Okay, this is my ideal dinner.
There are two of you—cozy, but not alone. Laughter and music float around you, as does the muted percussion of silver on porcelain. There’s that soft light that makes everyone look better and a bottle of wine on the table. It doesn’t have to be pricey, just good. Out come a series of plates, not too small, not too big, but shareable. I’m not talking about doling out little bits onto dainty saucers—more like a bowl of handmade pasta set down between you with two forks sticking out of the steam. Or maybe it’s an impeccably fresh crudo, the ocean flavors clean and bright, that preps you for the grilled zucchini salad, or maybe a tangle of white beans and grilled shrimp. What follows is a perfectly roasted quail or fresh branzino you unapologetically suck off the bones.
The goal is a series of tastes. Each of you gets to try a little bit of everything, eating just enough of each dish so you feel sated, but not so much that it dulls your enthusiasm for the next dish issuing from the kitchen, whether that’s a soft-boiled egg with anchovy mayonnaise or beef carpaccio or maybe some orecchiette with grilled octopus and Taggiasca olives. This is the way I cook in my restaurants, and this is the way I eat. This is the way I hope you will eat, too.
When I opened each of my Seattle restaurants, I tried for places that were sexy without being slick; I wanted intimate spaces that glow with soft wood and copper, or that gather strangers at a thick communal table, la tavolàta
. Overall, I wanted to reinforce the idea that food shouldn’t be formal or fussy, just focused. And, more than that, that eating is an art more walk-up than doorman, more warehouse than gallery. It’s got to be good, but it’s also got to be fun.
You’ll find very few lengthy ingredient lists inside this book, no foams or caul-fat wrappers or four-page spreads. You will find recipes meant to be both modern and seductive, every recipe designed for a shareable meal that would be at place at my ideal dinner table. I’d like you to think just as much about the method as the meals, and make different choices about not only what you eat, but how you eat. Instead of doubling the recipes for bigger parties and families, I’d like you to consider adding another dish or two instead, allowing each of your guests even more delectable forkfuls, scoops, nibbles, and tastes. There is joy and abundance inherent in thoughtful food done right—you don’t need to douse it with truffle oil to make food special. Incredible, pristine ingredients suffer from being overly dolled up, but if there were no magic in how we put ingredients together, then I’d be out of a job. Let’s get back not to the food we used to eat—this isn’t nonna’s Italian—but to a more time-tested philosophy of how
we eat, allowing us to create and share food at its best, eating the way we were meant to, with each other.
It was during my first stint in a restaurant kitchen—there among the misfits and mad geniuses, most of them unfit for human company and therefore well suited to restaurant hours—that I felt, for the first time, like I was truly among my people. I worked my way up the line, tasting and learning along the way from people with incredible skills and artistry. In those first jobs I did very precise French cooking, the type of cooking that I, and many others, thought to be the height of culinary artistry. I’m still glad for those years; they taught me incredible focus and important skills in prep and plating. But it was with Italian-inflected cuisine that I felt the same jolt that I did during my first restaurant job. I fell in love, not only with the food itself—fresh, rustic—but also with the philosophy behind the food. Everything seemed meant to share, meant to inspire joy and fun. It was food that was meant to feed the spirit as much as the body.
And that is how I shape my idea of how a meal should go. The arc of the meal should build in terms of weight, body, flavor, and texture instead of building up the portion size. That is why you won’t find the recipes in this book organized according to a traditional layout: appetizers, pastas, entrées, and desserts. In place of that traditional framework, the book organizes recipes into broad categories so that you can customize the dishes and build the flavor in your own perfect meal. Along with the arc of flavor, I recommend employing a little common sense; if you are serving a heavier or more elaborate meat dish, for example, don’t preface it with three courses. You want people to feel happy and satisfied, not stuffed.
Just like a dinner guest, I want you to read this book and feel happy and satisfied, inspired but not overwhelmed. Like you, I love cookbooks; I own more than a few myself. For years, after every shift, I pored through recipes, a certain few cookbooks at my bedside. It’s that cookbook—the one you read at night like a novel, the one that inspires you but doesn’t take itself too seriously—that I endeavored to write for you. I consider it a privilege to make food for people, and I make an effort to do it with enthusiasm and imagination every time I step into the kitchen. If you take that attitude with you into your own kitchen (and maybe this book, too), it’s pretty hard to go wrong. A Note on Ingredients
The recipes in this book are straightforward and depend not only on technique but also on using the very best ingredients you can find and afford. If you are too tight on time to make your own pasta or are making a dish that calls for dried, go to an Italian grocery that sells and imports artisanal brands. While you are there, buy the best extra-virgin olive oil you can find—you’ll use it with abandon when you prepare these recipes.
Use only kosher salt, unless a finishing salt such as fleur de sel is specified. Grind your pepper fresh from the mill.
If your tap water isn’t perfect, use springwater for the recipes; this is especially important for preparing soups.
Make sure your eggs are fresh and preferably buy them from the farmers’ market; likewise with your fruits and vegetables. You’ll be delighted by the results if you let the seasons and availability guide your choices. Nibbles and Bits
Mixing and matching dishes from this section is a wonderful way to eat, whether it’s two of you or six or eight. Creating a meal out of these plates lets you use smaller amounts of ingredients and gives your guests or family small flavor bursts. You probably don’t want to eat a whole plate of crudo, but sharing the Spot Prawn Crudo, nibbling on marinated baby vegetables, or having a bite or two of a Soft-Shell Crab Bruschetta—I don’t know anyone who would turn down starting, or doing—a meal this way.
The crudos, simply Italian for “raw,” honor the ingredients by showcasing their inherent taste and texture. Whether it’s beef or escolar, I like to slice it in such a way that it has a little bite to it. To me, there is something critical that is lost when you slice all raw ingredients paper-thin; a large part of the enjoyment comes from the feel of the meat or fish on your tongue, between your teeth. Especially because of the wealth of incredible fish and seafood in Seattle, crudos are becoming increasingly popular. Diners also realize that crudos make simple and elegant starters, and that the preparation speaks to the respect the cook has for the ingredients on the plate. Think of the recipes that follow as guidelines; as you get more comfortable, you will know that you can swap out spot prawns for swordfish and create a dish with a totally new taste and texture. Use different oils, fruits, and chiles to bring out the fish’s best characteristics without covering up anything.
As much as I love crudos, I would never say no to a paper cone of fried clams with a side of aioli for dipping. They’re in here, the aioli brightened up with sorrel, as are Fried Artichokes Pangratatto and Crispy Young Favas, too. I have no truck with those snobby chefs who think that a fryer has no place in the modern kitchen or think it’s trashy. People like fried things. It’s a good day when you get past worrying about your reputation and start prioritizing making food people love, and that includes fresh bowls of pasta and fried oysters, too. If you’re worried about being judged for making that kind of comfort food as a chef, then you got into the biz for the wrong reason. Chefs should cook for the same reason you do—because you enjoy making beautiful food for people.
Excerpted from Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen by Ethan Stowell and Leslie Miller. Copyright © 2010 by Ethan Stowell and Leslie Miller. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.