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Style with Substance

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Written by Peggy Fallon   
Thursday, 26 August 2010
ImageWhen I leaped at the opportunity to review Donatella Cooks, I took a little flack here at Project Foodie headquarters. Those not familiar with the über successful restaurateur and frequent television cooking show judge dismissed the book as fluff, their opinions based solely upon its cover. (Isn't there an old idiom that applies here?)

Okay, so the cover is an unfortunate photo of the fetching author-chic and slim, teetering in her signature stilettos—tongs in hand, presiding over an empty skillet in a pristine kitchen. The fact that the title's tag line is "Simple food made glamorous" didn't help my case any. But I'm here to say Donatella Arpaia is no fluff-ball, and her recipes are far from pretentious.

This attorney-turned-culinary mogul comes from a family of exceptional cooks, and has continued to learn from chefs and other restaurateurs along the way. In this book she shares her vast knowledge and demonstrates how her impeccable personal style translates to home entertaining. There's a reason Zagat's named her "The Hostess with the Mostess."

As with any good book on this subject, Arapaia, along with co-author Kathleen Hackett, supplies plenty of sources for specialty ingredients, and tips for stocking your pantry, creating table settings, and making simple yet memorable dishes. Most importantly, the author's genuine love of food is evident on every page.

ImageMany of the recipes have a decidedly Italian bend, but Arapaia follows her own delicious instincts with dishes like Bocconcini with Peaches and fresh basil; Lentils and Ditalini with Parsley-Mint Pesto; and the decadent Donatella's Italian Mac and Cheese with mascarpone, Taleggio, Parmesan, and Pecorino-Romano. She also provides a few whimsical originals like Nutella Hot Chocolate and popcorn tossed with truffle oil, rosemary, and a freshly grated cheese. (A final dusting of edible gold is reserved for formal occasions.)

My only complaint about my own childhood has been that I was not born Italian; and Donatella's memories scattered throughout this book have done nothing to lessen the grudge. How great would it be if Mezze Rigate with Roasted Cauliflower and Bacon reminded me of my childhood dinner table—instead of what I missed? What greatness would I have achieved in life if only I had a Zia Donata to teach me the intricacies of cooking with fava beans? Why couldn't my mother pack Zucchini Fritters in my lunch bag, instead of a baloney sandwich?  No doubt I, too, would then proudly share her make-ahead recipe for Zucchini alla Scapece.  

Like many a nice Italian girl, Arpaia also lovingly recreates her Mama's Meatballs. The only difference is that this recipe has won rave reviews from the New York Times, New York magazine, and Time Out New York. Perhaps the only childhood memory we have in common is an undying passion for coconut cake—and I am dying to try her ultimate version, redolent with coconut milk, cream of coconut, coconut rum, and plenty of shredded coconut. Oh yeah.

The author readily admits to eating pasta every day as she was growing up, and still makes it for dinner more often than not. (Obviously it hasn't done her waistline one bit of harm.) But unlike many Italian purists, she has no qualms about serving pasta as a main instead of first course. And who wouldn't want to indulge in a full-size helping of creamy Gemelli Principessa, with fresh asparagus and ricotta? But don't even get me started on that White Chocolate Risotto…

Most of these gutsy dishes are surprisingly simple to prepare, with blessedly short ingredient lists. The author's relaxed approach to cooking is so not intimidating that I would gladly hang with her anytime, talking shoes and sipping prosecco, as we nibbled on her Pecorino Fonduta with Lavender Honey; Sicilian Tuna and White Bean Bruschetta; and Baked Figs with Prosciutto and Gorgonzola. So chew on that, snobbie foodies.

Heirloom Tomato Panzanella

From  Donatella Cooks by Donatella Arpaia. Rodale Books (2010).

It's a Tuscan peasant dish through and through: stale bread moistened with juicy tomatoes and olive oil. But with a little tweaking--colorful heirloom tomatoes, haricot verts, ricotta salata--this citified panzanella is posh enough to serve to your well-heeled friends without reservation.

SERVES 4 TO 6

Croutons

  • 1/2 loaf rustic Italian bread, cut into 1" cubes
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Vinaigrette
  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Salad

  • 1 pound haricot verts
  • 2 1/2 pounds (about 4 medium) assorted heirloom tomatoes, cored and each cut into 8 wedges
  • 1 pound ricotta salata, shaved with a vegetable peeler
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup torn fresh basil leaves

TO MAKE THE CROUTONS: Preheat the oven to 300°F. Combine the bread, garlic, oregano, and olive oil in a large bowl and toss until the cubes are completely coated. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer, season with salt and pepper, and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown. Set aside to cool.

TO MAKE THE VINAIGRETTE: Combine the mustard and vinegar in a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

TO MAKE THE SALAD: Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Prepare an ice bath. Blanch the haricots verts in the boiling water for 2 to 6 minutes, or until barely tender, with a slightly firm bite still left to them. Drain the beans and transfer to the ice bath to chill quickly, then drain again and dry on paper towels. Cut each in half. Combine the haricots verts and tomatoes in a large bowl. Shave the ricotta salata into the bowl using the large holes of a box grater. Add the croutons and toss to combine thoroughly. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad and croutons and gently toss with wooden spoons. Season with sea salt and pepper. Transfer the salad to a serving bowl or platter, garnish with the basil, and serve.

Strawberry Semifreddo

From  Donatella Cooks by Donatella Arpaia. Rodale Books (2010).

Literally translated, semifreddo means "partially frozen." Its texture is achieved by incorporating air into the strawberries and cream mixture. It's simpler to make than ice cream, more intriguing than mousse, yet shares the best qualities of both. The beauty of semifreddo is that you can mold it in just about any container, from wax-coated paper cups (torn away before serving), a loaf pan (for slicing in slabs), or silicone muffin tins (for shaped desserts). If you chill it in a tub, you can scoop it straight from the container.

Tuaca is a golden liqueur made in Tuscany. It infuses the semifreddo with the subtle flavors of orange and vanilla.

SERVES 6 TO 8

YOU'LL NEED: loaf pan, food processor, electric mixer

  • 4 cups strawberries, hulled, plus more for garnish
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Tuaca or Grand Marnier, optional
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • Fresh mint, cut in thin strips, for garnish (optional)

LINE AN 8" OR 9" x 5" x 3" LOAF PAN, if using, with plastic wrap and set aside.

COMBINE THE STRAWBERRIES, sugar, and Tuaca in the bowl of a food processor and puree. Reserve 1 cup. Pour the remaining puree into a large bowl. Whip the cream in another bowl using an electric mixer until soft peaks form when you lift the beaters out of the bowl. Fold the cream into the puree using a rubber spatula, working from the bottom of the bowl, until there are no signs of cream. Pour the mixture into the loaf pan, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze until firm, about 2 hours.

INVERT THE SEMIFREDDO onto a serving plate. Remove the plastic wrap and, when slightly softened, smooth the top with a knife. Cut into 3/4"-to 1"-thick slices and garnish with the strawberries, mint, and some of the reserved puree drizzled on top.

Disclosure: Review copies of books discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or publishers.

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 12 September 2010 )
Awesome Review
foodieprincess (Unregistered) 2010-08-26 05:46:56

This a great review Peggy and now I'm sad that I passed on this book, but you who are just as fab as Donatella was definitely the right one to review it. When you get around to making that coconut cake remember, Fed Ex ships overnight
Anonymous (Unregistered) 2010-08-26 08:39:50

Delightful review, and how generous to be open enough for Donatella to demonstrate she may have knowledge and skill. I hope that you will be as generous to Sandra Lee.
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