Paging through Lidia Bastianich's new book, Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy: A Feast of 175 Regional Recipes (Knopf), it's obvious that the notion of a locavore is not a trend but rather a given in Italy and it has been for generations. In all of her books, Lidia gives readers a sense of this very local approach to cooking, but in this, her sixth cookbook, the message is clear.
With travel-magazine-worthy photos of the people and places behind these dishes, the book is organized regionally. Each of Italy's twelve regions is covered, from a beer-roasted chicken from the Trentino–Alto Adige region in the north, down to a roasted lobster dish from Sardinia.
Just look at the expression on her face: this is a woman who loves to feed people. She shares her Italian heritage so enthusiastically and generously, reading through the book gave me the feeling Lidia was a loving friend who wanted to take me on a personal tour of her home country, feeding me along the way.
The recipes are simple, authentic, and written in a way that makes you feel like you can be the real deal, too. For that reason, it's a great book to have for dinner parties. Nothing is overly complicated, but everything is deeply delicious, hearty and nourishing.
Last night I made the Polenta with White Beans and Black Kale (from the Valle d'Aosta region), served with a simple grilled rib-eye steak. It was a very basic preparation, but with the bay leaves and the Fontina cheese, regular old polenta took on conversation-worthy flavors. It's not exactly a diet dish, but it's definitely a dish for mental health. I literally felt happy while I cooked it (piles of ribboned kale, hunks of bacon, fontina falling like snow!) and when I ate it (everything melted together in an earthy, salty, soft way), and I think my dinner guests did too.
More 2009 Book Reviews
• The New Portuguese Table by David Leite
• Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen
• Clean Food by Terry Walters
• On Food & Cooking by Harold McGee
• Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen by Judy Witts Francini
• The Perfect Fruit by Chip Brantley
• Heard it Through the Grapevine by Matt Skinner
• Big Food by Elissa Altman
• Edible Schoolyard by Alice Waters
• The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
• Milk by Anne Mendelson
• The New Steak by Cree LeFavour
• A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
• Fresh Food From Small Places by R. J. Ruppenthal
• Eat Feed Autumn Winter by Anne Bramley
• Heirloom Beans by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo
(Image: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)