By Susan Accetura
Somewhere between an impulsive creative nature, a nettlesome need to question any directive, and the likelihood that I’m missing a key ingredient (or five), I’ve never quite been able to follow a recipe exactly as written. With a few decades of professional cooking experience under the old apron strings, you can’t help but develop some knowledge of how ingredients are likely to come together. You’d think after so many years one wouldn’t need to search for any more recipes, but with so much delicious material to choose from, it’s impossible to resist.
Like many other food enthusiasts, I’m a bit of a culinary bibliophile. Whether it’s a well-loved ancient classic like Escoffier, or a tasty volume hot off the press, the world of food and cooking is simply limitless. I tend to read cookbooks for pleasure and reference them when I have an abundance of a certain ingredient, like “What can I do with all the rhubarb in the garden right now?” My favorite gems are those that tell stories—Where did the inspiration come from? Why are the ingredients combined in this order? Who taught you how to make this? And, of course, how can I tweak this recipe to account for my different ingredients or aptitude or weather conditions or budget or time restraints or children’s taste buds? Understanding the background of a recipe, at least for me, is a critical ingredient to my ability and incentive to tackle it.
Last April, during a trip to Italy, I had the pleasure of meeting Katie Parla, a knowledgeable woman from the states who now lives in Rome. We had hired her to show us around the Roman Testaccio neighborhood. Armed with a sommelier certificate and a master’s degree in Italian gastronomic culture, this Jersey native and Yale graduate was the perfect choice for an enlightening and entertaining food tour. Already highly published in many food and travel magazines and guidebooks, Katie mentioned that she was excited to be working on a cookbook. Lucky for us, Tasting Rome - Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City was released a few weeks ago. With outstanding photography by Kristina Gill, and an appetizing foreword by Mario Batali, Tasting Rome is a culinary treasure. Rich with Roman cultural history, classic favorites like cacio e pepe (and how to perfect that ultimate combination of pasta, salt, pepper and cheese), street food re-creations, and plenty of culinary helpful hints, there’s something for everyone.
In just a few short weeks, my copy is naturally falling open to the ‘Torta Rustica’ page with a descriptive recipe for the savory pie. “Torte rustiche [plural of torta rustica] feature prominently on Rome’s wine bar menus and in local bakeries. Fillings may change with the seasons, the vegetal ingredients in the recipe, carrots included, grow in the Roman countryside. In Rome, you’re most likely to find this savory delight served as a snack alongside Prosecco or a cold beer when you’re dining al fresco, but you can also serve it as a starter, or even as a light main dish.” (Seriously, I don’t care what is in the dish if it’s a ‘savory delight served al fresco with Prosecco in Italy.’ You had me at the setting of the scene, Katie.) This torta rustica (literally “rustic pie”) is a tasty combination of spinach, Swiss chard, carrots, dandelion greens, onions, ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and eggs, all nestled happily in a puff pastry crust. Her instructions for a ‘rough puff pastry’ are accessible even for the beginner baker: it’s all a matter of flour, butter, a bit of salt, and a simple method of chilling and folding. If the thought of pastry causes a panic attack, just buy it frozen. Cooking is supposed to be fun.
The recipe in its entirety is too long to print here (but when you buy the book, you’ll find it on page 46), but the general premise is: sauté all the wonderful vegetables until they’re happy (and have given off most of their moisture), add eggs, ricotta and parm, bake in crust, cool slightly, enjoy! With plenty of spring spinach in the markets and swiss chard on the way, it’s a great time to try your hand at torta rustica. Dandelion greens are best eaten before the flowers bloom, so I haven’t been including them in my version, but on the next time around I think I’ll be incorporating some asparagus. Other classic torte rustiche variations include meats (prosciutto, salami, sausage) and other cheeses—the possibilities are endless. I’m totally into veggies, though, and as the summer gardens grow, who knows what new combinations we’ll find?