Last month when Cranky and I sneaked out of town for a couple of days of solitude on the Sonoma coast, I schlepped along an unlikely book to page through by the firelight.
First of all, it weighs a ton. Our cabin was at the top of a flight of rickety stairs, so that made for one heavy duffel bag.
Second of all, the book has no discernable plot, it covers a dizzying assortment of characters, and lots of the words are in a foreign language.
Well, enough being coy. Yes, of course I'm talking about the new English translation of The Silver Spoon, a 50-plus-year-old treasury of home cooking that has been called "the Italian Joy of Cooking." We bought it for ourselves with Christmas money from my mom and dad.
I still haven't made anything from the book yet, but I couldn't stop bookmarking pages as I stumbled across recipe after recipe using combinations of common foods that had never in a thousand years occurred to me, but sounded logical, inevitable, kind of "Why Didn't I Think of That?"
Or more like "Wait, Are We Even Allowed to Do That?"
For instance: Milk and Onion Soup. That's it; that's all that goes into this soup, other than salt and butter, and a finishing grating of Parmesan cheese, plus croutons.
How about Rice and Potatoes. All right, that one's a little more complex, with the addition of onion, prosciutto and meat stock, but didn't mother always say rice OR potatoes? And there they are together in a yummy-sounding dish.
Here's one Thomas Keller might have dreamed up just for the name, Eggs with Eggplant. But instead of some labor-intensive statement on a plate, this is simply fried eggplant slices in a baking dish, dabbed with tomato paste and then baked with four fresh eggs broken over the top.
The dishes are so simple that some pages in the book hold up to four recipes. The food is homey, comforting and largely inexpensive. Some of the recipes sound like, "Quick, Pappa will be home soon; what can we make from our meager larder?" Spaghetti with Anchovies. Roast Turnips with Leeks and Pumpkin. Bread Soup (aka Stracciatella, with eggs and cheese). The sort of real food that results from desperation and imagination.
True, there are chapters on seafood, all the meats you could think of (a chapter on Heart, another on Brains, and Frogs, and Sausage). There's also party food, cheeses, desserts. Lots of what the average American would deem "real Italian" dishes like lasagne, minestrone, octopus in red wine — though this book doesn't scream "Italian!!"
I haven't gotten halfway through all the pages yet.
And I don't think I'll try a Julie & Julia adventure and attempt to make everything in the book. For one thing, I wouldn't know where to get an ostrich egg.
But the thing that has captivated me the most is the number of kooky, easy amalgams of everyday ingredients I have never before put together in one dish.
Rice Gnocchi. Oatmeal Soup. Savory Cabbage Pie (with hardcooked eggs). Apple Risotto. Strawberry Risotto! Green Beans in Egg Cream. Eggs baked inside scooped-out tomatoes. Meatballs in a creamy lemon sauce.
Are we allowed to do that? Where do I start?