Red, White, And Greens

by Faith Willinger

HarperCollins, 1996. 239 pages; 150+ recipes.

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"First-rate olive oil is a shortcut to success and even one tablespoon can dress raw or cooked vegetables with impressive results. Crummy oil offers no thrill and will ruin any culinary efforts."

Giovanni's Ricotta and Wild Greens on Pasta

Fabio's "Unmolded" Cauliflower Sformato

Torquato's Penne with Leeks and Celery

Valle d'Aosta Cabbage and Fontina Soup

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Look of the Book

This book has lots of excellent information in it, all of which is well organized. The recipes are grouped by vegetable: from asparagus to zucchini. Each section begins with preparation tips, Italian lore about the vegetable, and its history. I especially enjoy Willinger's conversational comments and advice accompanying each recipe, especially her tales of how she came by each dish.

Slightly Off The Subject

If you want to further wrap yourself in an Italian reverie, take a plate of Willinger's Cauliflower Sformata to a comfy arm chair, put on a Cecelia Bertolli CD, and delve into The Sixteen Pleasures a novel by Robert Hellenga. Oh! this book has it all: location, location, location (Florence, just after the momentous flood of1966); an intelligent and likable heroine embarking on a journey of self-discovery (restless and dissatisied with her life, she takes her book conservation expertise to Florence to help repair priceless water-damaged old texts); romance (a swoon-worthy Florentine aristocrat); sex (in the pages of a legendary Renaissance book of erotica she unearths....and between fine linen sheets in a beautiful old Florentine apartment); intrigue(too long to explain....find out for yourself); and lots of exquisite espresso moments in cafes. I recently met a professor of Italian history (who spends a lot of time in Florence) who said this is one of the best books he knows for really imparting the feel of being in Italy.

If you consider pasta and garlic to be vitamins for the soul; if you're still mourning the passing of Fellini and Mastroiani; if you'd rather be in Italy than anywhere else in the world, this book is for you.Even if you're not a total Italo-phile, I'd recommend it, but maybe not with the same urgency.

Faith Willinger is an American who has been having an intense love affair with Italy and its cuisine since she moved there twenty years ago. She is committed to doing everything she can to bring authentic Italian vegetable dishes into your kitchen - from suggesting typically Italian preparation techniques, to recommending products and sources for stocking the "Italian pantry" (she devotes three pages to "The Utter Importance of Extra Virgin Olive Oil"), to giving seed sources for the strains of vegetables Italians prefer.

Willinger has travelled from Italy's boot toe to its top collecting and recording vegetable recipes. Her sources range from housewives to her housekeeper, from her favorite trattoria owners to her favorite vegetable monger, from the local contessa to her Italian husband's Aunt Enza.

"Most of the recipes in this book are from home cooks," she writes. And they do have the straight forward, unfussy taste of good home cooking....Italian style, of course. Some dishes are variations of classics (a cauliflower frittata, a zucchini risotto). Other dishes were new taste experiences for me. Her her pasta sauce of celery and leeks changed my mind about celery. What I had always considered to be the worst vegetable on the crudite platter became subdued and appealing when gently stewed with leeks.

Thanks to Willinger, I realize I've been underestimating ricotta's virtues by using it exclusively as lasagna mortar. In Fabio's "Unmolded" Cauliflower Sformato, ricotta is a wonderful light (almost fluffy!) binding for this casserole-like dish. It also smooths the bite of greens in Giovanni's Ricotta and Wild Greens on Pasta. Some of the dishes are a little too plain for me. I found her Tuscan pesto interesting as an example of a "strictly Tuscan" taste but I still prefer its zippier basil-based cousin.

I'm a one-dish-meal kind of cook on most nights. Willinger offers plenty of main courses. I also found that a lot of the dishes listed as appetizers or side dishes worked fine as main dishes. Her directions are meticulous and clear.

I don't think I'll be repeating many of her recipes in their entirety. But I have adapted a number of her techniques and ideas from the recipes and added them to my repetoire, such as adding a little pasta water to thicken a sauce and her using her method of quickly sauteeing/ roasting aspargus. I don't think Willinger would mind my straying from her original recipes. After all, her advice in the introduction is, "Follow my recipes once or twice...., then do it your way."