In the Kitchen: Italian Cooking with Lidia Bastianich

By Fabiana Santana

LidiaBastianich-LIt may just be pasta to you, but to Lidia Bastianich, this simple starch is life.

Lidia immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12 and eventually settled with her family near Queens, New York. To help out financially, then 14-year-old Lidia took a job at a bakery called Walken’s Bakery, owned by the parents of actor Christopher Walken.

Fast forward 48 years and Lidia has created a culinary empire that includes six restaurants, a television production company, specialty foods and award-winning wines, and an exclusive travel company that customizes Italian travel incorporating gastronomy and Italian art history.

It can easily be said that Lidia helped food TV get to where it is now. She started on PBS in 1998, five years after cooking with Julia Child on her PBS series. Her show Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen was an instant hit and she has been a staple on the network ever since. Her success in food seems a natural progression.

“I always knew I was comfortable with food and with being in the kitchen.” And the critically acclaimed chef also always knew that food would be where her career would lead.

A natural cook early on, she helped her maternal grandmother make gnocchi and pasta when she was a small child and hopes that her recipes bring a bit of her Italy to you, especially with her latest PBS series and book, Lidia’s Italy.

“It is a personal journey for me. And the Italy I show is an Italy that is not well known to everyone,” she explains.

“In the 35 years I have been in restaurants, television and books it is the thrust of what I do, to bring Italy to the American table, the American kitchen and American television.”

Her passion does not stop at the table though. In this series – which is running in its third season – she really wants the beauty of Italy to shine, too. “Understanding food, wine and art is really understanding Italy.”

So she brings it all to you.

Lidia takes viewers and readers on a gastronomic tour of Italy via short videos of her visits there for the show and with photos from the trips for the companion cookbook. And with the help of her daughter Tanya, an Italian Renaissance Art historian, Lidia introduces you not only to the cuisine but to the culture of Italy through art and architecture. Then it’s back to the kitchen to bring those trip’s memories to life again through food.

But it doesn’t end there, either. Because, according to Lidia, it is not the food that makes the meal, but the people who join around the table who really bring it to life.

And to get them there, just use her signature line: “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!”

Tuna, Capers and Warm Potato Salad

Insalata di Capperi e Tonno, Reprinted from Lidiasitaly.com

Pantelleria is an island half way between Sicily and the northern shore of Africa. It is an arid island but what grows there is intense in flavor. Some of the best Italian passito wines–those made from grapes that are partially dried on the vine and sometimes further dried on straw mats in the cantina– such as bukkharam by Marco de Bortoli come from there. The capers of Pantelleria are the absolute best.

Capers are the aromatic white pink flowers of Copparis spinosa–a trailing prickly plant that grows on walls and stones. In springtime, the unopened buds of these flowers are picked and preserved by either pickling them in brine or salting them. The smaller the bud the more intense the flavor and the more precious the merchandise. Capers have been used to season food in the Mediterranean basin from antiquity.

Serves 6

3 medium Idaho potatoes

2 medium-size ripe tomatoes, cored, halved and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1/2 medium-size red onion, sliced thin

6 basil leaves, washed and shredded thin

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

One 6-ounce can tuna packed in olive oil

1/2 cup small (nonpareil) capers in brine (preferably from Pantelleria), drained

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Bake the potatoes directly on the oven rack until very tender when pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes. Remove and let stand just until cool enough to handle.

In a mixing bowl, stir together the tomatoes, onion, basil, oil and vinegar until blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/2-inch-thick slices. In a mixing bowl, toss the potatoes and tuna with its oil. Add capers and tomato basil dressing. Toss well, adjust the seasoning and serve.

For more of Lidia’s recipes visit lidiasitaly.com
________________________________________

More SMW Food & Wine features

In the Kitchen: The Ladies of ‘The Next Food Network Star’

A Spiced Life

In the Kitchen: Cooking with Iron Chef Cat Cora

Celebrate Summer: Cookouts & Cocktails