Lidia Bastianich is a proponent of cooking fresh seasonal food simply.
"The goal to cooking is about freshness and that is seasonality, cooked in season, local, and worked as little as possible, just what is necessary to the food," the New York-based TV chef, restaurateur and cookbook author said in an interview. "Leave nature be."
She also firmly believes in imparting cooking wisdom to her legions of fans. For instance, she calls for the use of San Marzano tomatoes in many of her recipes. When asked about this, she launches into a detailed explanation.
The tomatoes are grown in the San Marzano area of the province of Campania in southern Italy; Naples is the capital and Mount Vesuvius is nearby, she says.
"What's unique about the tomato is it's kind of a sexy-looking, long tomato, but it has a thin skin, a dense pulp and very few seeds and not much juice, so it has the pulp which generates the nice sauce." She added that the tannin in seeds can make sauce bitter, and the juice in tomatoes can be acidic.
Here are two recipes from Bastianich's new book, "Lidia's Favorite Recipes."
Ziti with Roasted Eggplant and Ricotta Cheese (Ziti Alla Norma)
In the introduction to the recipe, Bastianich writes: "This is a delicious Sicilian pasta dish, and as I discovered in Palermo, while researching 'Lidia's Italy,' found on just about every restaurant menu there. In Sicily they fry the eggplant cubes before they add them to the pasta, but here I instruct you to bake the eggplant — it is just as good, but with much less fat. I am asked for this recipe over and over again — my viewers seem to love eggplant, as well as ricotta, and this dish is the perfect marriage of the two."
2 large, firm eggplants (each about 7.5 cm/3 inches in diameter and 625 g/1 1/4 lb)
30 ml (2 tbsp) coarse salt, plus more for cooking pasta and seasoning sauce
90 ml (6 tbsp) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 can (992 g/35 oz) Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) with their liquid, crushed by hand
500 g (1 lb) ziti
250 ml (1 cup) freshly grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
250 ml (1 cup) fresh basil leaves, washed, dried and shredded
5 ml (1 tsp) hot red pepper flakes
250 g (1/2 lb) whole-milk ricotta (250 ml/1 cup)
Trim stems from eggplants. Remove strips of peel about 2.5 cm (1 inch) wide from eggplants, leaving about half the peel intact. Cut eggplant into 2.5-cm (1-inch) cubes and toss in a large bowl with 30 ml (2 tbsp) salt. Dump into a colander and let drain for 1 hour. Rinse eggplant under cool running water, drain thoroughly and pat dry.
Heat oven to 200 C (400 F). Brush a baking sheet with half the olive oil. Turn eggplant cubes onto baking sheet, toss to coat with oil and spread them out in an even layer. Bake until eggplant is very tender and browned, about 25 minutes. Turn and stir eggplant cubes gently once or twice during baking so they cook evenly.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat for ziti.
Heat remaining olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Scatter garlic over oil and cook, shaking the pan, until golden, about 3 minutes. Pour in crushed tomatoes, add pepper flakes and season lightly with salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Stir ziti into boiling water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 10 minutes.
Drain pasta and return it to the empty pot over low heat. Pour in about half of the sauce, tossing lightly to coat pasta with sauce. Remove pot from heat, stir in 125 ml (1/2 cup) of the grated cheese and basil. Toss in half the roasted eggplant cubes and toss again, then add ricotta by heaping teaspoons, stirring it gently into pasta (you want the ricotta to warm, but you do not want it to blend with the sauce completely).
Plate pasta and spoon reserved sauce over each serving. Add equal amounts of the remaining baked eggplant to the top of all the pasta plates. Sprinkle with remaining grated cheese.
Makes 6 servings.
Escarole and White Bean Soup (Zuppa di Scarola e Cannellini)
In the TV show and book "Lidia's Italy in America," Bastianich said she talks about Italian-American food and the food of the immigrant, which is much like the Italian-Canadian immigrant.
A southern Italian specialty, this soup has been a favourite of immigrants through the generations. "It is easy to make, delicious, nutritious, and affordable — all the elements appreciated by those who brought it to this country, and by all of us today who make it in their honour," she writes in the recipe introduction in "Lidia's Favorite Recipes."
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) dried cannellini, Great Northern, baby lima or other small white beans
2 l (8 cups) water
2 fresh bay leaves or 3 dried
125 ml (1/2 cup) extra-virgin olive oil (divided), plus more for drizzling over finished soup
Salt, to taste
1.5 l (6 cups) coarsely shredded escarole leaves, about 1 head (preferably tough outer leaves), washed and drained
8 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
4 to 6 whole dried peperoncini (hot red peppers)
Cold-soak beans in advance: Dump them into a 2-l to 3-l (8-cup to 12-cup) container and pour in enough cold water to cover them by at least 10 cm (4 inches). Let soak in a cool place for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours. Drain thoroughly.
Drain and transfer to a large stockpot. Pour in 2 l (8 cups) water, toss in bay leaves and bring to a boil. Adjust heat to maintain a simmer, pour in half of the olive oil and cook until beans are tender and only 2.5 cm (1 inch) of liquid remains, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Season beans with salt, then stir in escarole and cook, stirring occasionally, until escarole is quite tender, about 15 minutes.
Remove pot from heat. Heat remaining olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and peppers and cook, shaking pan, until peppers change colour, about 1 minute or less. Remove from heat and carefully (it will sputter quite a bit) pour one ladleful of soup into skillet. Swirl pan to blend everything, and then stir panful of seasoned soup back into the large pot. Check seasoning and let soup rest off the heat, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes.
Serve with garlic bread, if desired.
Makes 6 servings.
Source: "Lidia's Favorite Recipes: 100 Foolproof Italian Dishes, from Basic Sauces to Irresistible Entrees" by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, 2012).