Eating well doesn't have to mean complicated recipes or fancy ingredients. Slowing down and savoring food that is cooked simply and tastes delicious is the premise of Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking by Pamela Sheldon Johns. Cucina Povera literally means "poor kitchen" and in this lovely little cookbook, the author takes us on a journey to the country-side of Tuscany to taste the recipes of neighbors, friends and family.
The book is compact, 7" x 8" and just under 200 pages, but those pages are chock full of simple, seasonal recipes for Appetizers, Soups, Pastas and Grains, Meats and Seafood, Side Dishes, and Bread & Sweets. Cucina Povera is a beautiful cookbook comprised of thick pages with textured edges and gorgeous photographs of the food and the Tuscan countryside. Author Pamela Sheldon Johns is a cooking instructor and host of culinary workshops throughout Italy. Named one of the Top 10 culinary guides in Europe by The Wall Street Journal, Sheldon Johns is the author of 14 cookbooks, and her Tuscan farm and cooking school have been featured on television and in popular magazines.
To "road test" Cucina Povera, I made three recipes (although my book is quite studded with tape flags highlighting many more), Frittura Mista di Verdure (Fried Flowers and Vegetables), Insalata di Farro (Farro Salad), and Pasta alle Briciole (Pasta with Spicy Bread Crumb Topping).
I was excited to stumble across some bags of fresh zucchini blossoms at the farmers market and knew I wanted to make one of the squash flower recipes in the book. Because I also had some locally-grown zucchini and some sweet Maui onions, I decided it was time to do some frying. The Frittura Mista di Verdue, is a plate full of fried goodness with the squash blossoms, zucchini sticks and rings of onion. Maybe not the healthiest recipe in the book, but heavenly--especially the squash blossoms, so light, sweet and tender.
Frittura Misto di Verdue (Fried Flowers and Vegetables)
From Cucina Povera
Pamela Sheldon Johns says, "I make this appetizer year-round. In the fall and winter, I use strips of winter squash, sage, and sliced potatoes; in the spring, elderberry and acacia flowers; and in the summer, zucchini flowers and eggplant. The important thing is to heat the oil to a temperature of 375 degrees F.; at this point, less oil is absorbed by the food. Fry in small batches, as large quantities will decrease the temperature of the oil."
2 large eggs
3 Tbsp sparkling water, beer or Prosecco
1 tsp sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
sunflower oil for frying
8 zucchini flowers (or your local edible flower), rinsed and patted dry.
1 zucchini, cut into sticks
1 small onion, sliced and separated into rings
In a small bowl, combine the eggs, sparkling water, and the 1 teaspoon salt. Whisk in the flour until the mixture is smooth and the consistency of pancake batter,
In a heavy, medium saucepan, heat 2 inches of oil to 375 degrees F. on a deep-fat thermometer. Working in batches, dip the flowers in the batter and fry for 2 minutes, then turn and fry for another 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Using a wire skimmer or a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with salt and serve at once.
The Insalata di Farro was an excellent grain salad--the nutty, slightly chewy farro paired well with the vegetables and the salame (I used a vegan salami and wanted it a little spicier so I added a pinch of red pepper flakes). It made a filling but not heavy lunch or dinner dish and tasted even better after a day or two. (You can find the recipe for the salad here.)
Finally the Pasta alle Briciole. I love pasta with bread crumbs and make it all the time. the book's recipe didn't stray too far from the way I make mine, but I did like the spicy kick of the red pepper flakes. I used a fresh spinach pasta / regular pasta mix which made for a pretty dish. Confession--I did add capers to my dish after the photos. I loves my capers. Such a simple dinner, but one I could eat almost every night.
All three recipes were easy enough to make and enjoyable to eat and share with others. Cucina Povera is a great addition to the cookbook shelves of Italian and Tuscan food lovers. The book and a box of pasta or a basket of Italian ingredients would be a fun gift for a favorite foodie or someone who wants to get back into the kitchen and make some simple, nourishing meals.
Disclosure Statement: A review copy of this cookbook was provided to me by the publisher, but as always, my thoughts, opinions and experiences cooking from it are all my own.