As the daughter of an American father and an Italian mother, Domenica Marchetti enjoyed a charmed childhood.
Her family lived in the United States during the school year, but spent summers in Italy, where Marchetti picked up an appreciation for Italian food through, as she says, “osmosis.”
“But as I got older, I began to appreciate how my culinary heritage is such an incredible gift,” she said.
That gratitude shows in her work. With her just-released “The Glorious Vegetables of Italy” (Chronicle, $30), Marchetti enthusiastically explores a fundamental element — in her opinion, the fundamental element — of her favorite cuisine.
It’s her fifth Italian cookbook (a sixth, on biscotti, is heading to a 2015 release date), and in a recent phone interview, Marchetti discussed the omnipresent Italian garden, the joys that come from squishing a ripe tomato into a slice of bread and why her recipes always start with a story.
Q: So it’s not pasta or pizza, it’s vegetables that we should be concentrating on when we think about Italian cuisine?
A: We’ve really come a long way in our appreciation and understanding of Italian cooking in this country. The majority of Americans have this perception that Italian food is heavy, carb-ey, starchy.
But it’s a very vegetable-driven cuisine, because the peninsula is essentially one big garden. Everything grows well there. And wherever you go, you’ll eat what was picked that day. If you’re at a restaurant, it’s all from right around you, it’s as local as you can get.
Q: Pardon my lousy Italian. Can you translate andiamo in giardino?
A: [Laughs]. It’s ‘Let’s go into the garden,’ and that phrase confounded me when I was a kid. I never understood what people meant, because there’s no word for ‘yard’ in Italian, and this is specifically the word ‘garden.’
It makes so much more sense to me now. Because wherever Italians live, whether it’s a house, or it’s an apartment, there is always something edible growing. You know, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, herbs. It finally dawned on me after all these years: If there is a workable plot of land — even if it’s pots on a balcony — it’s a garden.
Q: A way of life we should all live, right?
A: The food revolution in this country has brought us such a long way toward that. Look at the farmers market revolution. Just here in the [Washington] D.C. area, there are three or four markets every week that are just a few minutes from my house.
That’s another reason that I wanted to write this book. When I was growing up, it was hard to find things like fennel or rapini. But now we have all of this fresh produce at our fingertips. We can even take advantage of the vegetables that aren’t native to Italy — I’m thinking of the broccolini recipe that I have in the book — that take so well to Italian flavors.
Q: Is there a vegetable that you couldn’t live without?
A: Tomatoes, of course, which aren’t even really Italian, and they’re not vegetables [laughs]. I have to say that it would probably be leafy greens. You know, rapini, kale. Oh, and zucchini. I love zucchini.
Q: I want to test-drive that chocolate-zucchini cake right now. What are its origins?
A: I’ve always ended my books on a sweet note. The dessert recipes aren’t always authentically or literally Italian, but at least they are in spirit.
When I was growing up in the ’70s and early ’80s, zucchini bread was popular, and I always loved it. We used to put chocolate chips in it. This is a very plain, simple cake, but chocolate and zucchini goes well together, and the zucchini makes the cake so moist. I think of it as a tribute to simple Italian desserts and 1970s America.
Q: What’s the story behind that beautiful green minestrone soup?
A: It was a leftover from my first book, “The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy,” which had a recipe for a farmers market minestrone. I put a cook’s note at the end of it and it said something like, ‘Have fun and make a green minestrone, or an orange minestrone.’
So I’ve been toying around with that for a while, and I took some time to develop this green recipe. But since the entire rainbow is represented when it comes to the colors of vegetables, there are plenty of choices.
Q: Your book focuses on vegetables, but it’s not strictly vegetarian. Was that intentional?
A: I’m not a vegetarian, but I have found myself tending toward eating less meat. Factory meat bothers me. I’m buying it at the farmers market, where the beef is grass-fed, and I know where it’s coming from. I’m also paying more, but I’d rather eat less meat and better meat.
But I’ve always loved vegetables, and I’m always looking for ways to make vegetables the star of the show, so that you don’t even miss the meat. I’m not in any way espousing or advancing a doctrine. To each his own. I’m definitely a carnivore.
Q: Right now, when I’m at the farmers market, my eyes immediately go to the tomatoes. What do you like to do with them?
A: With slicing tomatoes, I just like to eat them plain, with salt. Or put them with mozzarella into a caprese. Or you can slow-roast them, the Romas or the cherry tomatoes.
Or you can make a pane pomodoro. It’s easy. You take a slice of good bread, and you squish half a tomato on top of it — like squeezing a lemon — squeezing out the pulp and spreading it around. Then you drizzle a little olive oil and sprinkle on some salt. It’s barely a recipe, but it’s the best snack.
Q: Each one of your recipes starts with a short story. Is that your cookbook modus operandi?
A: It’s something I’ve done from my very first book. I like to tell stories. I like to know where recipes come from, and I feel that it’s important to the reader to know why I chose the recipe, and why I wanted to share it.
Q: Most of the book’s recipes are fairly uncomplicated. Is that the way you prefer to cook?
A: I like projects. I like making pasta, or making dishes that take a number of steps, it’s a labor of love. But on weekdays, I tend to cook really simply. And working with good, fresh ingredients means you don’t have to manipulate them. Vegetables shine when the dish isn’t too contrived. Let them speak for themselves.
We were recently staying at an agriturismo [a farmhouse vacation property], and for a light lunch one day, the cook brought out a small plate of tender green beans. She picked them, she boiled them and then she drizzled them with olive oil and vinegar. I will never forget how good it was. And it was just green beans. It was all about the integrity of the ingredients.
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