe book appearing with words like ‘simple’ or ‘cheap’ or ‘100 ways with...’, in the title. Yes, we’re going back to basics (haven’t we been there before?), and shunning over-priced restaurants and over-exposed celeb chefs in favour of good, nourishing home-cooked food, preferably conjured up from vegetables we’ve grown in our own veg patch or allotment. Generations brought up on fast food and ready meals are now doing it for themselves. Eating in is the new going out, and thrift is the new handbag spend.

Amidst the crop of current new cookbooks is one by a character who, reassuringly, seems always to have been around. Antonio Carluccio, he of all things fungi and the originator of the popular Carluccio’s caffé chain, is ‘back’ if, indeed, he can ever be considered to have been away.

His latest offering, Simple Cooking (could there be a simpler title?), is a little different from the rest out there. First of all, while it chimes with the times, that’s as much by accident as by design. Anyone who has been to the cafés will know that Carluccio’s ‘signature’ has always been relatively simple food, big on flavour and strong on ingredient sourcing. Here, then, is the book which marries that ethos with suitably appealing print and pictures.

Second, the book represents a genuine wish by Carluccio to distill some of his vast experience and his extensive recipe list into one volume. Thus he calls up long-cherished recipes and fond memories of meals past. And what idyllic recollections they are – of a childhood spent helping his mother to forage and then prepare food for the family, and later student days spent in Vienna, when pretty girls and friends flocked to his kitchen as he developed his cooking skills.

Running through it all is a common theme, Carluccio’s love of sharing – his love of food, his culinary knowledge, and meals with friends and family. And this, in short, is what the book captures so well.

It is not, then, for aspiring chefs who want to slave away in the kitchen for hours on end, in pursuit of perfecting a complex recipe. It is, instead, for those who want simple, tasty, and fuss-free meals which they can share readily with others over a good glass of wine. At the same time, though, there are hints and tips at the end of most recipes so that you can try variations, or make a dish more special, if you so wish. And, in true keeping with the times, suggestions for ways of using leftovers (not that you’ll have any) so as to make another meal are also included. Novices and more experienced cooks alike should therefore be appeased.

The publication quality of the book admirably serves the purpose. The recipes are easy to read, with lots of white space on the page, and are printed in a good size font. Most recipes (though not all) are accompanied by lavish, saliva-inducing photographs. And – a sure sign that the publisher knows what it’s doing – the book is bound so that it can be laid out flat on your worktop.

As for the content, well, it’s all in here. An introduction from the man himself is followed by short but useful sections on how to produce the best flavours (‘Savouring the Flavour’), how to create an Italian store cupboard (‘The Italian Larder’), and which kitchen utensils work well for Italian cooking (‘Tools and Cooking Utensils’). The rest of the book is given over to familiar divisions – Starters and Salads; Soups; Pasta; Gnocchi, Polenta and Rice; Meat; Fish; Vegetables; and Desserts. Each division is given a brief explanation by Carluccio, although ‘Pasta’ merits a full three pages. If you ever wanted to know what pasta shape should go with which sauce, whether you should add oil to the cooking water, or even how to eat your spaghetti Italian-style, this is where you’ll find your answer.

And the recipes? Well, they’re short, sweet, and they WORK (not least because they are so straightforward). Second, if you know the Carluccio caffé chain at all, you’ll find quite a few recipes in here for familiar dishes. My personal favourites include the caponata, spinach balls (invented by Carluccio for a friend, over a quarter of a century ago), the arancini di riso, linguine vongole, and the ever-wonderful tagliatelle con funghi. I could list several more. But there are also a number of arguably more surprising, but still suitably simple and homely entries, too: cabbage and onion pasta, egg broth with chicken dumplings, Florentine-style veal tripe, beef olive stew, Sardinian pasta with lamb sauce, to give but a few examples. Carluccio’s own favourite might surprise you, too, not only for its simplicity, but also for its slightly unusual combination of ingredients – giant spaghetti (bigoli) with onion (not garlic, as you might expect) and anchovy sauce.

But as well as recipes for the more thrift-minded, there are others that allow you to indulge, too – recipes which, for instance, include truffles, scallops, shrimps, saffron, duck, and parma ham amongst their ingredients (but not all at the same time, I hasten to add). ‘Simple’ certainly doesn’t have to mean ‘boring’ or frugal.

There are several options for desserts, too, although as Carluccio explains, they’re not such a big thing for the Italians, who often prefer to finish a meal with some fresh fruit. Hence they don't occupy many pages of this book. Nevertheless, the emphasis is again largely on familiarity, comfort, and trusty old favourites – zabaglione, tiramisu (Carluccio’s special MOF MOF version – Minimum of Fuss, Maximum of Flavour), and ricotta tart all appear here, as do polenta biscuits.

A word about the index. Indices are all too often omitted altogether or scrimped on these days. To do either is false economy - a poor index can render a book instantly frustrating, while a good one can make a book a pleasure to use. Thankfully (and again, a testament to the publisher’s production standards), the index to ‘Simple Cooking’ falls into the latter category. Recipes are listed in their Italian, English, and even ‘inbetween’ versions, so you should always be able to find what you’re after. What you and I might refer to as ‘mushroom pasta’ is therefore indexed variously under ‘mushrooms’ (‘mushroom noodles’), tagliatelle (‘tagliatelle con funghi’), and ‘pasta’ (‘mushroom noodles’ again).

Perhaps best of all, the book really does magic Carluccio into your home. If you’ve ever watched his programmes, or heard him speak, you’ll ‘hear’ him again in these pages. You can hear his passion for food, his enthusiasm for robust flavours, and his keenness to convey the pleasure of cooking and eating, particularly with others. Occasionally, you can even hear his infectious chuckle.

Why should you buy this book, then? As the title says, it’s about the simple delights of cooking. It’s about the love of food and the food of love. It’s a joy to read and a joy to use. Every home should make room for it.

(Thanks to Quadrille Publishing for sending me this book to review. A big thank you, too, to the maestro himself, who very kindly took time out of his busy schedule to talk to me.)

Further information:
Simple Cooking, by Antonio Carluccio
Published by Quadrille, 2009.
Hardback, full colour photographs, 176 pages.
ISBN 978 184400 734 9
Price £20.00
Available to buy now.


Helen said...

I really love cabbage sauce on pasta! I remember putting it out on twitter a while ago and people were like, 'you what?!'. Good to see it making an appearance in the book.

Bellini Valli said...

The book sounds amazing with all the renewed interest in home cooking.

Lizzie said...

ooh ooh - I LOVE onion and anchovy pasta. So simple, yet so great. Nice review.

Sarah said...

A beautiful review of what sounds like a beautiful book. Can't wait to pick this one up.

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

Helen - I'm going to have to try that cabbage dish, then, aren't I?

Val - it's a lovely book, it really is. Does what it says on the tin. Or the dustjacket.

Lizzie - thanks. I'm ashamed to say I haven't had the onion and anchovy combo. Along with Helen's fave, the cabbage pasta, it's next on my list

Sarah - hope it lives up to expectations. I'm sure you'll love it. Hard not to, really

Sam said...

I'm big fan of Antonia Carluccio, he's just so passionate about his cooking. I'll be looking out for this book it sounds fantastic!

♥peachkins♥ said...

Hi. Thanks for dropping by my blog. It's nice to meet you. I browsed around your and will be back for more.=)

Cakelaw said...

Save for the index, it sounds like a great book - another one to add to my wishlist!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

I'm intrigued. Thank you for the detailed and thorough review. I really enjoyed it.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What a fantastic opportunity! Great review and how exciting to speak to the man himself! :)

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