Cooking with Italian Grandmothers:
Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily
by Jessica Theroux
Welcome Books, September 2010
Hardcover 296 pp., 150 color photographs
I think that all of us yearn for that mythical Italian grandmother. You know, the woman who tells you that you’re too thin and cooks you long simmered ragùs and always has a tray of warm cookies in the oven. These old, wrinkled women seem to hold the secrets of the world in the folds of their housecoats. Somehow they’ve lived a lifetime and are never too tired to out-cook the younger generation. I’m blessed enough to have an Italian grandmother of my own, so I’ve learned that these women know the recipe for everything from the perfect marriage to the perfectly cooked egg.
I’m not the only one who believes in their power. In her cookbook Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, chef and culinary curator Jessica Theroux documents her year spent cooking, living, and learning with twelve bona fide Italian grandmothers. Theroux starts in Milan with Mamma Maria, the mother of her childhood au pair. Mamma Maria teaches Theroux about Lombardian cooking, that it’s OK to eat cookies for breakfast, and how to stay calm in the kitchen. Theroux provides us with the recipes she learned for authentic osso bucco and risotto alla Milanese. She shares Mamma Maria’s secret for polenta with warm cream and gorgonzola (you can always add a bit of warm milk if it’s looking too dry) and braised involtini (make them the day before and just reheat them for guests!) And Mamma Maria is just the beginning.
In addition to imparting age-old wisdom and creating snapshots of Italian daily life, this cookbook leads its readers on a culinary tour of the country. Theroux’s journey took her from Milan to Sardinia and back again, giving us wonderfully varied recipes. The women who share their recipes in this book all cook regionally and Theroux notes that some haven’t ever traveled outside their home province. We get recipes for rabbit dishes that are only eaten in Tuscany, and instructions for making filej, a pasta you’ll only find in the sparse towns of Calabria. Two of my favorite recipes are for panelle with olive tapenade and spaghetti with burst tomatoes. The flavors of these dishes brought me straight to Sicily and were surprisingly easy to make.
By the end of her tour, Theroux learned a lot about herself and how she wants to live her life. Readers will learn a lot about how to cook delicious, regional Italian food. As Irene, a grandmother from Piedmont, says, “To understand something, you must look at its roots.” Theroux gives us the cheat sheet, and it’s almost as good as having gone on the journey ourselves.February 3, 2011