In hard times, it helps to remember harder times.
That's some of the allure of "Cucina Povera," Pamela Sheldon Johns' new volume of dishes and cooking techniques from the Tuscan hills of Italy. Johns has produced a loving tribute to cooks who literally prized every breadcrumb -- you'll find no luxurious cowboy-massaged beef or butterfish flown in fresh from Hawaii on these pages.
In the kitchens of the Tuscan countryside, where families endured "dire poverty" before, during and just after World War II, practically nothing was discarded, Johns writes. Every edible green wisp that sprouted from the nearby ground, every crust found its way into a nourishing dish.
"Cucina povera," or peasant cooking, is a philosophy of "not wasting anything edible and of using technique to make each bite as tasty as possible," Johns writes.
What could represent that philosophy more clearly than Pasta alla Briciole, pasta with breadcrumbs?
"Women would save every bread crumb until there were enough to dress pasta, garnish soups or flavor roasted or grilled vegetables," she writes. Sauteed with garlic and olive oil flavored with red pepper flakes, it becomes a crunchy, spicy ingredient sometimes called "poor man's Parmigiano."
Now that times are better in Italy, the recipes from hungry times still have a special place in the hearts of those who remember. Johns features Chef Carlo Cioni's Ribollita, vegetable-bread soup, which is made to be stretched out over most of a week.
First, beans, herbs and vegetables are stewed slowly, making vegetable soup. The second day, the soup is layered with thinly sliced bread, making bread soup. The third day, leftovers are baked with a drizzle of olive oil and chopped onion.
On the fourth day, whatever's left is browned in a skillet and eaten with olive oil and black pepper.
But "Cucina Povera" has more to it than leftover management. There's a wealth of appetizers like Pan Santo (Holy Bread) and Chestnut Crepes, pastas like Tagliatelle with Sunday Meat Sauce and Spinach and Ricotta Dumplings, meat and seafood mains like Rabbit and Mushrooms and Braised Beef with Marrow and Shallots; and desserts like Plum Jam Tart and "Brutti Ma Buoni," Ugly But Good Cookies.
Rich flavors, it turns out, depend on the cook's hands, not his or her wallet.
> Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking
By Pamela Sheldon Johns
185 pages, $21.99