Life Changing Cookbooks: The Italian Country Table

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Life Changing Cookbooks: The Italian Country Table

Think of a tomato.

Round, bulbous, straining the vine with its weight. Red as lipstick and fire engines. Testing the limits of its thin skin, sun-baked juices threatening to bust the membrane, taut with readiness.

Yeah, we don’t have those in Minnesota.

Well, rather, we do, but harvest season starts in mid-July and ends in September. Blink, and you’ll miss it. I’ve often missed the entirety of Minnesota tomato season thanks to a late summer vacation or other minor distraction. It’s not an overstatement to say that Minnesotans fantasize about tomatoes.

In 1999, when Lynne Rossetto Kasper published the Italian Country Table, there was no internet for sharing recipes. A tried and true family recipe was like gold, a good cookbook something to covet. Newly married with a grown-up kitchen, Suddenly Salad and a chicken breast no longer seemed like an appropriate dinner for two adults. I’d have to learn to cook. I wanted to learn to cook. This $35 cookbook, which seemed like a fortune at the time, and a small fortune even now, fell into my hands as an incentive for Minnesota Public Radio membership, something of a right of passage for good Minnesotans.

Rossetto Kasper was of course the longtime host of the long-running public radio show The Splendid Table, having recently retired after more than 20 years of bringing us “The show for people who love to eat.”

The gravity of this show cannot be overstated. There were no podcasts. Want to know how to save your holiday from disaster? Better tune into her Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Confidential,” the airwave equivalent of a benevolent mother-figure entering your kitchen to gently slide the baster from your white-knuckled hand, and pour you a stiff drink.

A food personality almost before that was a thing, Rossetto Kasper was and is far more than a radio personality and a cookbook author. Tall, gracious, Italian, grandmotherly warm and whip-smart, the word superhero comes to mind.

The fact that she can make ripe tomatoes happen in February is not the least of her powers. The recipe for “Oven-Roasted Canned Tomatoes,” or more romantically, Pelati al Forno, is inextricably bookmarked in my copy.

Page 29 is wrinkled, stained and dog-eared. It looks abused, but really it’s love. Passionate, devoted, somewhat delirious love. I’ve come to refer to these tomatoes as “oven-candied,” which they are, and the inadequacy of “oven-roasted” might be the only misstep in this book. Because here is the thing: this recipe renders canned tomatoes so outrageously ruby, sweet and complex, that the summer ripe fruit’s allure no longer looms so large. In other words, we Minnesotans get to have what more fertile places have, and we might even be able to have something better, thanks to ingenuity.

Ingenuity in the kitchen being what brings us things like soul food, preservation and beer. The best things.

Armed with little more than a can opener, a few dollars worth of canned tomatoes and this book, my life changed.

Of course, the world prior to the World Wide Web felt like a much bigger place. Today, it seems almost absurd to imagine that a country as familiar to the American imagination as Italy could feel like a far away and exotic land, but it did. In the ‘90s, Tuscan farmhouse fantasies reigned supreme as the ideal cover spread for culinary and travel magazines. If you were a person with any means, you were meticulously restoring your Tuscan farmhouse. If you were not, you were fetishizing one.

Naturally, food was at the center of the fantasy. Rossetto Kasper went one further than Tuscany with The Italian Country Table. Actually, she went many times further, by taking us into the farmhouse homes of not only Tuscany, but also Emilia-Romagna, Naples and Sicily. From the cover jacket:

“… you only have to turn its pages to be transported to a rustic Italy that few of us know, but all of us long for.”

And in most frigid Minnesota, it wasn’t terrazzo and grape arbors we were longing for. It was the miracle of fresh herbs, it was fat pancetta, it was composed salads of individual bitter greens, hard cheeses, cured meats and white beans awash in balsamic. It was tomatoes.

The photos pop with reds and greens, two colors we go roughly half the year without in our far northern place. It gets so bad that a stop sign in March can be a revelatory experience for the eye.

But in this book, lurid roasted red peppers glisten atop crusty bread. Sun dried tomatoes, still exotic at the time, lay like feathers on a fluffy coverlet of sheep’s milk ricotta. Flecks of rosemary, basil and mint poke out of every protein and pasta like spring shoots from the ground.

I don’t know if this book would have made such an impression on me if the author wasn’t also a Minnesotan. It’s like a subtle love letter into our psyche. “I know what you dream of,” she seemed to be cooing with her honeyed, made-for-radio voice. “And I have just the thing that will change your life.”

Want candy tomatoes in February? Better get the book.

Photo by Jeff Kubina, CC BY-SA 2.0

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