By Nadia Arumugam |

Book Review: Soul-Warming Comfort Fare with “Rustic Italian”

There are a few things for which I am whole-heartedly grateful: a bottomless appetite for all things chocolate, ridiculously bad circulation rendering my iceberg-cold fingers the ultimate pastry-making tools, and a job that allows me to work at home, in my comfy “work” sweats, 2 feet away from my kitchen, and with a view of the Hudson river.

This last privilege means that on most mid-evenings, I can seamlessly move from hard-at-work food writer to crazy-in-the-kitchen culinary maestro, and Peter and I can enjoy a home-cooked meal with little hassle. Peter calls me when he is leaving the office – that gives me 26 to 29 minutes as he battles the 40mph winds on his walk home up the Westside Highway to start on dinner – assuming I have some fresh ingredients to play with in the fridge. Luckily for me, I usually do  – and when I don’t, we have a D’Agostinos in our building that – as a last resort, provides a passable  (just about) selection of all-natural or organic protein… and something green.  When Peter arrives, battle-worn, our daily catch-up, and his shedding out of his suit gives me an additional 7 minutes or so to finish up. And there we are, at a little after or before 8.30, tucking into our dinner.

Sometime I cobble together our meals in my mind, finding inspiration from things I’ve eaten earlier that week or from something I’ve read about online or in a magazine. Oftentimes, I rely on an old favorite. And every now and then, I’ll turn to my over-burdened cookbook shelves. On a weekday like today – icky, wet, and miserable, Domenica Marchetti’s Rustic Italian couldn’t be more perfect. Just glancing at the front cover glorious with fat, juicy meatballs  in a rich tomato and kale sauce and a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano has me on the brink of slobbering over my desk. Not to worry – propriety has kept me in check!

As the tag line announces, the book does indeed contain “simple, authentic recipes for everyday cooking.” Scan the contents page, and no matter what mood you’re in, and how much or little time you have, you’ll see a handful of things that you’ll want to cook then and there. Hankering after seafood? The panfried Scallops with Salsa Verde will be sure to scratch that itch – and only in 20 minutes! Or for a more hearty meal, try the roasted Branzino with Herbed Farro. If it’s meat you’re after, you can’t go wrong with the Pork Rib Ragu with Polenta, Florentine Meatloaf with Pecorino and Wine or the Tuscan-style Steak with Crispy Potatoes. The real stars of Rustic Italian, though, are the pasta dishes. There’s nothing glitzy about them – in fact their comforting simplicity is part of their appeal, and they don’t call for special or expensive ingredients. But they do combine interesting flavors in surprising ways bringing fresh appeal to what can become a rather tired, unimaginative midweek staple. The Trenette with Pistachio Pesto is an excellent example of one of Marchetti’s more unique recipes, as is the Orecchiette with Butter-Braised Nettles, Bucatini  with Caramelized Onions and Pancetta, and the Prosecco Risotto with Radicchio.

And for those days when all you seek is an old-fashioned, familiar favorite, Marchetti has obligingly thrown in a few of those in too, with a twist, of course. There isn’t just spaghetti with tomato sauce – there’s Spaghetti with Grated Tomato Sauce and Ricotta. The baked ziti has tender chunks of eggplants nestled between the flavorsome tubes and smoked cheese adds a unctuous, bold nuance. As for lasagna – here it comes free-form with dried porcini mushrooms, fontina cheese and sausage.

The American-Italian author writes with great authority, which is no surprise since she grew up in a solidly Italian family, spent childhood summers in Italy, and wrote three cookbooks prior to Rustic Italian. As you’d hope from a cookbook geared towards everyday cooking, the recipes are easy-to-read, easy-to-follow and wonderfully easy-to-execute. The language is accessible, lean – there’s no flowery verbiage to grate on your nerves, and never overly technical. Every dish is accompanied by a beautiful photo that encapsulates the rusticity of the recipe and actually resembles the plate that emerges from your kitchen.

A personal favorite recipe of mine from Rustic Italian is the Baked Ziti with Eggplant and Smoked Scamorza – Click ahead for the recipe below. You need to allow a little extra time for the dish to bake in the oven, but open a bottle of wine and it’ll be done before you know it!

Ziti Al Forno Con Melanzane
Baked Ziti with Eggplant and Smoked Scamorza

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1lb eggplant, peeled and cubed
8oz shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps thinly sliced
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, crushed flat but left whole
5 cups canned diced tomatoes
5 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
1 lb dried ziti, penne, or other short, sturdy pasta
2 cups shredded smoked scarmoza cheese (or smoked mozzarella)
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Serves 8

In a large frying pan, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil over medium heat. Add eggplant and mushrooms and stir to coat with the oil. Sprinkle in 3/4 teaspoon salt and a generous grinding of pepper. Saute until the vegetables are tender and browned in spots, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover to keep warm, and set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine 3 tablespoons of the remaining olive oil and the garlic and warm until the garlic begins to sizzle, about 2 minutes. Press the garlic with the back of a wooden spoon to release its aroma. Do not let it brown or it will become bitter. Slowly pour the tomatoes into the pan. Be careful, because the oil and juice will splatter. stir in 3/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until nicely thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the basil. Cover the sauce to keep warm and set aside.

While the vegetables and tomato sauce are cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the ziti and cook until al dente, about 11 minutes or according to the package directions. Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water, then return to the pot. Add the eggplant and mushrooms, about two-thirds of the sauce, and the scamorza or smoked mozzarella and toss gently but thoroughly.

Preheat the oven to 400F. Coat a large baking dish with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Spoon the dressed pasta into the dish. Top with the remaining sauce and the Parmigiano. Bake, uncovered, until bubbly and browned on top, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.