Unplugged Kitchen

by Viana La Place

1996. 354 pages. 200+ recipes.

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"Don't be afraid to offer simple food to your guests. Elaborate pictures of fancy foods should remain on magazine pages, Simple food always elicits the strongest emotions - of thanks, of pleasure."

Pasta with Tomato and Fresh Ginger

Potato and Nasturtium Salad Pasta with Onions and Crystallized Ginger

Peach Sandwich

Fresh Persimmon Sauce (served over ice cream)

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If you're someone who began 1998 with the resolution to slow down and simplify your life, my first suggestion is to jettison your Martha Stewart books. Then I recommend you pick up Unplugged Kitchen by Viana La Place.

If Martha Stewart has an insidious knack for goading us to match her exquisitely staged repasts and life, Viana La Place simply invites us to relax in her "lived-in" kitchen and "return to the simple, authentic joys of cooking".  After giving us a tour of her kitchen and pantry (which includes her grandmother's old "rickety colander"), you might even look with renewed fondness at your chipped mixing bowls and your time-worn cutting board.

This cookbook reads like a personal journal and a gentle manifesto on food. La Place has the ability to conjure up the sensual pleasure of simple, un-fussy foods whether it's savoring the taste of tiny radishes with sweet butter or preparing a creamy green-tomato risotto. Unfortunately, her charming prose occasionally dissolves into drifty riffs. (Her informative section on greens ends on a precious note: "Green is the color of immortality. Is that because greens keep the body young?") I admire her principles that keep her kitchen unsullied by ecologically unsound products such as plastic wrap, mainstream detergents, non-organic foods. I respect her decision to eschew the usual arsenal of kitchen gadgetry. But there is no way she will ever convince me that I would be happier if my food processor were retired to the closet.

La Place's recipes are culinary souvenirs she's accumulated along the way. Some are from old books unearthed in secondhand book stores, some are mementos from her travels. Many of her recipes -and her Mediterranean sensibilities- were learned from her native Italian grandmothers. Tucked between pages  are snippets of her food memories and musings.

Her dishes, ranging from humble to urbane, are never complicated: Baked Tomatoes with Brown Sugar, Pasta with Onions and Crystallized Ginger (a neat twist on tradition), Peach Sandwich (this creation is reason enough to look forward to next peach season).

There's a fine line between simple and dull. The few soups I tried  were too bland for my taste. Yet some of her most austere recipes - one ingredient subtly enhanced - are powerfully good: black olives slightly heated; watermelon pulsed into into juice; arugula with the sole accompaniment of good olive oil.

La Place writes that special-occasion food needn't "require being enriched beyond human tolerance". She then proceeds to give a recipe for Linguine with Mascarpone and Spinach which calls for eight ounces of linguine and eight ounces of mascarpone. I imagine - I hope! - this was just a careless typo. When I made it I cut way back on the mascarpone. If I had followed her suggested ratio of pasta to mascarpone the dish would indeed have been "enriched beyond human tolerance", and I would have needed to serve Mylanta for dessert!

But more often La Place offer delicious surprises. The grilled bread with goat cheese and honey makes each mouthful a gooey/crunchy/sweet/tart delight. She offers unusual broths- one is made from beets and lemon juice, another strictly mushroom. These are to be used as soup bases or sipped as tonics or cures. Her inspiring chapter on breakfast offers dashing ideas to begin the day: eggs stuffed with nasturtiums! rice pudding cake! coffee granita! They make the usual cereal-and-juice drill look as dreary as gruel and water.

Unplugged Kitchen has grown on me. I notice that I tend to reach for it when I wander into the kitchen at the end of a frazzling day. Even the act of leafing through the serenely composed pages is calming (the occasional black-and-white photos are as contemplative as Edward Weston's still lifes). Sometimes I'm moved to make one of the recipes. Sometimes just reading them is satisfaction enough.