“For those of you who have never cooked with Anna before …” begins Michelle, in her introduction to Simply Italian, Simply Gluten Free, which has just been released in paperback and as an eBook.
“Ha!” I thought, smugly, not even allowing her sentence to complete. “I have!”
I’m playing a little loosely with the word ‘cook’ here, in truth, but can’t help fondly remember a perfect day at Michelle’s which the three of us spent together several years ago, mainly preparing food, talking food and eating food. My memory of the dessert dish at the centre of this anecdote is a little imprecise, but let’s go with a crumble of some sort, possibly rhubarb or gooseberry, that between us we had cobbled together, although mainly Michelle’s work. At some point, either I or Anna must have voiced the view that it might not be sweet enough, for I recall Michelle batting that blasphemy away and Anna’s look of uncertainty remaining firmly in place.
You see, Anna’s tooth and mine are sweeter; Michelle’s, tarter …
Later, with Michelle at the opposite end of the kitchen and otherwise distracted, we Italians used our bodies to shield her view and conspiratorially sprinkled a spoonful of brown sugar over the resting dessert, which was about to be baked.
“Poi mi sgrida,” Anna whispered me. “She’ll tell me off.”
“Ancora,” I urged. “More. I’ll take the blame.”
Enough extra sugar ended up on board to double its calorific value, I’m quite sure of it …
With this in mind, you’ll forgive me for having jumped straight to the Dolci — desserts — as I was curious to see who might have won the sugar wars I like to imagine might have taken place between the two during the book’s compilation. I suspect, on balance, it was honours even, as the delectable looking Chocolate & Hazelnut Truffle Cups, the first dolce I plan on making, calls for 1–2 tbsp of sugar “depending on how sweet you want it”.
A nice compromise, but I want it sweet, Berriedale, and that’s how I plan to do it …
Rewinding to the savoury dishes, I was chuffed to see Rice and Courgette Torta. Rice / vegetable pies are popular and traditional in and around my parents’ home province of Parma. I sometimes make a rice and pumpkin pie — which I once adapted to be GF — but you can use any gourdy vegetable. Anna is right in that it would work wonderfully with leeks. If I’m allowed a recommendation, chard is a magnificent choice. I’ll be trying various versions of this.
Also a pleasure to see were Tomatoes Stuffed with Rice and Potatoes. Stuffed vegetables seem under-appreciated in the UK. My mother fills hers with parsley and ham flavoured stuffing, and an aunt, sage. There are as many variations as there are Italian cooks, and while the ‘double starch’ filling may sound stodgy here, I imagine these perfect with a lively green salad.
There are surprises. A few celeriac recipes, not least. I can’t ever recall having seen what we call a ‘celery turnip’ (sedano rapa) in Italy, but I’m glad this under-rated vegetable gets its moment. Celeriac and Aubergine Braised in Tomato Sauce strikes me as an unusual marriage, but I so trust both Anna’s and Michelle’s judgment that I don’t doubt it for a second.
Mind you, the addition of curry powder in Risotto with Prawns and Peas did give me cause to question them on matters of authenticity, but it was this fairly straightforward recipe that I attempted first … and to prove it, here it is. It still tasted like a risotto: the curry adds a comforting note of warmth, but not spice.
“For those of you who’ve never cooked with Anna before,” to allow Michelle to complete that thought, “do not be deceived by the simplicity of many of her recipes.”
And she is right. Simple, often, but effective. Recreating Anna’s recipes is not typically a challenge. Source the best ingredients you can, and even a modestly skilled cook is unlikely to go wrong. There are one or two more demanding ones here — such as the Baked Green Beans and Porcini Polpettone — but on the whole what you’ll find, from Soups, Pastas, Rice, Pulses, Vegetables and Salads, are wholesome, unintimidating and mainly vegetarian dishes that nourish body and soul. Italian, with a free-from and occasional but perfectly acceptable non-Italian twist.
Many recipes are milk-free as well as GF, but with the milk and lactose content of others so easily adaptable under Michelle’s guidance, it strikes me that this book is ideal for the newly diagnosed Italian food-loving coeliac, who may, due to reduced lactose tolerance, have to temporarily suspend or moderate milk-product intake post-diagnosis, but all being well ought to be able as the gut heals to gradually re-introduce key ingredients, such as the full range of Italian cheeses in the future.
I hope you’re as delighted with it as Anna and I were to have gotten away with that sugar sabotage without a scolding …
Simply Italian, Simply Gluten Free: Mostly plant-based, mostly milk-free, low lactose and lactose-free recipes by Anna del Conte and Michelle Berriedale-Johnson (£15.88 / $20 (paperback); £6.75 / $8.55 (eBook), Curlew Books) is out now, via Amazon UK and Amazon US.