Good ingredients essential for Northern Italian cooking
''In Italy there was always an extra aunt or someone. I didn't have to worry about making food ahead of time. Here you have to organize in a different way.''Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Anna Nathanson was stirring chicken livers as she stood at the stove in a large, airy kitchen in Newton, Mass. The livers were for crostini, a spread of livers and prosciutto cooked together and served on toast as an antipasto.
It was to be the first course of the elegant Italian meal that Mrs. Nathanson agreed to prepare, and which she might have served to guests in her native city of Florence.
The dishes she chose are emblematic of northern Italian cuisine, simple and direct, with no complicated sauces or strong spices to mask the flavors of the ingredients.
The roasted squabs, for example, are gently seasoned with sage, juniper berries, and lemon; and a molded artichoke pudding tastes faintly of Parmesan and nutmeg. The dessert, most complex in taste and preparation, is a spectacular meringue and chestnut torte that Mrs. Nathanson created.
Mrs. Nathanson pointed out that meringue has been around for a long time. Italians have been baking it since the 15th century, when it was eaten with honey and nuts and candied fruit.
A handsome woman with high cheekbones and very blue eyes, Mrs. Nathanson has a good-humored down-to-earthness that seems to go along with an education in some of life's basics, especially food.
Mrs. Nathanson puts a great deal of emphasis on tasting. A dish must first of all please the palate of the cook, which is why, she explains, when her students use her recipes, the food always varies in taste, no matter what their culinary talents.
But she is most emphatic about choosing ingredients carefully. ''The important thing is the quality of what you're using.''
The basic ingredients for Northern Italian cooking are readily available, although it takes some searching to find the best. The finest Parmesan cheese, for example, is Parmigiano Reggiano, which is from the most fertile valley in Italy, where the cows' milk picks up a distinct flavor from the region's grasses. The cheese ages for two years, quite a bit longer than Grana, a more moist and mild Parmesan made for eating.
Visting relatives from Italy keep Mrs. Nathanson supplied with a strongly flavored olive oil that is made from the second squeeze, just as grade-B maple syrup is made from the second run of sap. If you don't happen to receive visitors from Florence, she recommends a brand called Bue. Here are some of her recipes. Crostini 1/4 cup finely minced onions 1/4 cup butter Squab livers of 1/2 pound chicken livers, chopped 2 slices prosciutto 1/2 bay leaf 3 crushed juniper berries Juices from the cooked squab or 1/3 cup beef broth Buttered and toasted triangles of bread
Heat butter and add onions, cooking until transparent. Add chopped livers, bay leaf, juniper berries, prosciutto, and pan juices and cook slowly until the liver is done.
Put everything in the blender and blend on low speed. Top each triangle of bread with the liver pate. Roast Squab 6 squabs 12 fresh sage leaves 6 prosciutto slices or pancetta Juniper berries Salt and pepper 6 tablespoons butter Olive oil 1 cup broth Juice of 1/2 lemon
Clean and dry squab. Tie sage leaves under wings and spread prosciutto slices over breast. Tie with string and tuck a couple of crushed juniper berries inside the cavity.