At my favorite bookstore Half Price Books, I was browsing the other day. My first stop - cookbooks, of course, and more specifically, clearance cookbooks. While there is generally an overabundance of crappy items in that section, you never know what you might find. This was one such trip. I've been grooving on Italian food lately. Perhaps because the flavor profiles are already familiar to most Americals from birth, the cruise to the Mediterranean last year, or because of the mozzarella making class we did this summer, but I keep coming back to those flavors. Italian flavors make sense and even the simplest of preparations can taste amazing with the right ingredients.
I've debated whether my Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian is the right Italian cookbook for me at this time. So, for the bargain price of $2.00, I uncovered From Biba's Italian Kitchen. Biba's book really had appeal - a variety of simply prepared fare that covered the gamut from appetizers to pastas, to main dishes, with a few desserts thrown in for good measure. Desserts were a weak point, but since I've now mastered homemade limoncello, once I serve that, people won't care what actually gets served with it. If the taste doesn't wow them, the Everclear will knock them silly.
Upon delving into Biba's book (based on the TLC series she hosted in the 1990's), I discovered a number of dishes that appear to be inspired by Biba's childhood in Italy and did not appear overly authentic, at least compared to other cookbooks I've read. Authentic or no, the recipes were appealing. For my inaugural Biba meal, I selected an Italian version of an American standard - meatloaf. I chose to pair that with homemade pasta and Biba's recipe for tomato sauce. On the side was a skewer of baby bella mushrooms layered with sauteed pancetta and fresh sage leaves.
Overall, my biggest disappointment in Biba's book was the pasta recipe - she calls for all-purpose flour and eggs. I really had to wonder if, at the moment that cookbook was authored, it really was hard to locate semolina flour in the average supermarket or Whole Foods. I absolutely, after trying the Frugal Gourmet's pasta recipe (which uses a mixture of bread flour and semolina) could not fathom just using AP flour. Perhaps she knows something I don't but I'm willing to bet that if the cookbook were updated (15 years later), she would have updated her recipe. I chose to use my old standby FG recipe and of course the results did not disappoint. I did like the simple "gravy" of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, parsley, and salt/pepper. It was a nice, simple sauce that I can throw together in 15 minutes (and with canned organic or San Marzano tomatoes still tasted good). I chose to puree (love the stick blender honey!), and served over both the pasta and the meatloaf.
The absolute hit of the meal was the meatloaf. Most of the recipe is similar to what you'd probably expect - you take white bread, soak in milk, wring out, then add the beef, fresh chopped parsley, eggs, salt/pepper. The three "twists" if you will are - adding grated parmesan, the addition of pancetta (Italian bacon - if you can't get pancetta, use a couple strips of regular bacon chopped up) - chopped up and added to the meat, and rolling, yes rolling, the meatloaf in dry plain breadcrumbs, then browning in a pan before baking. This one technique absolutely made the difference in this meatloaf. I'm not a big meatloaf fan, but I will DEFINITELY make this again. It wasn't the easiest technique to turn a 2-lb meat hunk held precariously together with beaten egg and soft bread, but the end result was worth it. The other trick? After about 30 minutes of baking, she has you add thinly sliced onion to the pan and mix with the pan juices, then bake 30 more minutes. If you're a fan of carmelized onions you will be in absolute onion heaven!
While I have to try a few more recipes to give Biba a more permanent spot on my shelf, she has earned the right for at least a few more recipe sessions!
Though I didn't serve this with the meal, I did make this salad this weekend and it would be a GREAT addition to the meal during the summer. I know it sounds unappealing, but having tried it, I am a believer now! The recipe is adapted from Bon Appetit.
2 cups seedless watermelon, cubed in 1/2 inch chunks
2 cups ripe tomatoes, chopped into chunks
2 - 3 green onions, finely chopped (green parts only)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 - 3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Zest of one lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup Feta cheese, crumbled
Cut up watermelon and tomato and add to bowl. Mix in green onions. In a separate bowl, add olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, and salt and pepper to taste (you generally want a ratio of 2 parts oil to 1 part acid for a vinaigrette. I tend to like more acid, so I add more, but create to your taste). Pour vinaigrette over watermelon/tomato mixture. Add Feta and mix to incorporate. Serve chilled.
Welcome to my world!
I've developed a passion for cooking since childhood, but in the past six years, that passion has grown into a geeky obsession. I love cooking, baking, and most importantly, sharing the love of food with family and friends. I invite you along on my journey of food discovery and passion.