American chef Marc Vetri, in his second cookbook, shows home cooks how to prepare flavorful, robust Italian cuisine similar to what he serves in restaurants.
"Rustic Italian Food" includes recipes for southern Mediterranean food. Vetri's three restaurants in Philadelphia are known for inventive food. His namesake flagship eatery has been cited by critics as one of the best Italian restaurants in the United States.
The 43-year-old spoke to Reuters about his passion for Italian cuisine, overcoming his stuttering and his love of cereal.
Q: What is the goal of your latest book?
A: "This is the book that I always wanted to write, using my hands more. The breads and sausage making, this is how I cook at home and there are a lot of the artisan things in there. There are the bread making and the pizza making and the sausage making. That's what I love about this book."
Q: Why is Italian food so popular?
A: "It is just a natural, beautiful way to cook food. There are a lot of these other chefs. They will stick this on a plate, some of that on a plate ... But with Italian food, there is nothing to hide behind. It's really all so simple. It's really harder to cook that way and make it perfect. People are just fascinated by the simplicity of the food and why is it such a perfect way to eat."
Q: Isn't it difficult to execute simplicity?
A: "Absolutely. If it's 30 seconds overdone, if the water isn't salted right, if something is wrong, it could ruin the whole dish. Everything in the dish is an amalgamation and combines into one taste. (If) one thing is off, then the whole thing is off. There is no room for error. Not that there is a lot of error in other styles of cooking, but those other styles are a lot more forgiving."
Q: What is the most memorable meal you've had?
A: "For me, memorable meal is about the whole experience -- who you are with, what is your mood. Your most memorable meal could be at a four-star restaurant or a hot-dog on a mountain top with the woman you love."
Q: You have been open in talking about your stuttering. How did it affect your career choice?
A: "When I was younger ... I would just work in the back of the house in the kitchen so I didn't have to say anything. I loved it so I went with it. Little did I know with what has happened with the restaurant industry chefs are now on television and they have to make speeches. If anything, I always had to work a little bit harder than everyone else."
Q: What is your favorite comfort food?
A: "I love sushi and cereal. I love to eat at a sushi bar and I love to get some sashimi first, then some sushi that I really like. I love to eat cereal at night. I love raisin bran and soy milk. It's the greatest thing."
FENNEL GRATIN (4 to 6 servings)
2 fennel bulbs (about 2 pounds), fronds trimmed and reserved
About 2-1/2 cups olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-1/4 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Trim the base of the fennel and remove all dark and light green parts down to the white bulb. Slice each bulb in half lengthwise. Cut each half lengthwise into four wedges and remove the cores.
2. Lay the wedges on a rimmed baking sheet and add olive oil to a depth of 1/4 inch. Sprinkle each wedge with a pinch each of salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Top each with about 1 teaspoon of Parmesan.
3. Bake until fork-tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the oil until just warm. Using a slotted metal spatula, transfer the fennel to plates and garnish with the reserved fennel fronds.
You can make this 1 hour ahead because it needs to cool until just warm. It tastes great cold, too.
Vetri recommends a Veneto wine (Pieropan, Soave 2008) with the dish.