I have loved cooking from this book. My mom has had it since I can remember (it was published in 1990), and gifted me a copy for Christmas/Hanukkah this past year. It’s a quiet classic, and well worth diving into.
The truly valuable part of this cookbook is that the rhythm of it encourages learning a dish, not a recipe. After making 3 or 4 versions of risotto, you will know how to make a risotto, and can use whatever vegetables are in season to do so. When you understand how you can make a delicious and simple spaghetti with just some fresh parsley, garlic, lemon, and a few kitchen staples, dinner is always within reach.
This is a great book for people who want to cook simple, fresh Italian food. It’s mostly a simply done kind of cookbook, not a big project cookbook. There are many unnamed 30 Minute Meals in here. It is focused only on lunch and dinner, unless you want cake for breakfast, which, maybe, why not. The biggest downside is that the design doesn’t show off the food like more modern cookbooks, so it could be easily overlooked on someone’s bookshelf.
Cookbook Road Map:
Bruschetta (p.39) – So good. Just….it’s worth it. 10/10
Salad of green and yellow beans, prosciutto, and cherry tomatoes (p. 95) – If you have big beans, cut them in half after cooking. Really nice salad. 8/10
Red squash and rice soup (p. 135) – Delicious, easy peasy, 10/10
Ribollita (p. 140) – Too thick for me, maybe should try Pappa al Pomodoro (Bread-Thickened Tomato Soup, p. 139). 6/10
Spaghetti aglio e olio (with oil and garlic, p. 156) – Killer. 10/10
Long fusilli with grilled vegetables (p. 164) – Simple, delicious. Will try with olives instead of sun dried tomatoes next time. 9/10
Spaghetti with fried peppers (p. 167) – Simple, delicious. 9/10
Risotto with cauliflower (p. 212) – Add hot pepper flakes with garlic if desired. Roast the other half head of cauliflower, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, at 400 F, stirring every ten minutes or so, until well done. It should be dark brown on the edges, and soft. Use to top the risotto. 9/10
Risotto country style (p. 215) – Delicious, though not an Instagram kind of dish. Make sure to really soften the onions well, perhaps even adding them a couple of minutes before the other aromatics. Prep everything before diving in, up to putting the portioned last-minute dairy ingredients in a bowl in the fridge. 9/10
Grilled polenta with wild mushroom sauté (p. 236) – You have to really love mushrooms for this one. The dried mushrooms were overwhelming for me. Husband liked it, though. 6/10
Stuffed Yellow Peppers (p. 259) – Really nice and very pretty. 8.5/10
Potato pizza (p. 263) – This was fun, but felt like more of a kids meal than something for adults. 7/10
Lentils, greens, and sausages (p. 335) – This was tasty, but the way that the recipe is written uses four separate pans. That’s a lot of clean up for a pretty simple dish. 7/10
Grilled beef filets marinated in lemon and black pepper (p. 342) – This was probably my biggest disappointment in this book. I just think a filet doesn’t need to be marinated. It was good, but I think it could’ve been better prepared more simply. 6/10
Walnut almond biscotti (p. 367) – It was good, but you can’t beat Ina Garten’s biscotti: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/cherry-pistachio-biscotti-4554132. 7/10
Standout Star Recipe(s): Any of the following spaghetti recipes: Spaghetti aglio e olio (p. 156), Long fusilli with grilled vegetables (p. 164), Spaghetti with fried peppers (p. 167). In addition, I’m going to add two classic favorites of my mom’s which I love, Fast spaghetti (p. 152) and Thin pasta with inflamed Italian parsley pesto (p. 155). They are all super easy, could go well with almost anything (meats, fish, vegetables, just a salad), and are great choices for dinner parties. You can’t go wrong, they will be delicious.
Runner-Ups: Bruschetta (p.39), Red squash and rice soup (p. 135), Risotto country style (p. 215).
Arborio rice is a new favorite for me. It’s creamy and soft, wonderful in the red squash soup and in a risotto. I had an idea of risotto being very complicated and easy to mess up, which turns out to be not true at all. It’s very easy, it just takes a bit of time. The bruschetta is a good reminder that, if you have a grill fired up, you might as well throw some bread on there, and also some vegetables, which you can later julienne and use in a pasta sauce (as in Long fusilli with grilled vegetables, p. 164).
Tips and Advice
Risotto recipes are always super long, so I think it’s worth it to not only read them a couple of times but also to keep a map in your mind of the basic steps: olive oil and/or butter in saucepan; cook onions, garlic, and vegetables gently, no browning until very soft; add rice and sauté for a couple minutes, stirring; add wine and stir until absorbed; add hot broth or water a cup at a time over medium low heat, stirring frequently until each cup of liquid is absorbed; add salt and pepper midway through cooking; when rice is soft, take off the heat and add any cheeses, herbs, and/or extra butter.
For a quick and delicious take on the Spanish pan con tomate, grill your crusty bread as for bruschetta, then rub with a garlic clove and drizzle with good olive oil. Cut a tomato in half and rub the juice and seeds sides on the top of the bread until you have nothing left but the skin. Depending upon size, half a tomato could do a couple of slices. Discard the skin of the tomato. Salt and pepper to taste, and top with a little prosciutto or very thinly sliced parmesan cheese if you have any in your fridge. Serve it while everyone’s waiting for the rest of the food to be ready. Doesn’t get better than that.
Find Cucina Rustica, published by William Morrow & Company, wherever you buy books, or order it from Amazon!
If you love this book and want to hear more from Evan Kleiman, check out her podcast, Good Food. The show has been on the air since 1997, which, wow. It’s a very cool blend of talking about food and cookbooks, and also food culture and important issues like food scarcity and farming. There are episodes on seeds, soil science, Native American food sovereignty, GMO pigs, Bollywood cuisine, and on and on. It runs the gamut. I’ve listened to a couple so far and am really enjoying it—I’d say it’s for thinker foodies.
More Books from Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman:
Pasta Fresca: An Exuberant Collection of Fresh, Vivid, and Simple Pasta Recipes
Cucina Fresca: Italian Food, Simply Prepared
Verdura: Vegetables Italian Style by Viana La Place
Angeli Caffè: Pizza Pasta Panini by Evan Kleiman