Oh wow, I went to the Book Depository to get the link for My Cousin Rosa and discovered that Rosa has another book out! And that was probably the one that Rita (aka The Italian Lady at the farmers’ market)’s daughter was telling me all about last time I saw her. This has totally and completely distracted me from my cookbook review.
Let me start with an objective statement: I love this book. I love the recipes, I love how the recipes are written, and I love the way it reminds me of my Nonna. And I’m already trying to decide whether I should be buying it for my Italian relatives for Christmas, or for my Australian in-laws, so that they can better understand my Italian relatives… or there’s always both, of course. Yeah, I am clearly a totally unbiased reviewer here. But that’s probably because this is the sort of book that is more or less made for me.
How can I tell this? Because it has cardoons in it. Obviously.
That wasn’t the reason I actually bought the book. The selling point on the day was that there was a recipe for kid stew with chestnuts, and I had a tin of chestnuts in the pantry and a leg of goat in the fridge and wasn’t really sure what to do with either of them so that seemed to hit the nail on the head. Of course, then I got it home and wound up doing something completely different with the goat, but that’s not really the point.
This is the most disjointed review ever, isn’t it? Alright, I’ll see if I can do a better job now.
Rosa moved from Sicily to Australia as a girl, and her family lives in country Victoria (though not, I think, in remote Victoria) (to be fair, Victoria really doesn’t get very remote). Her recipes are traditional Sicilian fare, and have a very Southern Italian feel to the way she talks about food, but it’s all adapted just a bit for Australian conditions. So she will talk about cardoons actually being Scotch Thistles and not at all prized in Australia (though still available), and about the best place to find wild fennel being along railway tracks.
The bit about fennel, above all, resonated with me, not because I’ve seen wild fennel along railway tracks (though I certainly have – right by my local railway crossing, in fact), but because most Australians I know would be a bit leery of something that has grown in those conditions, collecting whatever pollution or soot the train brings with it. If you’re from Southern Italy, though, you just don’t waste food. You just wash your fennel well before using it, and be glad to have something on your plate.
(Disclaimer: I have never lived in Southern Italy, or in poverty, unless you count that dreadful year after Uni when I lived on pasta and tomatoes for weeks, and I think we’ve all been there, but I was brought up on tales of my grandfather living on bread and onions for years, and believe me, we ate what was put in front of us, without waste and with all due gratitude – food was food and not to be sneezed at. Even vongole.)
Actually, I may be reading too much into the fennel. It’s more that the book has that sort of pragmatic practicality that I associate with my Nonna’s generation.
Rosa starts the book with antipasti, which are mostly vegetarian (fried whitebait being the only exception), and are in many cases gluten-free or vegan too. Her antipasti are mostly vegetables, preserved, grilled or turned into fritters or salads. There is a recipe for sun-dried tomatoes – a very Nonna recipe, without quantities, since it really depends on how many tomatoes you have and how big your jars are – and another for frittata, which is more a template than a recipe – you have eggs, oil, cheese, and then 2 cups of cooked vegetables. Rosa suggests this as a way of using up leftovers. The chapter ends with a recipe for pizza dough and a whole section on making salami, which again takes me back to my childhood – though I don’t remember helping with salami more than once or twice, I think. My great-uncle Charlie did have the pig each year, though.
The next chapter is for soups. I haven’t tried any of these yet, but they tend to be hearty-looking affairs – the kind that could be a meal in their own right, with maybe a bit of bread on the side. I am particularly taken with the chicken one with tiny chicken meatballs and tortellini, which looks like the sort of thing you serve at a feast, but the chickpea, leek and potato soup also has strong appeal. Again, about half the recipes in this section are vegetarian.
I’ve made several of Rosa’s pasta recipes already. She starts her pasta chapter with a basic macaroni recipe and a tomato sauce recipe, as well as ‘pasta fritta’, which is what you do with leftover pasta. Her recipes in this section include very simple ones – pasta shells with ricotta and parsley, for example, which contain exactly that, and are, in Rosa’s view, a recipe that leaves no excuse for buying takeaway. There is a fresh tomato sauce in a similar vein.
Rosa’s more elaborate pasta dishes include rabbit ragout, spaghetti with squid in squid ink sauce, canneloni with chicory, and the truly glorious pasta bake I made on Wednesday. Let me pause to tell you the glory of this pasta bake, because it is peasant food at its best. This is what you make for a feast, when you have a dozen people round and not very much money with which to feed them (seriously, I got really good organic meat and free-range eggs and so forth, and the meal, which would feed 12 easily, cost me about $35 in ingredients).
