Years of fame from authoring best selling cookbooks, hosting TV cooking shows, opening restaurants and gourmet food stores, including the 63,000-square-foot Eataly which opened recently in Chicago and creating her own line of pastas, sauces and readymade foods hasn’t even slightly dimmed Lidia Matticchio Bastianich’s enthusiasm for spreading the word about the glories of Italian cuisine. Indeed, if she had her way, we’d all be experts in Italian cooking.
“Italian food is very simple,” Bastianich tells me as we chat about her latest cookbook, "Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking: 150 Delicious and Simple Recipes Anyone Can Master" (Knopf 2013; $35), which she co-authored with her daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali. “It’s all about good ingredients and not fretting about the recipes.”
Passing on the traditions learned from helping her mother and grandmother cook, Bastianich revels in the email and comments she gets from fans crediting her with teaching them how to cook Italian.
“People think I don’t know how to make an artichoke or risotto or pasta,” she said, “and when they learn, they are so excited. At one of my book signings, a woman told me that when her kids get home from school and they ask what’s for dinner, if she says I’m cooking Lidia, they’re happy.”
In her book, Bastianich expounds on using our judgment when it comes to cooking.
“We all have commonsense in life, in the kitchen we all have it too, this book brings it out,” she said. “It’s straightforward. Recipes are not law. It’s okay to change a recipe according to what we have in the house. I want people to be comfortable with food.”
Intense food memories of her grandmother’s Italian kitchen mix with those of coming to America at age 11 at a time when the Italian ingredients we take for granted now—fresh ricotta, pasta and mozzarella, a wide selection of Italian charcuterie, the Arborio rice necessary for making risotto and high end canned tomatoes—were difficult if not impossible to find. Bastianich describes herself as feeling “yanked from a cocoon.” And indeed life was much different. From milking goats and helping harvest the seasonal garden bounty, she instead wanted to be American which meant eating like an American.
“I was intrigued by Jell-O and TV dinners because that’s what being American was— heat up a TV dinner and sit in front of the TV to eat,” she recalled. “Sometimes my mom would give me a fried zucchini sandwich for school. I was so embarrassed. In high school and college you did what your peers do. My mother was very upset.”
Fortunately, not only for her mother but for American home cooks, Bastianich, realizing she had a heritage that was rich, reconnected to her roots and became an advocate for real food versus what she calls American “utility” food.
“My father never would have eaten a TV dinner,” she said. “Food has given me so much. If I can share that it’s a great gift.”
Partnering with Mario Batali, her son Joe as well as several others, Bastianich opened the 50,000-square-foot Eataly in Manhattan several years ago. Now, the group is bringing the concept of all things Italian cuisine to Chicago’s River North area. The two-story store features eight restaurants, cooking classes, a gelateria for gelato lovers and enough retail food vendors to send even the most blasé foodie into overdrive. After all, where else can you find a Nutella bar in the city, serving up that yummy hazelnut and cocoa spread.
The following recipe are is from "Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking."
Chicken Breast with Orange and Gaeta Olives (Pollo con Olive ed Aranci)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 pounds thin sliced chicken cutlets
1 teaspoon kosher salt
All-purpose flour for dredging
1 large red onion, sliced
1 cup pitted Gaeta or Kalamata olives, halved
Juice and zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup white wine
1 teaspoon fennel powder
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
DIRECTIONS: In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil and butter. Season the chicken with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and lightly dredge it in flour. Lightly brown the chicken in the skillet (you want the chicken to end up with a blonde-colored crust and slowly build the color, and flavor, up) on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Cook the chicken in batches, if necessary, depending on the size of your skillet. Remove to a plate as it is colored.
Once the chicken is colored, add the onion and cook until softened, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the olives, orange juice and zest, white wine and fennel powder. Add chicken back to the skillet and simmer until the chicken is just cooked through and the sauce coats the chicken, about 3 to 4 minutes. Season with remaining salt, sprinkle with the parsley, and serve.