Classic Tuscan dishes transported straight to you kitchen. What could be better?
Just pick up a copy of Pamela Sheldon Johns cookbook, Cucina Povera, and something special will happen. You don’t have to cook one dish from this treasure trove of comfort food to feel like you’ve been transported. All you have to do is leaf through the rag edge pages. Once you hold it in your hand, you’ll get the idea. No explanation necessary.
The book, which features more than sixty dishes from Tuscany, is a joy. It’s a throwback to a time when cooking was part of your family and community lifestyle. Dishes were simple, yet bursting with flavor. Ingredients didn’t come from cans, they came from the earth. There was no need to “check-in” to let your friends and acquaintances in on your every dining experience. Chances were they might even be enjoying with you.
Are you getting the sense that this isn’t your typical Italian cookbook? Your instincts are correct.
A fascinating section on the history of the region, the food and the people precedes the recipes. It’s worth taking the time to read. From there it is broken down into the traditional cookbook components. Soups, appetizers, pastas, meats, breads and desserts are all covered. Photos that are just as mouthwatering as the dishes they represent accompany many of these elegant recipes.
This is a cookbook that you’ll return to over and over again. Not because it contains a thousand dishes or that’s it’s an irreplaceable kitchen resource. It’s because it’s nearly impossible to resist the magic of the food.
In a way this almost seems like a middle school writing exercise, “300 words on Catcher in the Rye…” We all know that both books are classics in every sense of the word. One of them even has the word right in the title just in case you weren’t paying attention. So why bother reviewing it? I think of this as more of a re-acquaintance of an old friend, rather than a book review. There are hundreds, if not thousands of brand new cookbooks sporting great recipes with exciting new ingredients and techniques lining bookstore shelves. Maybe, we need to be reminded every now and then of some of the buried treasurers currently on our own shelves.
First off, this thing is big, even by classic cookbook standards. It logs in at 688 pages containing about 500 recipes and techniques. It’s a lot to digest. There are some essential foundation recipes like the Basic Homemade Meat Broth, a Warm Red Sauce and a classic Béchamel. There is also an in depth discussion of basic ingredients, techniques and equipment used in the preparation of Italian cuisine. The fundamentals section is a cooking course unto itself.
The book is broken down into component parts that make sense. All of the different types of dishes you would expect to find in Italian cooking are covered. For example, the section on Polenta does a fantastic job of introducing the uninitiated to this often times overlooked dish. Desserts have their own treatment and an in depth section on baking rounds out the subjects.
Even though it was originally published almost forty years ago, the recipes hold their own with any modern interpretations of similar dishes.
Of course we’re going to cook one of Marcella’s amazing dishes. After reading through the book and after careful consideration, I settled on her recipe for, Sauteed Fillets of Breast of Chicken with Lemon and Parsley, Siena Style. It’s a quick and easy dish that shows just how great simple Italian cuisine can be.
Like most recipes it has two basic parts. The first is the prep and the second part is the actual cooking.
The title is more intimidating than the actual dish. There is a great prep lesson on boning and filleting a chicken breast that all cooks should learn how to master. Now, I may not be a professional chef, but I have cut up my share of poultry in the past. But, was I even doing it close to correctly? I was hoping that Marcella’s years of experience would yield a much better result than I was getting with my current technique.
I used the method exactly as it was written in the book and disregarded anything I had taught myself in the past. I was a little doubtful that the short two page instructions with only two diagrams would be enough to actually explain how to do this without leaving me a with a big pile of hacked up chicken breast. I was determined to see if the description of the steps would yield a good result. I was already planning what I could make with the future remnants of my first attempt.
With my trusty filet knife and two whole chicken breasts I was ready to give it a whirl. I was amazed at how right on the instructions were. I thought for sure there was going to be a moment in the process where I would just have to wing it (so to speak).
Not so. It was easy. The whole thing took about ten minutes for both breasts. They even looked like they had just come out of a store bought package of boneless skinless chicken breasts. Now, to tackle the last part, the filleting. Easy once again, Could not have been any easier in fact. When I was finished, I had four very uniform and surprisingly well trimmed chicken fillets instead of a pile of unusable chicken scraps. I think I should get an A in Marcella’s Chicken Fillet 101. I won’t get into the specific, step by step details of her method here. You can check that out for yourself in the book.
With that behind us, let’s try to put this recipe together using our newly filleted chicken breasts. How exciting!
Sauteed Fillets of Breast of Chicken with Lemon and Parsley, Siena Style. It’s a long title to a fairly straight forward and simple dish. As a matter of fact, it was a total of 20 minutes from start to finish, once you have all of the ingredients assembled and ready to go. I made this dish for 2 people.
Ingredients: 1T Vegetable Oil (I used canola)
3 Chicken Breasts, filleted as per instructions
Juice of 1 Lemon
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
3T Parsley, Chopped
Lemon Slices (for garnish)
I chose a 14″ nonstick skillet to do my cooking. I thought it would be big enough to accommodate all of the ingredients without crowding them too much.
Put 3 tablespoons of butter and the oil into the pan and heat on medium high. When the butter stops foaming put your chicken fillets in. Cook over medium high heat on both sides for about a minute total. Remove the fillets from the pan and place on a warm plate. Use a slotted spoon or a spatula for this, you could probably use a tongs too. Sprinkle the fillets with salt and pepper.
Add the lemon juice to the pan. Let the juices simmer over medium high heat for about 20 seconds or so. Scrape up the loose cooking particles from the bottom of the pan while it is simmering. Use a wooden spoon for this so you don’t ruin a perfectly good pan. Next, add the chopped parsley and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Stir quickly for about 4 or 5 seconds. Turn the heat down to low and return the chicken to the pan along with any juices on the plate. Turn the chicken a few times then transfer to a warm platter with the pan juices. Garnish this with a slice of lemon and serve. I also garnished with a nice fresh sprig of parsley.
That’s all there is to this tasty chicken dish. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of boning and filleting the chicken breast. you could probably use pre-cut tenders and pound to the correct thickness. But, when her method is so easy why pay someone else to do it.
Here’s the bottom line on this classic cookbook. Plainly stated, everyone should have a copy of it in their personal collection. It’s worth it for the techniques alone. You could apply these methods to any dish you would cook.