Rogers Gray Italian Country Cookbook

by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray

1995. 300 + pages, 200 recipes.

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"What we love most about Italian soups is what we love most about Italian food. They are regional and seasonal, and their ingredients are undisguised and definite."

Ribolitta Summer Pea Soup Pasta with Asparagus

Pork Cooked in Milk Campari Sorbet

Ricotta and Spinach

Gnocchi Torta di Ricotta

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My friends are used to my raving about my latest favorite cookbooks. But I've never seen them react with such enthusiasm as when I recommended Rogers Gray Italian Country Cookbook by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. One guy visiting from out of town who had never seen the book before begged me to sell him my copy. On another occasion two friends took off in pursuit of the book the day after I served them a main dish from it called Torta di Ricotta. (This is a pizza that could make you forget all others; there's something remarkable about the crust, which is puffier than tart dough, richer than pizza dough.)  

Authors Rogers and Gray are the owners/chefs of London's River Cafe which they opened in1987 so that, in their words, "we could cook the food we had eaten in Italian homes but could never find outside Italy." Since then the restaurant has reached the kind of  hallowed and legendary status in the UK that Chez Panisse has here in the U.S. The two restaurants have similar watchwords: impeccable ingredients simply prepared.  

The authors apply a perfectly-balanced minimalism to most of their recipes. The Pea Soup with mint is like early summer in a bowl: anything added would have mucked it up; anything subtracted  would have dulled it. The Campari Sorbet is the confectionery equivalent of an Armani suit: very simple, very sophisticated. (But the sorbet comes in a prettier color than most of Armani's clothes.) 

The recipes range from familiar Italian classics, such as panzanella, pasta carbonara, and frito misto, to the less well known, such as Pork Cooked in Milk (a delicious blend of tart and mellow) and Poached Brains (I haven't been motivated to try that one yet). Authentcitiy reigns in the ingredient department as well; the dishes revolve around a classic repetoire of Italian foods. (You won't find any recipes here for lemon-grass risotto or tomatillo lasagna.) The recipes are  intriguing and unintimidating. As my friend Helen remarked to me the day after buying Italian Country, "I went through the whole book last night. I'm going to try every single thing." (Even though Helen is given to hyperbole, this is an impressive statement from a food lover who holds Italian cuisine above all others.) 

In America, we've come to associate healthy food with low-fat food. This is not an Italian way of thinking. While Rogers' and Gray's dishes have the healthfulness that comes from using fresh ingredients at their peak, they are not necessarily low in fat. Before buying Italian Country I had pretty much sworn off heavy cream. Now I let myself enjoy its inimitable richness in some of the book's dishes. (I don't think I'll ever be able to go back to low-fat evaporated milk as a heavy-cream substitute again.) Nonetheless, I find myself automatically trimming back on the more copious quantities of fats without sacrificing the flavor of the dish. (Risotto for six with ten tablespoons of butter? Forget it!) 

Much as I'm devoted to this book, I've come to approach some of the quantities called for with skepticism. If I had used the two pounds of greens the gnocchi recipe called for, my gnocchi would have looked like divots from a golf course, and would have tasted like - well, who knows? So I used just half a pound of greens instead, and that worked perfectly in taste and texture. The vegetable stew (Ribolitta) called for two loaves of cut-up bread. If I had used that much, I would have ended up with a pot of damp bread bits flecked with vegetables rather than a vegetable stew thickened with bread bits. What's going on here? While I'm this fault-finding detour, I'll say I was frustrated by the section of sauces, if only because the authors offer little guidance on what dishes the sauces go well with. And in the dessert section, most of the recipes for ice creams and gelatos were for vast quantities that far exceed the four-quart capacity of standard ice cream makers. (I ended up halving these recipes.) 

Italian cuisine conjurs up images of Tuscan hill towns at sunset and bottles of glistening olive oil on rough-hewn tables. The design of Italian Country plays against type: it's moderna rather than rustica. For me, flipping through the book's wide, thick pages is a little like strolling through a modern art gallery. The graphics are bold and bright. The recipes are surrounded with lots of white space as if they were artworks carefully positioned on a blank white wall. There are dramatic still-life photos of food. The most intriguing art in the book is the collection of black-and-white candids snapped at the River Cafe. Most were taken behind the scenes with a documentary realism reminiscent of the work of the 1940's newspaper photographer Weegee. Unposed, unglamourous, eccentrically cropped, workers (including Rogers and Gray) in well-worn sneakers and food-smudged aprons  are chopping, checking, measuring, sauteing, scurrying, sweating. My favorite is a photo of a worker swabbing the floor by "skating" around with a cloth under each foot.  

This is the cookbook I often sit down with at 5 pm, flip through to pick out a recipe, and, assuming I have the ingredients at hand (which I often do), have dinner on the table by 6:00 or 6:30. A really good dinner.