There is something about a cookbook, particularly when it’s brand spanking new. It’s all glossy and beckoning, full of the promise of beautiful meals served to friends and family, happily eating and drinking long into the night. As I flip through the pages for the first time it’s less that I’m envisioning the flavor and taste of each dish, but rather imagining the scenario in which I would serve each. Because for me, and most of us I would suppose, food cooked in a vacuum isn’t nearly as satisfying as when cooked for an appreciative crowd. Maybe some of that comes by way of my mother, who would tell us how she used to (and maybe still does?) take cookbooks to bed and read them like novels, devouring page after page. I like to think that’s because each recipe told a story, and that she too was envisioning how each one could be carefully shopped for, assembled, and presented to that aforementioned appreciative crowd.
Given all of that, you can imagine that I was pleased as punch to receive as a gift Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Cooking, the recently released cookbook from the chef and his co-author, Leslie Miller. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a fan of Stowell’s restaurants – Anchovies & Olives, How to Cook a Wolf, and Tavolata – though I must report that I’ve not yet sampled the latest, Staple & Fancy Mercantile. I’ve had fantastic food at each of those and loved my restaurant experiences (because I know that a good part of the magic for me is the beautiful interiors), so I was excited to see if some of the greatness of his food could be recreated at home.
Why not go all out the first time around? Rather than trying single recipes here and there, I set out to cook an entire meal straight from Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Cooking. I spent quite a bit of time with the cookbook, oohing and ahing over the Geoduck Crudo and Skillet Roasted Rabbit and Trofie with Nettle Pesto. It’s a fun book to read, with interesting chef-y tidbits and beautiful photographs, so it wasn’t really a chore picking the evening’s recipes. In the end I wanted to find several things that would pair well together, wouldn’t need too much hands-on time at the end (why is it that one ends up spending so much time in the kitchen and away from the fun people one has invited over for dinner??), and didn’t require too much time spent on sourcing the ingredients.
Per the excellent suggestion in the cookbook, we started with the Pickled Vegetables that you see below with a bit of charcuterie on the side, paired with the evening’s cocktail. Although drinks aren’t included in the book, I feel certain that Ethan and crew would have approved of our choice: The Loveless,> courtesy of Poppy, made with Ransom Gin, Chartreuse, St. Germain, lime, and a dash of bitters (orange, if you have it). Yum! I loved that the vegetables were extremely easy to pickle and didn’t require much chilling time before serving. My only thought is that perhaps I’ll do the beets separately next time as everything turned a bit, ahem, pink.
The making of the ricotta for the second nibble of the evening, the Bruschetta with Fresh Ricotta and Pine Nut Salsa Verde, was one of the most fun parts of the experience. Who knew that you could do such a thing? And so easily! Whole milk, cheesecloth, sieve, and there you have it. Mixed with a healthy dash of olive oil and served atop a freshly crisped slice of bread, and I could easily eat that all by itself. I thought that the Pine Nut Salsa Verde wasn’t quite as “kicky” as described, but perhaps a bit more lemon would zing it up a bit. The whole presentation was lovely for its bright whites and greens, though, and silkily delicious.
One of my favorite chef-y tidbits in the book accompanies the recipe for the Seared Duck Breast with Sugared Figs and Arugula, the evening’s main course: “For those of you who crave the ubiquitous duck breast all dressed up for company, I offer you my version, the little ducky paired with sweet-and-sour roasted figs and given a little edge from the arugula. I won’t lie – it’s good. However, in exchange for my providing a traditional duck breast recipe, you must promise me that you will try either Party Tripe on Soft Polenta or maybe Geoduck Crudo with Fennel and Radish. Do what scares you.” Ethan totally nailed me with that one… I went for this recipe because it looked quite doable, and those others are for sure a little scary. And he was right on another count: The duck was a huge hit. Tender, flavorful, and incredibly delicious. I was a little nervous cooking the figs this way – roasted on a rack with just a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sugar – thinking that they would over-roast. I didn’t use the figs suggested in the recipe so I’ll assume that’s why they were a little tough in the end, but for sure the sweet of the fig and the slight bitter of the arugula were perfect contrasts for that fantastic duck.
I’m a sucker for dessert-making, so I was very much looking forward to this part of my cookbook adventure. The ice creams and sorbets looked all well and good, but it was the Chocolate Pumpkin Tart that called out to me. The crust was perhaps my favorite, with ground toasted pistachios and cocoa powder among the things that got pressed together into the bottom of the tart pan. Next came a thin chocolate layer, topped with a creamy mix of roasted sugar pumpkin (or the butternut squash that I used), rum, egg yolks, crème fraiche, and maple syrup, as well as the usual sort of pumpkin-y spices. I thought that it was a delicious dessert that wasn’t terribly sweet, so an excellent finish to the meal.
For me, the mark of a good cookbook is that rather than remaining in pristine condition, it gets so much use that it’s soon creased, and covered with the drips and splatters from many great evenings. Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Cooking certainly got a workout in a single night’s use and is well on its way to less than pristine condition, and I’m looking forward to more ES adventures in cooking. Rabbit, perhaps?
One final note: Good to know that there looks to be another (food) baby coming to the Ethan Stowell family. I read in a recent issue of Seattle Magazine that he is planning an entry into the recently crowded burger space. Something about an “’upscale Red Mill’ with burgers, beer and bourbon at a site to be determined.” You can bet I’ll be on the lookout for that!