Sunday, December 20, 2009

Italian biscuits and bookshops

I've been cooking and reading and thinking. (Oh, and eating, heh heh.)

A very happy place: in a slow food restaurant in Arezzo, Italy, 2008.

Last weekend, James and I went exploring up the hill. Just a few minutes' walk from home, where there were several empty shops, half-hearted kids' clothing boutiques and refurbished fridge sales rooms, now there are... bookshops.

Yes, we know what that means. Divine, glorious, unrelenting temptation. Just ten minutes from home. Almost close enough to warrant the excuse: 'I'm just going out to walk the dog for a few minutes / to the post office /pharmacy / newsagent... oops! And they had this lovely book in the window, so I just popped in....' The dead giveaway is the long walk after which the dog is irritated and not at all tired. ('Here I am, sitting on my tush outside another damn bookshop', thinks the dog... 'Good dog, blah blah blah - where's the park?')

Not being the type to kid ourselves (ahem), we agreed it would be lunch and then bookshop-shopping. There's the remainder bookshop, been there a couple of years, and avidly watched for occasional golden finds in history and fiction. There's a new second hand bookshop, which - oh heavens bless it! - has an amazing cookbook section. And there's a shambolic, traditional second hand bookshop spilling over with piles, heaps, towers of books. We reckon there's the occasional treasure in amongst the worn-out high school biology textbooks. And we were right.

So, off down the street, swinging our bag with the lovely, early-arrived Christmas cheque in it. Can you hear that little Christmas cheque quaking in fear? - Or perhaps in anticipation of fulfilment in nirvana of bookshopness? Delights!

This is what I got, and it's been inspiring much delicious reading:

Now, I've known about this book for a while. Never looked very closely at it, but when I did I was delighted: a proper cookbook that tells me WHY. Not just pretty pictures, artfully styled, and one recipe per page. Marcella talks about market-shopping, selecting fruit, fish and meat, why to use certain cuts, what stirring a risotto is all about, and more, more.

I realise that I'm no longer excited by the presentation cookbooks unless they have something very unusual, enticing, about the recipes. This book has lots of reading in it, and although it's clearly written for the American market, I'm fine with converting and finding equivalent types of fish, cuts of meat, etc. We can deal with that.

But here's the point. I've been realising the Italian cooking is, in many ways, about texture as much as flavour. Of course you use good ingredients and coax out their flavours, but texture, too. Risotto with the creamy outer sauce and a bite to the central kernel in the rice (did you know that a good risotto rice grain -- arborio or carnarola - will be translucent around the edges when you hold it up to the light? The central kernel is hard starch which will hold its toothiness, while the clear white glowing outer shell is softer starch that melts off the grain at a specific temperature when heat and oil and moisture are combined and sustained.) Ah-ha. Well it tastes damn fine, too.

I realise now that I have three cookbooks largely covering cooking from the Emilia-Romagna and Veneto regions, Piedimonte and the North. They are what I turn to when I want to try just a little harder, creating something intended, but simple. They're what I like best.

So we've had some nice risottos (risotti?), there's a slow-cooked stew planned for tonight, and biscuits.

Oh, the biscuits. They deserve a post ALL of their OWN, she says, brushing the crumbs off her shirt.


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