The idea is to use very little meat but to get as much meaty richness out of your dish as possible, so you start by making a sort of bolognese sauce, but this sauce uses 2 1/2 kilos of tomatoes and only half a kilo of minced beef. And you chuck in a couple of osso bucco or lamb shanks, or goat shanks, and some peas, and let them cook in the sauce for a few hours. And then you pull out the shanks and shred the meat and hard boil some eggs. And then you get out a huge tray and make layers of pasta, sauce, shredded goat meat, chopped hard boiled eggs, chopped mortadella, grated parmesan and basil leaves, until you only have pasta and a little sauce left, and then you make a final layer of pasta, mix the sauce with a couple more eggs and some parmesan, and bake the whole lot.
I wanted to make it because I couldn’t imagine how it would taste. Let me tell you, it tastes *incredible*. The layers of flavour are entirely worth the time it takes to put this together, and for something that doesn’t really contain a lot of meat (I would say less than 70g per person), it’s incredibly meaty and rich. Astonishing.
For the vegetarians among you, I can also add that the spaghetti with tomato sauce and parmesan zucchini is truly delicious and also hits above its weight, flavour-wise. About half the pasta recipes are vegetarian, or would be vegetarian if you took out the anchovies (and really who wouldn’t take out the anchovies? Anchovies are my one real complaint about Sicilian cooking, actually).
Just for fun, Rosa finishes this chapter with a description of traditional ricotta and cheesemaking, and a recipe for ricotta that is more practical for standard Australian kitchens.
I have not yet tried any of the meat and fish recipes, but note again that Rosa spreads her net fairly wide, using goat, rabbit and salt cod, as well as chicken, beef, pork and veal. She also isn’t afraid to use unusual cuts of meat – I will probably not attempt the tripe, but I may give the girello roast one final try, despite my signal lack of success with it in the past. And I will definitely be making her cotolette.
Her vegetable chapter is glorious, and particularly nice, I think, for Australians who are less accustomed to Italian vegetables – she has lots of things to do with fennel, eggplant and cauliflower (her cauliflower salad, which contains mint, roasted peppers, olives, capers, red wine vinegar and olive oil – and yes, anchovies, but I assure you it is *fine* without them – is particularly gorgeous), and has recipes for salads but also for gratins and eggplant parmagiana or cotoletta. There are, in fact, some excellent vegetarian mains in here, as well as some beautiful side-dishes, and, again, a fair number of vegan options.
Desserts are, of course, my thing, but I’m actually usually a bit less interested in the traditional Italian ones – too sweet and too much custard. I did make Rosa’s flourless chocolate and marsala cake on Wednesday, though, and that was gorgeous (especially served with balsamic strawberries and ricotta which had been beaten with marsala). I’m also very tempted by her pistachio cakes (also gluten-free) and her sweet ravioli stuffed with ricotta, sultanas and marsala. And her biscotti…
Altogether, then, this is a lovely, lovely book of Sicilian food. It’s particularly nice if you are moving a bit outside your comfort zone and picking up different cuts of meat or less common vegetables, because Rosa has the recipes for you! Her pasta and vegetable dishes are really outstanding, too. If you are gluten-free, there is a lot to like here – even the pasta section is mostly manageable if you have a good source of gluten-free pasta, and there are a couple of really excellent gluten-free cakes among the desserts.
If you are vegetarian there is a lot to love, but there really is still quite a bit of meat in this book, so the appeal of the book would depend on how much that bothered you. I’d say around 2/3 to 3/4 of the recipes are vegetarian, so it would really depend how much you love your Sicilian food. On the other hand, if you are looking for good things to do with cauliflower or artichokes or fennel, you’re really going to like this one (for some reason, very few people write interesting recipes for cauliflower. I’ve no idea why this is the case, but it is true). The book is probably of limited interest to vegans, I’m afraid – I counted 35 recipes which were vegan or only required one to omit anchovies or grated parmesan to become so, and these included some pretty good recipes, but even so. Basically, I don’t think vegans were the target audience here! (Don’t worry – the next book I plan to review definitely does have you as its target audience!)
Oh, and if you were looking for pizza recipes? This is not the book for you. I suspect pizza just isn’t a major Sicilian thing.
For omnivores who want to eat more vegetables, however, or for anyone who wants to get a really good feel for Southern Italian cooking and the way Italians think about food, this book is simply fabulous and I can’t recommend it too much. As I said at the start, I love it. It speaks to my heart as loudly as it speaks to my stomach. And I just may have to hop across to the Book Depository now and order Rosa’s other book.
You can purchase My Cousin Rosa: Rosa Mitchell’s Sicilian Kitchen at the Book Depository, or at your local bookshop. Support your local bookshop! It needs you!
This time last year…