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Book Review: Italian, My Way: More Than 150 Simple and Inspired Recipes by Jonathan Waxman

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The celebrity chef-written Italian cookbook is by no means a rarity today. So, is it even possible for such a book to stand out from the crowd? As it turns out, yes. Jonathan Waxman’s new cookbook, Italian, My Way: More Than 150 Simple and Inspired Recipes That Breathe New Life into Italian Classics, proves that there is still much to learn in the realm of Italian cooking, and he is the perfect teacher to guide us in the kitchen.

Waxman is a master Italian chef, and this is the cookbook for those who would like to be more masterful. No “easy Italian” here; this food requires the patience of a rural nonna. But those with the time and means to do all that Waxman asks will undoubtedly be rewarded with the ability to cook for friends and family at a quality that rivals the best restaurants in New York (including Waxman’s own). This book could save you hundreds of dollars in restaurant bills.

Jonathan Waxman may not be a household name, but consider the list of chefs who praise him as one of, if not the, best chefs in America: Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Alice Waters, and Tom Colicchio, who wrote the forward to this book.

Although Waxman’s recipes are not easy, they are simple, a quality that is endearing in an age when most food is so overly processed as to be unrecognizable to farmers. When you have the highest quality, freshest ingredients, there is no need to get too fussy over them, and Waxman will teach you the importance of finding the best ingredients.

Italian, My Way contains over 150 recipes, both inventive and traditional, divided in the following way: Salads, Antipasti, Zuppa, Pizza, Pasta, Contorni, Pesce, Carne, Pollame, and Dolce. With so many italicized chapter names, it is clear this cookbook will be good.

The salad section stresses the importance of seasonal ingredients, and there are recipes for each time of the year — blood oranges and fennel in the fall, tomatoes and lavender blossoms in the summer. After eating shaved asparagus for the first time at Mario Batali’s restaurant, Eataly, and loving it, I was happy to come home and discover that Italian, My Way also has a recipe for “Raw shaved asparagus with lemon dressing” that was equally tasty. I was also surprised to find that shaving asparagus is not only relatively quick and easy, but also fun. (I have always liked the feel of peeling vegetables, which is how one “shaves” asparagus.)

Speaking of unknown uses for the vegetable peeler, Waxman taught me, with his “Wild arugula salad with shaved Parmesan and extra-virgin olive oil,” that I can use a peeler on hard cheeses for beautiful and delicious results. I knew that I preferred shaved cheese on salads to grated from dining out, but realizing how simply it can be done at home was revelatory. This salad of few ingredients really did amaze me. I almost always make a balsamic vinaigrette for my salads, but this recipe reminded me that just olive oil and a fantastic salt (I use fleur de sel when I want my salt to shine) can be sublime. This salad has now become the one I turn to for a side salad that isn’t meant to be rushed through on the way to a hunk of meat or pasta, but savored the way every piece of food we put in our mouths should be.

The Antipasti section has several recipes that require access to hard-to-find-in-middle-America ingredients such as razor claims or quail. But, there are also recipes such as “Sautéed mushrooms on creamy polenta” or prosciutto-wrapped figs with Gorgonzola that are no less brilliant, if easier to procure. The same goes for the soup section: while I enjoy reading about the idea of Nettle soup or Guinea fowl broth, I personally have no intention of actually making them. On the other hand, “Cold tomato and tarragon soup” is at the top of my list of soups I will make as soon as I can find tomatoes at the farmer’s market.

While I have not yet had the chance to make any of Waxman’s pizzas, I am excited by almost all of them. I learned to love pizza with potato on it in France, and there is a recipe here for a great-sounding pie with potato, green garlic, bacon, and robiola cheese. In fact, looking at the dozen or so pizzas in this book, I realize that I have some Swiss chard in the fridge with no designated purpose, which will now likely be appointed for use in the “Pizza with goat cheese, Swiss chard and picholine olives.”

If the pizza chapter is exciting, the pasta one is fit to cause a conniption of joy. Again, these recipes are not for the laz — Waxman asks his home-chefs to do everything from hand-filling ravioli to de-boning duck. But the rewards for such effort are, I am certain, tremendous. I — being somewhere in between lazy and energetic — chose to tackle a moderately-trying recipe: “Gnocchi with spring vegetables and basil.” Although, even that I modified to make a little easier (and undoubtedly also less flavorful) by purchasing my gnocchi instead of following his instructions for how to make them from actual potatoes (maybe someday…).

This recipe was the first time in my life I had seen the suggestion to pan-cook the gnocchi in oil and butter instead of boiling them in water, and I was intrigued. Since I was using store-bought gnocchi (although it was made in Italy — does that make it better?), I decided to go ahead and boil the gnocchi as directed and then sauté it (I was supported in this decision by a quick Google search on sautéed gnocchi). The results were not as phenomenal as would be achieved by Waxman’s completely homemade and pan-cooked pillows of crispness and tenderness, but still more exciting than simply boiled gnocchi. Overall the dish was still one of the best gnocchi dishes I have ever had. It is simple — peas, carrots, basil, and pepper are all that is added to the gnocchi — but it is outstanding.

Italian, My Way also includes a useful section on Basics, with short recipes for such necessities as pesto, roasted tomato sauce, and mascarpone. Then follows a dictionary of tools, ingredients, and cooking methods, as well as a section on where to buy some of the harder-to-find ingredients (with a few that can be found nationwide, but most for the residents of New York).

With Italian, My Way, Jonathan Waxman has created the kind of cookbook that makes you want to try harder in the kitchen, and by extension care more about your food. It would be hyperbolic to say that this cookbook can make the world a better place. But then again, if we all learned to love a breast of chicken or peas fresh from the pod as much as Waxman encourages us to, couldn’t we also learn to look at other things with that much affection? And could learning to try harder in the kitchen not extend to a new-found dedication to greater intentionality in all of life?

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About Kerri Shadid