Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Taste of Tuscany Close to Home

Sometime after I returned from a trip to Italy where I took a two-week workshop in food photography from Aldo Tutino, the photographer who had created the images for many of the Time-Life international cookbooks, I found a copy of Cucina Fresca. Written by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, the recipes reminded me of the food I ate at Tuscan restaurants during my three week adventure. The food is simply prepared and served cold or at room temperture, as the book announced on its cover.

I knew that Evan Kleiman still owned Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, but in all my years here, I never made an opportunity to try the place. Several months ago, my friend Karen and I were talking about places to take cooking classes and I said that I knew Evan Kleiman taught cooking classes in Italy. Karen told me that she also teaches them at her restaurant here and that Angeli had periodic "family dinners" which required being on an e-mail list for notification. She gave me the e-mail address and, on Thursday, Len and I headed off to our first family dinner at Angeli.

We were not disappointed. For $35 a person, excluding tip and wine, we were treated to a garden harvest bounty of Italian food. The announcement asked the indulgence of not providing a menu because the food would depend on what Evan found fresh at the market. Seating was in long tables of eight diners, so we would be meeting other foodies. Evan walked around greeting diners and explaining the food. It was very much like having dinner in Italy, except earlier in the evening.

We were given a lovely loaf of rustic bread to start, while we waited for our tablemates to arrive. We had four others at our table: married couple David and Cynthia and friends Glory and Amanda. Everyone had a connection to the entertainment industy. David and Glory were actors, Amanda was a producer, and Cynthia worked for a production company. David, it turned out, had spent time at the Cleveland Playhouse. So the table conversation was lively.

Dinner began with the best tomato soup I have ever eaten. Called Pappa al Pomodoro, The flavor was intense. It was served warm, not hot. It was love at first taste. There were a number of antipasti--clearly it was a good day at the farmer's market. There was a salad with parmesian, zucchini and onions; a bean dish made with beans brought back from Italy; grilled red peppers; and a pizza with fresh corn that had an amazing aroma. We were served a platter of perfectly steamed shrip. The pasta course was a triangular shaped tube pasta with pesto and clams and mussels. For dessert, we had fresh figs with zabaglione drizzled over the pieces. Heavenly.

David and Cynthia had been to these dinners before. Sometimes Evan serves food from other culinary traditions, like Indian, Thai, or Indonesia. She's even done a sedar in the past. I'm looking forward to going to another one of these dinners in the future.

When I got home, I pulled Cucina Fresca off the shelf. Much to my delight, the recipe for Pappa al Pomodoro was in it. The cookbook recommends using only the best extra virgin olive oil with a strong fruity flavor and cautions against even trying to make the recipe without a good loaf of country bread.

Pappa al Pomodoro
(from Cucina Fresca by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, ISBN 0-06-096211-9)

2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup fruity olive oil
1 bunch fresh sage leaves, stems removed, or 1-2 T. dried sage leaves
1 1/2 pounds day-old country bread, cut into small thin slices
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and pureed, or a large can (28 oz) tomatoes, pureed with their liquid
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

Saute the garlic briefly in the oil in a saucepan on a high flame. Add the sage and bread to the pan. Mix with a wooden spoon until the bread turns golden to medium brown. Add the tomato puree, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add just enough cold water to cover the bread-tomato mixture. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over a low flame, stirring 0ften, for at least 30 minutes or until the "pappa" achieves its unique consistency, somewhere between thick and runny; it should grab the spoon. Serve the soup tepid and pass Parmesan cheese. Serves 4-6.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds and looks like a grand feast. I would love to try making it, but would probably screw it up.