The Villa Girls-Nicky Pellegrino

June21

I am very enamored by the novels of Nicky Pellegrino-not only does she set her stories in Italy but she explores the variety of professions that focus on food: a baker, a sous chef, a cookbook writer, to name a few.  In this delicious recounting, a woman becomes a professional food stylist, all the while discovering that there must be balance in indulgences and in life.  I can literally taste the food and she describes it!  Here is a lengthy (and mouth-watering) excerpt:

“On a cold winter’s night, I’d take refuge in the soft creaminess of a buttery risotto, in the flavours of fried cauliflower and taleggio cheese or the earthiness of field mushrooms.  I grew hungrier and greedier.  When Beppi wasn’t at home I rummaged in his food stores searching for things to cook and eat.  The kitchen was a treasure trove.  I found bundles of home-made pasta, carefully dried and wrapped in linen tea towels; sauces and soups neatly labeled and packed away in the deep freezer.  I started to play with ingredients I unearthed, making a salty, pungent dressing from anchovies and garlic to drizzle over vegetables, simmering a meaty shin bone in a sauce of tomatoes and red wine to serve with rigatoni.  One night I made what I considered my triumph, a huge fish soup with prawns and mussels that Addolarata had brought home from Little Italy, flavoured with lots of fresh flat-leaf parsley from the pot on the window sill and slugs of peppery olive oil.

Beppi was never particularly complimentary about the dishes I served up to him.  ‘That was not too bad,’ he would declare once he’d wipes a crust of bread around his plate to soak up the last of a sauce. ‘Quite nice, I suppose.’

‘Take no notice.’ Pieta told me later,  ‘He never has a good word to say about the meals other people have cooked.  The tastier they are the grumpier it seems to make him.’

Pieta was the only one who noticed how the food looked.  Each time I served up a meal she commented on the plate I’d chosen or the way I’d arranged it.  ‘You’ve got a really good eye,’ she told me once or twice.

To me it never felt as though what I was doing was clever.  ‘I’m only trying to make the food look as delicious as it tastes,’ I told her.

Sometimes I got things wrong.  I’d forget to stir a sauce and let it stick to the bottom of Beppi’s cracked old Le Creuset casserole.  Or I’d try to fry a delicate fillet of white fish until it was dry and rubbery.  Beppi was kinder to me when I failed.  He gave advice and offered to teach me a few dishes.

‘Watch him like a hawk,’ Addolarata warned me.  ‘If you don’t pay attention he’ll sneak in a pinch of or two of some secret ingredient so that you never can get your food to taste quite the way his does.’

But Beppi showed me flavours I’d never have thought of myself.  Red mullet baked with raisins and pine nuts the way the Romans cooked it.  Laid out in the dish ready to go in the oven it looked so pretty.  When I told him I’d never made pastry he taught me how to make a tart of ricotta custard topped with cherries cooked in brandy.  Desserts opened up a whole new world of eating for me and for the first time ever I felt my stomach strain against the waistband of my jeans whenever I sat down.

For a while I didn’t care if my thighs spread and my stomach bulged because I had discovered there were other delicious things you could do with ricotta like bake it with lemon zest and saffron or stuff it into soft pillows of ravioli.

Cooking was an easy way to lose myself and make a bad day seem better.  When I was piling a rich purple beetroot risotto into a clean white bowl or resting a roasted leg of chicken on a mound of gently stewed caponata I forgot about thing’s like builder’s dust and dry rot.  Instead of worrying about the apartment or the latest drama at work, I planned the next thing I would try to make and pestered Addolarata for the ingredients.  I wanted squid ink for a risotto, smoked paprika for a stew, spicy sausage laced with fennel, interesting new bowls and platters to display them on.

I grew used to listening to the noises of the house, and when I could tell Beppi wasn’t in the kitchen, I would creep in and find something to quickly chop and bury in olive oil.  I loved mixing flavours, colours and testures, often firing off a couple of photographs of the finished dish as I anticipated the moment of spooning it into my mounth.

Eating became my way of punctuating each day with pleasure.  I couldn’t understand how I had taken so long to discover it.”

Kath’s quote: “They eat the dainty food of famous chefs with the same pleasure with which they devour gross peasant dishes, mostly composed of garlic and tomatoes, or fisherman’s octopus and shrimps, fried in heavily scented olive oil on a little deserted beach.”-Luigi Barzini

 


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