Italy? Check. Cooking with wonderful women in small towns? Check.
Jessica Theroux was given the chance of a lifetime when a post-college scholarship from Brown University enabled her to travel to Italy and spend time recording the cooking traditions of the country’s grandmothers.
The result is a gorgeous and readable cookbook: “Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily .” Theroux met many of the women through serendipity; a chance encounter with a niece that led to days of cooking and living with a family or a meeting with a farmer that led to cooking with a matriarch.
Since it features the recipes and stories of these women, it’s a book to be savored—a weekend kind of cookbook. You’re not going to use it on a busy Tuesday, when the kids are hungry and hockey practice pickup looms. But on a lazy Sunday, try the Osso Buco or the Apple Rum Cake. Theroux’s recipes have been triple checked, so they work and because they’re very traditional, you won’t find recipes with 13 hard-to-find ingredients. But you will find a lovely book that transports you to Italy with stories and food. It’ll hold you until your next trip to Tuscany.
Vincenzo’s Pasta e Ceci (Creamy Chickpeas with Broken Pasta)
From “Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily” by Jessica Theroux
Serves 4–6 as an appetizer
Vincenzo nursed his heart back to health with this soup, and he did the same for me when I arrived at the Casa di Gioia sick and exhausted. Every time I make Vincenzo’s Pasta e Ceci, I am surprised at how simple and fulfilling the thick soup is. Vincenzo prepared his without any fat, but I find the soup to be superior when prepared with olive oil and garnished with a grating of Parmesan. A touch of minced parsley adds a boost of color and flavor to the final presentation.
- 11/2 cups dried chickpeas
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 8–10 cups water
- 1 medium yellow potato, peeled and finely diced
- 3 bay leaves
- 8 cloves garlic, divided
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 tablespoons tiny pasta or well-broken cappellini pasta
- Chopped parsley, cracked black pepper, grated Parmesan cheese, and olive oil to garnish
Sort the chickpeas for rocks, rinse them well, and soak them for 12 to 24 hours with the 1/2 teaspoon baking soda.
Drain the chickpeas, and place them in a large pot with the water, diced potato, bay leaves, and 4 unpeeled cloves of garlic. Put on a lid, slightly ajar, and bring to a strong simmer. Scrape off and remove any bean scum that rises to the surface of the pot.
Simmer the chickpeas until they are tender but not mushy, about an hour. Add the salt to the pot.
While the beans are cooking, peel and finely mince the remaining 4 cloves of garlic. In a small sauté pan, cook the garlic in the olive oil until light golden brown. Add the garlic and oil to the simmering beans. You can do this at any stage of the beans’ cooking; I tend to sauté and add the garlic about halfway through the cooking time.
Remove the bay leaves and whole, unpeeled garlic cloves from the pot. Discard the bay leaves, and squeeze the garlic from the cloves; return the soft garlic to the pot. Strain 1/2 to 1 cup of cooked chickpeas from the water, and set them aside. Puree the rest of the soup with a blender or food mill, then return the whole chickpeas to the pot.
Bring the soup back up to a simmer, and add the pasta. Simmer for the length of time specified on the pasta package, making sure to stir the soup frequently throughout the cooking; the pasta will tend to stick to the bottom of the pot.
Taste for salt, adding more if you like. Serve garnished with chopped parsley, black pepper, grated Parmesan, and a generous drizzle of olive oil.