There's a fresh crop of fall cookbooks hitting stores, and in the coming weeks I'm going to highlight a few of the stand-outs. I'll start with a cookbook from my home turf, A16: Food + Wine. A16 is a much-loved San Francisco restaurant with a menu and wine list that celebrates Southern Italy, and to a greater extent the Campania region. One of the exercise classes I take is located just across the street from A16. A few times a week I find myself en route to a workout, walking up the south sidewalk, when I inevitably collide with the aromas spilling from their front door out into Chestnut Street. And for a few hours the other day, my kitchen smelled just as good. The recipe I'm highlighting is a beautiful, hearty stew that incorporates all manner of colorful summer produce - cherry tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant. I chose it because of its seasonality, but also because it uses a cooking method I've never tried before - more on that in a bit. I want to tell you a bit more about the book itself, and then we'll get into the cianfotta.
The restaurant's namesake is an impressive strip of asphalt, stretching across southern Italy from Naples and well into Puglia. Chef Nate Appleman and wine director Shelley Lindgren celebrate the culinary spirit and traditions of this region as evident in this passage from A16: Food + Wine,
"...There are famous attractions in Campania - Pompeii, Sorrento, the islands of Capri and Ischia, the Amalfi coast - yet southern Italy remains largely removed from the usual tourist route, a lapse that has helped preserve its food traditions. Today nearly every restaurant in the center of Florence has menus printed in English, French, and Japanese, while you are lucky to be handed a menu at all in Campania. The international popularity of Naples-style pizza notwithstanding, it is still rare to find regional foods, such as the maccaronara pasta native to the Irpin hills, served outside of the region...At 16, we translate rustic Campanian cooking to a San Francisco setting. Just as Italian cooks work with the best ingredients they can acquire, we source the finest local and seasonal produce we can find and treat it in an Italian manner..."
After an initial introduction, the book dives into a robust, 60+ page southern Italian wine primer - itself worth the price of the book. It then moves onto the food section; pantry, antipasti, pizza, zuppa, pasta, seafood, poultry and meat, the pig, vegetables, and dessert. Whether the authors are talking about grapes, ingredients, or road trips, the text is genuine and enthusiastic in tone throughout. The end result is infectious - I read the book from cover to cover in one sitting, and now I have a list of wine producers I'm excited to track down, and recipes to try. I should also mention that Shelley helpfully offers up wine pairing suggestions to accompany with many of the recipes in the book. There is plenty of vegetarian inspiration here, and aside from the meat-centric chapters, many recipes are easily adaptable. The book was photographed and designed by Ed Anderson, printed on nearly three hundred pages of uncoated paper - no question, it's a looker.
The cianfotta, a traditional vegetable stew, caught my attention not only because it is packed with summer produce, but because the cooking method is so dramatically different from the way I normally approach summer vegetables. Often I flash cook vegetables, just enough to take that raw edge off. For this stew we are instructed to braise the vegetables for about forty minutes in two cups of olive oil. Most of the oil is then drained off before you go on to make your broth, and I have to tell you, this approach lends a deliciously glossy, luscious texture to the vegetables unlike anything else I've tasted.
Summer Vegetable Cianfotta Recipe
Fiorelli are the flower buds that eventually grow into squash blossoms - if you can't find them don't let it stump you, just leave them out or use squash blossoms which are more readily available. Shelley recommends pairing this stew with Frappato/Nero d'Avola Blend (Sicily). The also include instruction for making this stew with a prosciutto broth, but I opted for the vegetarian version.
1 globe eggplant, trimmed and diced (about 4 cups)
4 summer zucchini or squashes, trimmed and diced (about 4 cups)
1 fennel bulb
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a knife
4 sprigs (fresh) marjoram
1 bay leaf
3 Yukon Gold potatoes, cubed (about 2 cups)
2 cups water
1 cup fiorelli or thinly sliced squash blossoms
1 cup cherry tomatoes, stemmed and halved
Block of aged pecorino for shaving
Preheat the oven to 300˚F.
Evenly distribute the eggplant and zucchini on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon salt. Let stand for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut off the stalks and feathery tops (reserve for another use) from the fennel bulb, halve lengthwise, and then cut away the core. Cut the halves lengthwise into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices. You should have about 2 cups.
In a 6- to 8-quart heavy-bottomed pot, combine the olive oil, garlic, marjoram, and bay leaf over medium heat and sweat, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes, or until the garlic begins to soften. Stir in the fennel and 1 teaspoon salt, and cook gently for about 2 minutes, or until the fennel begins to soften. Stir in the potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes more.
Pat the zucchini and eggplant pieces dry and add them to the pot. Stir the vegetables to ensure they are coated evenly and generously with the oil. Cover the pot, place in the oven, and cook, stirring gently every 10 to 15 minutes, for about 40 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender but not falling apart.
Remove from the oven and drain off most of the olive oil from the vegetables (you can reserve the oil in the refrigerator for a future batch of cianfotta). Add the water to the vegetables, place over medium-high heat, bring to a simmer, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the fiorelli and tomatoes and simmer for a minute or two more. Check for seasoning and season.
Divide the soup among warmed bowls. Using a vegetable peeler, shave a few pecorino curls over the top of each serving. Serve immediately.
Serves 8 as a first course, or 4 to 6 as a main course.
Reprinted with permission from A16: Food + Wine by Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press.