In an early Sopranos episode, mob guy Pauly Walnuts was amusingly appalled that a Starbucks-like coffee chain had "stolen [his] culture." He particularly objected to the fancy Italianate names for drink sizes and not-so-Italian yuppy-style beverages. He ordered a coffee, and when the barista looked at him expectantly, waiting for his "vente, skim" type clarification, he snarled and said "I'll have a regulare".
Okay, my title is not so on point- I'm just stretching Pauly's "regulare" tag here to tell you about two new cookbooks devoted to making pasta casually, for family consumption, on a regular basis. One,"On Top of Spaghetti", I bought because the authors, Johanne Killeen and George Germon, who own and run Al Forno, in Providence, previously produced "Cucina Simpatica", a cookbook among my top ten all time favorites. The other, Everyday Pasta, by Giada De Laurentis, came in the mail because I had been unsuccesssful in an attempt to cancel a bookclub membership.
I decided to try a couple of recipes from Everyday Pasta, and a couple from On Top, because , well, I don't mind eating pasta for supper most any day, and now I can perform the dubious public service of telling you what I thought of both books. In its most direct form my advice is as follows: Buy On Top. Everyday Pasta? Fuggeddabouddit. In support of these assessments, I will tell you about the recipes I tried from each. Obviously this subjective analysis is deeply flawed, based on a too small sample, and for all I know, hopelessly prejudiced by the irritating way in which I acquired the De Laurentis book. I don't think so, but then I wouldn't, would I?
I suspect that the principle differences between the two books are the levels of inspiration/sensibility, and recipe testing. Which may explain why the On Top recipes I tried "worked" and the Everyday recipes did not. Those Al Forno people are brilliant and gifted, and can put simple things together and make them distinctive. And someone has also obviously actually made every recipe in their book more than once. I'm sure Ms. DeL is a reasonably good cook (though I find it hard to believe that she often eats this sort of food-she looks to be a vivid, tiny hummingbird powered by, maybe, nectar?), but her two pastas I tried missed the mark. Especially as to texture. Meh.
The one was the Baked Gnocchi, with spinach and goat cheese.. It sounded fine, though a bit overloaded with cream- the spinach and nutmeg seemed appropriate companions. I did not use homemade gnocchi ( she said it wasn't necessary to do so), but I did use some lovely prepared ones I had made before..and liked. Stodge with lumps here. The flavor was okay, but nothing thrilling to make up for the belly bomb nature of this substance. Not good.
I next tried a Rotini with Salmon and Roasted Garlic. I picked it because I had a nice bit of salmon. It had rosemary, which was strange, and quite a lot of chicken broth that never got reduced and syrupy, or mixed with scraped up crusty bits of anything. The flavor was fine..not odd, as I had feared with the rosemary, roasted garlic, and salmon. The lemon juice (more wetness) and zest kind of tied the flavors in with the fish...but the finished pasta sat damply in its seasoned chicken stock, and hence was pretty unappealing. I did eat it up though, unlike the gnocchi, which I pitched. You can see it in the picture above, though the dampness at the bottom is not visible.
On the whole, I feel as if the De Laurentis book was the result of a business plan. I wonder if some non-cook thought it would be clever to offer up a whole bunch of nifty/quirky ideas for relatively easy pasta dishes. Then, maybe, a bunch of people brain-stormed possible ideas, which were checked out in a totally cursory way, if at all, before being tied up in a little salable package. Of course, I cannot know this is true, and I may be, like my salmon supper, all wet. But I'm not impressed. These recipes strike me as both simple minded and pretentious...so maybe Pauly's ouburst is not entirely unrelated to the matter at hand after all....
From On Top of Spaghetti I tried the Spaghettini with Sauteed Chicken Livers, as seen in the other photo. If you are not among the world's large contingent of liver-haters, you will love this. If you are, my praise will be, of course, necessarily unconvincing. Recently, a friend described to me a chicken liver dish she had at a brunch at Lydia's, which sounded very much like this, except that it was served over a pancake of polenta, instead of spaghettini.. I think this sauce would be more than okay served like that as well.
To make this you need:
4 oz chicken livers, trimmed, cut into largish pieces, dried and sprinkled with coarse salt
Tbsp. shallots finely chopped(I had none, and used scallions, instead)
1/2 cup dry white wine
cup chicken stock
8 oz dried spaghettini
1/4 cup cream
cayenne (a pinch)
Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Tbsp finely chopped fresh sage (not dried, ew)
freshly grated Parm
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Heat 3 Tbsps of butter in a saute type pan, add the livers, and saute quickenly, browning them all over, Remove from pan with a slotted spoon,and set aside. Add shallots, cooking until they begn to color, then add the wine, scrapping up any liver bits on the pan. Let it burble until syrupy, add the stock, and bring to a boil. Remove pan from heat.
Add the pasta and plenty of salt to the boiling water, and cook until it is just a bit less done than you like. Meanwhile, turn the heat on under the saute pan, and add the cream, pepper and cayenne. Bring to a boil, and add the livers.
Drain the pasta, dump it into the saute pan, and toss it around with the sauce. Cook 2 minutes, then toss in the sage and parsley. Share out into 2 bowls, and grate plenty of parm over the top. I love this with whole wheat spaghettini, but it is also very nice with the plain old everyday variety. Yes, the salmon one is prettier, but you absolutely do not care.
I also made the On Top of Spaghetti Fettucini with Venetian Chicken Sauce, which did not disappoint., but that is for another day...I'll be making it again. Many of the pastas in this book are incredibly simple...simpler even than these two, and they sound just as wonderful, and as likely to be do-able on the spot, with a reasonably well stocked pantry. I will be trying a bunch of their tomato based pastas this summer. You might well like to do the same. And this is the only one with any sort of liver, so do not be afraid.