I have always loved giving and receiving cookbooks as gifts. While I’m more likely to take to the internet for a quick tutorial, a good cookbook is something I actually want to read and return to. For me, it’s all about the story—and pretty photos, of course. With Thanksgiving approaching, I also have holiday shopping on my mind. Cookbooks make a great gift, whether you’re on the gifting or the receiving end!
My first trip to Italy in 2010 changed the way I looked at cooking and eating—it highlighted the importance of pleasure and social interaction around food as well as celebrating the seasons and local specialties. I spent most of that trip in Tuscany, but my group also traveled to Rome and along the coast a little, and it was so cool to see how each region had its differences.
I’ve always loved Italian food, but after—and since—that trip, the love has only grown. One thing I especially love about it is the focus on letting the ingredients shine. While I may not be vegetarian, because so many of my friends, colleagues, and clients are, I really appreciate beautiful recipes that just happen to be vegetarian without much fuss or use of processed fake meat products. I was super-excited to learn that Valentina Solfrini of the award winning blog, Hortus Cuisine, has a cookbook out, just in time for the holidays, NATURALLY VEGETARIAN: Recipes and Stories from My Italian Family’s Farm (Avery, November 2017). In this book, Solfrini shares a glimpse of a year on her family’s Italian farm, homemade bread and pasta how-to’s, and dishes that celebrate the changing seasons.
Valentina was kind enough to answer some questions for me about plant-centric cooking, recipe development, and the process of putting this gorgeous book together. At the end of the post, she’s also sharing one of my favorite recipes from the book so you can try it at home!
Did you always know you wanted to work with food?
At one point, when we were supposed to pick what we wanted to do in high school, I seriously considered pursuing a career in the kitchen rather than sticking with art. My parents encouraged me to stick to my art path and I am glad it went that way but, since then, I knew I somehow wanted food to cross my path again. After all, I grew up in a home of cooks: food and cooking were, more than anything, unavoidable, and I loved it.
What’s a common misconception about vegetarian cooking?
That is it bland, boring and filled with soy byproducts. There are so many recipes that can be created using vegetables, fruits, and basic ingredients like grains and legumes, which tend to be always affordable even when organic. Vegetarian cooking is even easier than vegan, since most cheeses and eggs are allowed. Italy has many tasty vegetarian recipes and wonderful, wonderful ingredients, so cooking vegetarian food has never been a challenge for me.
Your recipes and photos are beautiful! What is your recipe development process like? What about your photography process?
In both cases, I tend to follow my instinct a lot and let it dictate what tastes good and what looks good. Once I assembled the ingredients for a dish, or put together a scene for a scooting, I ask myself whether I really need all the ingredients or items I used, if there is something I can take out, if the overall balance tastes or looks elegant enough, and how it can be improved the next time. I can be quite theatrical with photography (maybe too much), but I prefer to keep it simple with recipes. At home, I learned to improvise and use my sensed to decide whether a recipe is going to work or not rather than following a written recipe, and I do almost the same with photography.
What was the process of making this cookbook like for you?
It was difficult. There are so many things to consider when writing a cookbook, that anything you write or do will probably wreak complete havoc in your workflow. A couple people who wrote books and are parents kind of compared it to having a child: you are not sure what to expect, then every challenge seems beyond every possible expectation, in retrospect you realize it was really, really hard, and that you could have done much, much better, and yet you would do it all over again in a second. I am not a parent yet, but it seems like a very fitting description.
What surprised you about the process of making a cookbook?
I was surprised at how careful I had to be when explaining measurements. As I stated above, I grew up in a household were recipes were hardly ever written down and many preparations needed that kind of special ‘feeling’ that has you know when something is ready and perfectly seasoned. I know how to smell a stew, feel the pasta dough or see how glossy my jam is and I immediately know when they are ready, so having to explain this ‘feeling’ was the most difficult part, as, although obvious, I was surprised that I even had to explain it.
What are some of your favorite recipes in this book?
I am especially fond of all the recipes in the Fall chapter of the book, especially my Boscaiola Baked Pasta, and my Pumpkin Gnocchi with Butter and Sage: these are two of the things I love preparing and eating the most – the pasta bake is also a quick and delicious option to prepare for a crowd. I am also in total love with my Cherry Almond Cake in the Spring Chapter, which is definitely one of my favorite sweets ever, and the Apple Roll with Jam and Walnuts, a recipe my mom came up with, which has a vintage feel to it and that I could eat until I am sick. I also love my Torta della Nonna with Lemon Custard in the Summer chapter, and my Crostata with Ricotta and Jam, one of the sweets I make most often.
