We've been fawning over Jamie's Italy by Jamie Oliver for a while now, which explains why its been sitting on our kitchen counter, getting splattered and dog-eared instead of sitting on our desk getting reviewed.
The premise is a voyage through Italy to find the local specialties and family recipes that Jamie thinks are the real deal of Italian cooking. Grandmothers, grape stompers, cute young women with pierces in their lips; it's all there, plus a hefty dose of the Naked Chef himself. And somehow, miraculously, it is not annoying.
The photography, by David Loftus and Chris Terry, is the first thing to hook you. The colors are incredibly vibrant, as if alive. You get the sense that they were snapped by Jamie, with a hip little vintage camera hanging messenger-style across his back.
The recipes are approachable, but unique enough to inspire curiosity. The most complicated dish we tried was the rotolo di zucca e ricotta (rotolo of spinach, squash and ricotta, recipe follows), a hearty and bright, pasta-enveloped log that could easily accommodate a variety of other produce based on season. It was quite a project, but with a bottle of wine open and a little Louis Prima, we enjoyed every messy moment of it.
We've made the spaghetti con calamari is a dish weve made several times this summer for big crowds. All of the pasta dishes are memorable, as are the photos of the old ladies preparing them. There's no doubt that Jamie likes the ladies of all generations; the book shows has him journeying through Italy with all the generations, from the young girl, presumably one of his daughters, binky in the mouth, standing by a wild boar being drained of its blood to the quiver of older women he poses with, armed with rolling pins and funeral attire, on their way to the local pasta competition.
The Contorni (side dishes) chapter is filled with some surprisingly simple dishes that are great for mid-week cooking for two as they are for larger-scale cooking. The funghi al cartoccio al forno (baked mushrooms in a bag) are a wonderful way to prepare those large and imposing portabellos that normally bore us to tears.
There are also wonderful meats and desserts. If you can get your hands on a really nice cut of marbled meat like a rib-eye, and some good truffle oil, try the schiacciata di manzo con aglio, rosmarino, e funghi (flash roast beef with garlic, rosemary and mushrooms). It is stressed, and it is true, that this kind of simple cooking depends on quality ingredients. For dessert, try making the sorbetto di limone (special lemon sorbet); you will be shocked at how easy it is to make something so rich. We used organic lemons and Vermont Butter & Cheese mascarpone.
Jamie's presence in the book is almost too much; if there were one more photo of him shaking hands with a local priest, or putting back another Peroni, you might not take him seriously. But he appears (and quite prominently) very humble toward the subjects of the book, and so you feel as you page through the book, that you are on the back on his Vespa, touring the country that inspired some of the worlds best cooking, or so believes your tour guide.
Jamie's Italy is a little bit of a narcissistic notion, but we get it. The Italy of the Zucchini Farmer and the Little Old Ladies Who Roll Gnocchi Together and the Guys Who Crush the Grapes is too much of a mouthful.
Rotolo di Zucca e Ricotta
1 pound fresh egg pasta dough
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1/2 a butternut squash, halved and deseeded
1 3/4 pound spinach, washed
1/2 pound of unsalted butter
1/3 of a nutmeg, grated
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
5 1/2 ounces crumbly ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
1/2 a dried red chili
about 20 fresh sage leaves
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
a handful of fresh marjoram or oregano, leaves picked
First make your egg pasta dough. Preheat the oven to 425F. Chop the butternut squash into big chunks and rub them with a little olive oil. Bash up the coriander seeds, fennel seeds, and chili in a pestle and mortar with a good pinch of salt and pepper. Dust this mix over your pieces of squash, then put them into a snug-fitting ovenproof dish or roasting pan covered with a dampened piece of wax paper. Pop the pan into the oven for about 30 minutes, then remove the paper and let the squash roast for another 15-20 minutes, until golden. While this is cooking, get a large pan nice and hot and add a little olive oil, the marjoram or oregano, and the garlic. Move it all around for 20 seconds, then add the spinach. Water will cook out of it as it heats up this is fine, though, as it will cook away. Using a pair of tongs, keep the spinach moving quickly around the pan, then after a minute add a couple of knobs of butter and the nutmeg and stir it around a bit more. Keep cooking until the moisture has cooked away, then season to taste and allow to cool.
To roll out your pasta either use a pasta machine to give you 4 or 5 long sheets (6 x 12 inches wide) and stick them together using a little water, or you can do what I do and use a rolling pin on a large surface, dusting with flour on top of and underneath the dough. Roll it out into a rectangular shape and trim it as necessary. Have a go at both ways. You want the dough to be the thickness of a beer mat and the size of a kitchen towel, then lay it out on top of a clean kitchen towel.
Once you've done this, spoon a line of squash along the long edge of the sheet nearest you. Sprinkle the spinach over the rest of the sheet, leaving the top 2 inches of the pasta sheet clear. Crumble the ricotta over the spinach, sprinkle the Parmesan over it, and you're ready to begin rolling! Brush the last clear edge of the pasta sheet with a little water, then, working carefully, use the nearest edge of the towel to roll the pasta up and away from you, like a jelly roll. Roll the rotolo up in the towel and tie it firmly at each end using some string. You can secure the sausage shape even the further by tying some more around the middle if you want. Tie a little extra string at one end so it can hang out of the cooking pot and act as a handle.
Now, to cook the rotolo, get your fish kettle or very large pot with a lid and fill it with boiling salted water. Lower the rotolo in and use the fish kettle rack on top to keep it submerged. If using a saucepan, hold the rotolo down with a plate. Simmer for about 25 minutes.
While its cooking, you need to clarify some butter. To do this, take the remaining butter and place it in an ovenproof dish in the oven on a low plate-warming temperature (170° F). Over the next 10 to 15 minutes it will melt and you'll see that the milky whey will sink to the bottom. Discard any white bits floating on the top, then spoon out the clear golden butter and put to one side. Discard the whey. You wont need all the butter now, but its quite hard to clarify any less than this you can leave the extra in the fridge to use for your roast potatoes another day.
Now that you've removed the whey from the butter, you can heat it up more aggressively. So put about 3 tablespoons of your clarified butter into a pan and heat it up. Test to see if the butter is hot enough by adding a sage leaf to it. If it fries nicely, add the rest of the leaves and fry for about 30 seconds until they begin to crisp up. Then remove from the heat and put to one side.
When the rotolo is ready, carefully remove it from the pan, take the string off, unroll it, and slice it up a couple of slices per portion. Scatter a few sage leaves over the top, drizzle with a little of your sage-flavored butter, and finish off with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan. Unbelievable!
(Images: David Loftus)