After an earlier stint with UK based chefs, I am back there for this week's interview with Katie Caldesi, author of Cook Italy (Kyle Books).
With some 400 recipes, it covers every type of food you might think of from all over Italy. The illustrations are there to remind you that many dishes can be both amazing and fun to prepare...Your family and friends will surely enjoy them.
When she is not writing books Katie Caldesi gives cooking classes at La Cucina Caldesi ('the only Italian cookery school in London')
or she can be found managing the rest of the family food endeavors, Caffe Caldesi, light fare and wine bar downstairs, restaurant upstairs, in Marylebone.
I almost forgot to mention their country outpost, Caldesi in Campagna in Bray, Berkshire...
Let's get to the main dish now, our interview with Katie
Q: Katie, As 'Obelix' fell in the 'Magic Potion' in his youth when did you fall in the 'Italian Food' cauldron?
When I met my husband Giancarlo and realized I had been cooking pasta wrongly all my life.
Q: You start 'Cook Italy' with the 'Pane' chapter on Bread, is it because bread making as a physical as well as sensual aspect to it?
The book is set out in the courses of a typical Italian meal. However I love breadmaking, I do it when I am sad, angry, happy and confused! It sorts everything out and the aerobic exercise of kneading gives you the feelgood factor.
Q: Which of these breads would you call your favorite?
Every morning I have a slice of spelt bread with butter and marmalade and a cappuccino. Spelt is so good for you, it is said the Romans won their empire on its energy giving properties as they fed their soldiers on it.
Q: Before looking at your book, I never thought of Focaccia as multi-faceted, are differences regional or otherwise?
Very much so, Focaccia can be spongy and light, flat and dense, filled with olives or in the case of Focaccia del Recco nothing like Focaccia at all but instead a crispy paper thin bread filled with oozing melted cheese.
Q: After focaccia you turn to the Calzone di cipolle which happens to look quite different from Calzone I saw here in the US, you then move to a number or fried dough recipes, is the bread culture a reflection of the thinking when nothing else can be made there's always bread?
Yes and there are hundreds of recipes for using stale bread, when you have nothing, you throw nothing away. Calzone in Puglia is not folded pizza but in Naples it is, the Italians just love confusing us!!
Q: in the 'Antipasti' section you treat us to an illustrated Guide to Salumi, was it so most people could put a name on foods they enjoyed without knowing what they were called?
Yes, and to show the vast range, these are just a few of the typical ones.
Q: Who's the Ham Master holding his creation on page 87?
Not sure of his name anymore but he was a specialist in curing Prosciutto di Parma, very proud he was too and rightly so!
Q: We then go through olives, olive oil, anchovies and artichokes yet what caught my eye was the eggplant on page 107, where do they come from? What is special about them?
There are two main types available in Italy (I am sure more than this but the most common are these two) the round viola and the normal long shape we are used to. Cooks will differ as to the different uses some preferring to fry the long ones and bake the round but as usual they will differ in their views!
Q: You mention Crepes with Crab and Spinach as a Florence inspired recipe, are crepes popular in Italy? Where?
No it is the use of spinach that makes it Florentine.
Q: Do they cut 'Steak Robespierre' (page 119) with a mini-guillotine?
Ha! Couldn’t find the connection but it could be something to do it as he was beheaded.
Q: Let me claim ignorance but your book was my first encounter with Soffritto. How important is it to soups and stews?
Hugely, you may know it as Battuto which it is often called. You will never get the depth of flavor in soups and stews without this base ingredient (Soffritto is the Italian 'Mirepoix')
Q: Should we consider the idea that Italy counts as many soups as France counts cheeses?
Yes they love soup but there is also a wide range of cheeses especially in the North.
Q: As you did with the Salumi, you offer a 2 page spread of various pastas in your opening to the 'Pasta' section, are you a strong believer in the 'think Visual' school?
As a former artist I can’t think any other way. Words are not enough to stay in my memory – I need visual back up.
Q: Another dish I never tried is the Timballo of Eggplant and Pasta (page 190), is it known and/or popular outside Sicily?
Not sure, I only know it from there having visited a few times now. It is worth the effort though, really tasty (make sure you season it well) and very impressive to look at.
Q: Are many of your students squeamish when you get to the 'How to clean and gut a fish' part?
Yes but I tell them not to be so silly and to pull themselves together! Most get over it pretty quickly, some never do but they can buy pre-prepared stuff from fishmongers.
Q: You offer a Monkfish with Gin and Juniper Berries recipe, would you find that in Italy?
Most certainly, it was cooked for me in Italy by an Italian chef. But of course he was inspired by the English Gin and Tonic. I am glad the English has some influence on Italian cuisine.
Q: The look of Veal stuffed with Asparagus and Ham in white wine sauce leads me to ask you how you feel when students or customers ask you to 'edit' a dish and remove this or that, do you feel that takes away from the dish integrity?
Usually but there are some exceptions. Sometimes it is OK to substitute one meat or fish for another but don’t try and create a Kosher lasagna for example, it just won’t work without the meat/dairy combination. But Bresaola, the Jewish equivalent of Parma ham is lovely. Through our schools we have always to cater for allergies and so it is amazing what you can come up with. Chickpea pasta is great with a delicious nutty flavor for people with coeliac (celiac) issues.
Q: Is sausage making a popular class?
Not popular but great fun whenever we do it. People just can’t keep a straight face, don’t know why!
Q: Is it more popular than how to bone or stuff a rabbit?
Yes more popular than that. Sausages were never cute fluffy things.
Q: You wisely then take a break with 2 pages on herbs, how important are they?
Huge, Tuscany wouldn’t have a cuisine without rosemary and thyme.
Q: Next come vegetables, tells us about Sformato?
Mmm, you would have to try it, there is no translation, it is just a lovely light moussy puree thing.
Q: We should not forget mushrooms or truffles, why and where should they be used?
Whenever they are in season. Don’t smother everything in truffle oil though, use it sparingly.
Q: It seems that lately , I see ice-cream and sorbet in every book I am reviewing, sweet or sinful?
Both, isn’t that the best combination?
Q: Before the cheese chapter, you take time to offer a number of cookie recipes, should they be dipped in wine or coffee?
Cantuccini that Americans call Biscotti (which is really the generic term, not that I am at all picky!) should be dunked in coffee or Vin Santo. Anything else is as you wish. Personally I don’t dunk anything but Cantuccini.
Q: I will not ask anything about the last chapter on 'preserves'. I will ask you instead what could get you excommunicated (so to speak) in Italy as far as food is concerned?
Not seasoning well enough, changing something like lasagna that is perfect as it is, in fact changing anything really from the way Nonna did it. Just don’t bother disagreeing with any Italian who is trying to show you a dish. They are not interested in the evolution and mutation of recipes.
Q: To conclude, you used black and white photos quite a bit in the book, was it for nostalgia or rather to highlight the timeliness of many of these foods?
For the look only, nothing deep, just some things look better in black and white, I know I do.
Fin... I hope that nothing got past its cooking time while Katie answered our lengthy list of questions... Thanks to Anja at Kyle Books for passing questions along...
Cook Italy is published as The Italian Cookery Course in the UK