Photo by Sue Stubbs
The new Australian cookbook “Grow Harvest Cook” features this classic pepper and tomato dish from the Piedmont region of Italy.
It’s a small world when it comes to food. It’s no longer a big deal to find Korean barbecue in Plano, Texas, or Ghanaian food in Columbus, Ohio. The French are scarfing British Stilton and Scotch whisky. In Chengdu, China, a bar boasts Buffalo wings.
So it should have been no surprise that a vegetable cookbook from Australia gave me a deja vu experience of a trip to the Piedmont in northern Italy, the region where my father was raised and from where my mother’s family hails.
In understanding Piedmontese cooking, it helps to realize that the region is locked in on three sides: to the west by the French Alps, to the north by the Swiss Alps and to the south by the Ligurian mountains. Getting in and out of the region has, historically, been difficult, and so the Piedmont developed in relative isolation.
The old ways persist. A few years ago, while visiting the town of Susa where my dad grew up, we found the only fish served in restaurants to be freshwater fish such as trout and eel, even though the town is only a couple of hours from the port of Genoa. (Ocean fish made an appearance in preserved forms, like salt cod, canned tuna and anchovies packed in oil.)
Although pasta is practically synonymous with Italy, in the Piedmont, rice (in risotto), cornmeal (in polenta) and potatoes (in gnocchi) were just as likely to appear on the table. Butter from local Alpine farms supplements olive oil. Meat figures prominently, especially in the cured sausages that hunters and shepherds once took to the mountains. Vegetables were plentiful, but usually served cooked; it is not a region that emphasizes fresh salads.
Which brings me around to the Australian cookbook “Grow Harvest Cook,” by Meredith Kirton and Mandy Sinclair. It boasts “280 recipes from the ground up,” and at least one of them is from the Italian Piedmont. It is reminiscent of several stuffed pepper dishes we tasted at the small, family-owned restaurants and food shops in Susa’s “downtown” and is perfect for the summer harvest. Another Piedmont-style harvest dish is ratatuia, a Piedmontese take on the famous ratatouille of nearby Nice, France.
Piedmontese Peppers With Tomato and Capers
Yield: 4 servings
2 red bell peppers, halved lengthwise, seeds and ribs removed
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tablespoon capers, drained
4 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained (optional)
8 fresh basil leaves
Salt and pepper
2 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces buffalo mozzarella, torn to pieces
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a small baking dish.
Place the pepper halves, cut side up, in the prepared dish. Divide the garlic and capers and the anchovies (if using) among the pepper halves and top each with a basil leaf. Season with salt and pepper.
Place a tomato half inside each bell pepper, cut side up. Season again and drizzle with a little olive oil. Cover with foil and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes or until the peppers are soft.
Top each tomato half with one of the four remaining basil leaves. Serve with the mozzarella on the side and drizzle the remaining oil over all.
(Recipe from “Grow Harvest Cook,” by Meredith Kurtin and Mandy Sinclair; Hardie Grant, 2014)
Ratatouille Piedmont Style
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
ľ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium zucchini, sliced into Ĺ-inch rounds
2 medium eggplants, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 medium onions, sliced
2 large carrots, sliced into Ĺ-inch rounds
2 red bell peppers, seeded and cut in bite-size pieces
2 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and cut in bite-size pieces
1 cup water, or more if needed
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
3 medium waxy-type potatoes, peeled and quartered
To finish the dish:
12 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Small handful fresh basil leaves, chopped
Small handful fresh Italian parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons capers, drained and crushed
12 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
ľ cup red wine vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar to taste
Heat the oil in a pot over medium heat. Add the zucchini and eggplant, stir vigorously and cook for several minutes. Add onions, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, water, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Stir to blend. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to the barest simmer. Cook, partly covered, for 1 hour.
Add the potatoes and cook until tender. If the mixture is too dry, add water. Remove from heat and let cool.
Just before serving, add the remaining ingredients. Stir to blend. Let sit briefly. Serve at room temperature, lukewarm or hot.
(Recipe from “A Passion for Piedmont,” by Matt Kramer; William Morrow, 1997)
Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.MORE IN Food & Dining
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