Celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich is going to be in Amherst on Saturday, signing copies of her new book, “Lidia’s Commensense Italian Cooking.”
But if she catches a whiff of chicken wings, that famous common sense could fly right out the window.
“Given the fact that they’re bright and full of grease, no good nutritional stuff, I like them,” Bastianich joked on the phone. “I like them when they’re spicy. I like the celery and blue cheese that come with it. Sometimes I stuff celery ribs with gorgonzola cheese,” she added. “It’s a great little hors d’oeuvre.”
Shockingly, much as she likes wings, they take a back seat to another part of the chicken.
“I love chicken necks,” she declared. “That’s my favorite part. They’re really delicious.”
Bastianich’s new cookbook, written in cooperation with her daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali, brims with simple recipes that should appeal to the middle-of-the-road eater. At the same time, she doesn’t hesitate to stir the pot. She will sign copies of the book from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday at Tops, 2351 Maple Road, Amherst.
Asked what Americans should be eating that we are not, she pulls no punches.
“I think rabbit. I think goat,” she said. “These are all sustainable, intelligent things to eat. Rabbit has quick reproduction cycles,” she points out, practically. “In two months, you are ready to eat the rabbit. So it hasn’t consumed that much of the world’s greenery. So that’s good.
“Same with the goat. The goat eats everything, and gives us milk, and it’s delicious. Snails, frogs – these are all in nature, good source of protein and tasteful, and I think what you think is more important is that they use every part of the animal? Get away from the chicken breast. How about wing, neck, liver? How about heart and stomach? People should use the shoulder of the pork or of the lamb rather than just chops. Look at the whole animal. Oxtails. Let’s get into all of that, you know? Not just steaks.”
Bastianich has a sense of humor and knows that her freewheeling views on food are amusingly at odds with the opinions of the average American, who is happier to stick with the boneless, skinless chicken breast.
Her eating style was born of necessity, the result of a childhood that included deprivation and uncertainty. Bastianich’s family fled the communists and came to America out of desperation, thanks to Catholic Charities.
New to America, they ate the cheapest meats they could. “When we came here as immigrants, that’s all my mother bought – cheap!” she said. “There we were gnawing away at chicken necks.”
Bastianich came from northern Italy, near the border with Austria. She grew up with a taste for the cooking of Austria and Hungary, and retains an affection toward the often-dismissed Germanic cuisine.
“I think there’s good sustenance, good flavors. It’s not pretentious,” she says. “It’s very practical in a sense. I cook with sauerkraut, spaetzle, goulash. I can relate to that food very much.”
Bastianich’s zesty, positive attitude has built her a food empire. She is the chef/owner of four New York City restaurants, Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto, as well as Lidia’s Pittsburgh and Lidia’s Kansas City. An Emmy Award-winning TV personality, she currently presides over “Lidia’s Italy in America” on PBS.
It is part of her charm that she does not presume to have all the answers. On her show, her approach is cheerily casual. And she admitted readily that, like every cook, she has suffered kitchen disasters.
“The usual exchange of salt and sugar,” she mentioned, for starters. “If you put salt in a dough that’s supposed to be the amount of sugar, that’s a calamity.” She paused, thinking. “Things falling,” she added, conjuring up images, however unlikely, of sunken cakes and souffles.
Bastianich is always encouraging cooks to try new feats. Cut up a whole chicken, for instance. “Go ahead, it’s great,” she said. “You feel empowered once you do it.”
Her voyages of discovery have extended beyond food. Classical music is a hobby.
“I get asked often what feeds your imagination. It’s music, art and nature.”
She hopes her book will feed other cooks’ imaginations.
“What I want them to understand is, this book is a guide book. They can use it to guide them. They should be free, confident, ready to explore, to add their own flavors in ideas.
“I will always be an encouraging voice from behind,” she added. “People need to get in the kitchen, relax and get cooking.”