I love how the book is broken down into seasons! Any tips for someone looking to start paying more attention to seasonal food changes?
When I started traveling, one of the things that surprised me the most is how some countries do not really follow their seasonal change, since lots of produce is imported. I built a sort of relationship with my own land, and learned its rhythms and characteristics, and that is what everyone should do: the first step to eating seasonally is knowing what your land can offer you and when. Check where your products are coming from, and try to visit farmers markets, even just to see what’s available and you do not want to shop there. If you cannot help living with something that does not grow near you, try to choose produce that has traveled the least.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from many, many things. I guess the thing that inspires me the most is taking a long bike ride or walk in the countryside or along the beach (I am so lucky to have both nearby), so I can let my mind completely loose. I also love reading restaurant menus, or leafing through my collection of old cookbooks and magazines (ranging from late 1800s to early ’90s), or browsing through Pinterest. But the real fuel for creativity comes from meeting, learning from and talking to other professionals, bloggers, photographers and artists. Workshops and meetings are always so inspiring, it is nearly impossible to create anything bad or mediocre afterwards.
Thank you, Valentina!
And here’s one of my favorite recipes from the book!
CARAMELIZED BRUSSELS SPROUTS & LENTIL SALAD
Reprinted from Naturally Vegetarian by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017, Valentina Solfrini
I LEARNED TO APPRECIATE BRUSSELS SPROUTS in the United States, and when I returned home I immediately introduced them to the other cruciferous vegetables we grow in our garden. I love Brussels sprouts with lentils and shallots in this recipe. They really shine in this sweet-and-sour, delicious one-bowl meal. Rich and hearty, it is one of those recipes that usually wins over the hearts of even die-hard meat eaters. You can also pair the lentils with broccoli, cauliflower, or romanesco instead of Brussels sprouts.
SERVES 4 AS AN APPETIZER, 2 AS A MAIN
- 1½ cups (10.5 oz/300 g) brown lentils
- 1½ pounds (700 g) Brussels sprouts 10 large shallots
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- Almond slivers, for garnish
- Savory Balsamic Glaze (see below)
- Drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, for ﬁnishing
- 2 sprigs of fresh thyme or marjoram (optional)
- Place the lentils in a large pot and cover them with water by at least 1 inch (2.5 cm). Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the lentils are tender but still retain their shape. The time varies depending on how fresh the lentils are. It could take 20 to 30 minutes, so taste them to check around the 20-minute mark. When they are ready, drain them, briefly run them under cold water, and set aside in a fine-mesh strainer to dry.
2.Preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C).
3.Wash the Brussels sprouts and trim off any damaged leaves. Trim at the root end and make a shallow cross incision on the bottom of each one. Steam them for 10 minutes, or until they start to get tender on the outside.
4.Peel the shallots and cut them in half, cut off the tough root, and cut each half in half again. Toss on a rimmed baking sheet with the Brussels sprouts, olive oil, vinegar, honey, salt, and pepper and mix well with your hands to coat evenly. Roast for about 30 minutes, until tender and slightly caramelized.
5.When ready, toss everything together in a large bowl with the lentils. Finish with a handful of toasted almond slivers, a drizzle of balsamic glaze, and thyme if you wish. Adjust the salt if necessary, and add one more drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
SWEET & SAVORY BALSAMIC REDUCTIONS & GLAZE
- 1 cup (250 ml) good-quality balsamic vinegar
- 1 scant tablespoon (15 ml) honey or packed dark brown sugar
- 1 clove
- One ½-inch (1.5 cm) piece of
- 2 juniper berries (can be skipped
- if you do not have any)
- 1 teaspoon herbs such as rosemary, thyme, or sage (optional)
1.In a small saucepan over low heat, place the vinegar and the savory flavorings and combine. Bring to a slow simmer and boil down the mixture for about 15 minutes, or until it reduces by almost half, stirring every 5 minutes with a wooden spoon. At first, the reduction might still look very liquidy, but it will thicken as it cools, so it is important to not overcook it.
- Bring your reduced vinegar to a slow simmer over low heat. Meanwhile, in a separate small bowl, mix 1 teaspoon potato starch in ¼ cup (50 ml) water (the starch will not actually dissolve). While stirring the vinegar with a wooden spoon, add the water-starch mixture a little at a time. Cook for 2 minutes after you’ve added all the starch and remove the pan from the heat. Stir for 1 minute more and let cool.
Did a trip ever change the way you looked at something?
This has been another installment of the Running with Spoons Thinking Out Loud link party, where randomness is the name of the game. Thanks to Amanda for hosting.
***Disclosure: I received a free copy of Naturally Vegetarian. I was not compensated for my time. Opinions are my own.