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`On Top of Spaghetti...' by Providence, Rhode Island chef/restaurateurs, JoHanne Killeen and George Germon is a delightfully dedicated pasta cookbook by two dedicated pasta lovers. As the subtitle indicates, this is really about `...Macaroni, Linguine, Penne, and Pasta of Every Kind', although the long thin varieties of dried pasta, spaghetti, linguini, spaghettini, and similar shapes seem to get the most attention.
The most delightful thing about this book for me is the fact that every recipe is an Italian style pasta recipe, and yet there is no space taken up by the classics which appear in every other book on Italian cooking, such as spaghetti carbonara, pasta puttanesca, Bolognese sauce, and fettuccine Alfredo. Virtually all recipes are both original to the authors, but based on classic Italian models. That means, of course that while spaghetti carbonara and pasta puttanesca aren't here, there are pasta recipes with raw egg or olives and anchovies as ingredients.
There is a sense in which the book can be seen as an exploration of all the different ways in which a few classic Italian ingredients can be combined into a pasta sauce. The emphasis in this book is on the simpler combinations. One of the more attractive features of the book is identifying fifteen (15) recipes as `Midnight Spaghetti' where the time required to make the sauce is no more than the time, usually 7 to 12 minutes, to cook the pasta.
I was just a bit put off by the glib title, as it smacked of the kind of gimmicky books usually done as tie-ins to Italian-American `family dramas' like `The Sopranos' or `The Godfather'. When I realized the book was written by the owners of Al Forno, I gave it some serious thought, as this is one of the very few restaurants outside of New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, and Los Angles which has a national reputation, and it isn't even a pizza parlor, for which Providence, RI is justly famous.
The book begins with a `Pasta Pantry' which is a fairly ordinary recitation of classic Italian ingredients with two very surprising additions. These are recipes for making fresh ricotta and ricotta infornata (baked ricotta) at home. I was impressed when I saw Tyler Florence make mozzarella in a home kitchen. Ricotta impresses me even more, and knowing how to do these is not trivial, as both types of cheese really must be used when they are very fresh.
In the pantry section and in various recipes, the authors even have interesting things about that most common of ingredients, the tomato. I recently learned that the fried green tomatoes recipe was developed to use the end of the season fruit which will never turn red on its own, due to the diminishing sunlight. I now discover that the Italians were there first, with their own battery of recipes for green tomatoes. Killeen and Germon provide us with three green tomato recipes. I'm humbled by the fact that I'm noticing this for the first time, when the prominent writer on Italian cooking, Faith Willinger, also has recipes for green tomatoes in her `Red, White, and Greens' book.
In every regard, the book is true to everything I ever read or heard about cooking pasta from certifiable Italian cooking authorities, including the stricture that you don't drop the pasta into the boiling water until everyone is seated at the table.
Once we get past the introductory chapters, there are nine chapters of recipes, six using dried pasta, two using fresh pasta, and a chapter on how to make fresh pasta. These chapters are:
Pasta with Vegetables, Legumes, and Herbs
Pasta with Tomato Sauces
Pasta with Seafood
Pasta with Poultry, Meat, and Rabbit
Pasta with Egg and Cheese
The first chapter is by far the longest, and is mostly involved with mixing and matching the same small set of ingredients.
One of my more interesting discoveries was the several recipes which combine pasta with potatoes. I can hear the screeches from the low-carb congregation now! But, apparently, this is a common Italian combination. `The Silver Spoon' has at least two pasta and potato recipes, and that doesn't include potato gnocchi. Speaking of gnocchi, it's interesting that there are no gnocchi recipes in this book, reinforcing the notion that it is primarily about dried pasta.
While a modern cookbook collector already has ample pasta recipes from Italian sauces such as Lydia Bastianich and Marcella Hazan and non-Italian sources such as Jamie Oliver and Rose Gray and Ruth Rodgers from London's River Café, this relatively inexpensive book is a great find if you really like pasta and like to find as many different ways to make it as the day is long.
All the recipes are expertly written, with few details left to one's experience. On more difficult recipes such as the recipe for fresh pasta, the authors are candid about the fact that you may simply not get it right the first time. Some things simply need to be practiced. The only nit I would pick is that other books, such as those from Marcella Hazan, may be a bit more detailed on fresh pasta making technique. But even if you never make your own fresh pasta, this book is a superb single subject cookbook.