Friday, January 15, 2010

Cookbooks: Ciao Italia: Five Ingredient Favorites by Mary Ann Esposito

There are cookbooks that are so beautiful, so dream-inducing that you wonder if they’re really meant to be cooked from at all. Gorgeous photos. Fanciful ingredients. Complicated instructions. Books you would be happy to purchase and just spend hours reading and day-dreaming and never even opening in the kitchen. Ciao Italia: Five Ingredient Favorites (St. Martin’s Press) is not one of those books.

Author Mary Ann Esposito is well known to viewers of that other food network, PBS: the one that, arguably, made food shows happen in the first place. Esposito’s show, Ciao Italia, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. As anyone with a public television subscription will tell you, PBS cooking shows are stodgier and more of the earth than shows on other networks. That’s not a criticism. Neither is it praise. It’s simply a comment, and it’s one that certainly applies here. Ciao Italia is not a book that’s going to make anyone slip into raptures. It is, however, a earthy, absolutely foolproof and flawless cookbook. If you are a kitchen beginner who has a hankering to produce wholesome meals with a Mediterranean flair, Ciao Italia is the book for you.

The premise of the book is what makes this the perfect one for chefs low on experience, time or both. “When is less more?” Esposito asks in her introduction. “When you can turn just FIVE ingredients into something that is not only delicious but exciting, fun, and easy to make.”

And what exactly can you make with just five ingredients? As it turns out, quite a lot. My favorite from this book is Zuppa alla Pavese or Pavia’s Poached Egg Soup. Gorgeous, simple and gorgeously simple: basically toasted ciabatta bread, Parmigiano-Reggiano, chicken broth and eggs. Think French onion soup without onions, but with an egg poached in it, right in the bowl. The Parsley Gnocchi are simple and beautiful and have forever altered the way I do my gnocchi. (Fresh parsley chopped in: who knew?) And Esposito’s Mushroom Ragu is a perfect dish for those who want to entertain in simple but elegant style: some mushrooms, some cream and a handful of herbs and you have a dish that will impress anyone very quickly and simply.

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