I love reading cookbooks because the level of commitment is low. Reading something cover to cover is asking a lot from somebody (that is, me) who is easily distracted. Hell, I have to pause movies five times now, and it usually takes me days to finish. With cookbooks, I can start and stop anywhere. There’s not some story arc that takes 300 pages to develop. It would take a medical emergency for me to get distracted within the two-paragraph description of a Filipino dish.
Cookbooks don’t work linearly. It’s like spinning a globe, stopping it with your finger, and then saying, “I’m going to live in Tanzania!” You can open a cookbook randomly to any page and make whatever you find. To put it more succinctly, cookbooks don’t give me a panic attack and I won’t feel bad if I don’t finish them. There’s an element of doing to cookbooks that isn’t present with other texts. I’m a doer. It’s the only way I learn.
Pellegrino Artusi’s Science In The Kitchen And The Art Of Eating Well, published in 1891, is a cookbook I find myself circling back to often. It’s a collection of Artusi’s culinary findings as he traveled throughout 19th-century Italy, and it’s filled with quips and digressions. Partly I’m drawn to it due to my appreciation for all things Italian. But it’s also just an interesting read.
Artusi is flat-out wrong about a lot of things: “Fish isn’t particularly nutritious,” he says at one point. He was a man of the times, but his sense of humor endures. He’s undeniably funny. The man dedicated this book—rather eloquently, I might add—to his cats. At one point he finishes a recipe for an appetizer with the instruction, “Now send them to their fate.” He often waxes on about uncomfortable social situations like a stand-up comedian, and his recipe for fried artichokes starts with, “Take, let’s say, 2 artichokes...” giving the impression that he’s not taking himself or his book too seriously. There’s a certain messy charm to his writing that’s wholly enjoyable. Artusi understood the power of silliness, and it’s present throughout.
Artusi is often not all that concerned with specific measurements. I enjoy the metric-system preciseness of Alton Brown as much as the next guy; truly, there isn’t a better way to establish a firm, exact recipe. But there’s something hilarious about Pellegrino Artusi describing how to cook something with a simple paragraph devoid of detailed instruction. His recipe for Savoy Cabbage reads, “Boil the cabbage until it is half cooked, and finish cooking it in butter and milk, seasoning it with salt.” That’s it. It’s like he’s saying, “Look, just figure it out, man.” I enjoy that. Sometimes I don’t read cookbooks to follow exact instructions. Sometimes I just want to read them to get a sense of what a dish is.
In one of my “spin the globe” excursions through The Art Of Eating Well, I came across this recipe for Salsa Piccante. It’s a curious Old World mixture of prosciutto, capers, onion, herbs, and beef broth. The salsa, Artusi says, goes well with poached eggs, steak, or veal cutlet. I decided to spoon the mixture over some perfectly cooked jammy eggs. It’s a piquant, meat-packed, brothy mixture that brings an interesting flavor profile to the umami-rich egg. It also had a very colorful presentation that I enjoyed.
Artusi’s magnum opus is filled with commentary about society, but no such observations occur when he talks about Salsa Piccante. There’s no meandering about Napoleon’s personal cook or musings about the recent unification of the Italian language. It’s not the most interesting or demanding dish in The Art Of Eating Well. It’s just where I landed when I spun the globe.
Adapted from Pellegrino Artusi’s recipe, with slightly modified measurements
- 1 Tbsp. good olive oil
- 2 tsp. white onion, diced
- 1 tsp. capers, well drained
- 1 Tbsp. parsley, roughly chopped
- 2 large basil leaves, rolled and chiffonade cut
- 2 slices of prosciutto, roughly chopped
- 1-2 canned anchovies, minced
- 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
- ¼ cup beef stock
- 2 large eggs of good quality
- Fresh pepper, to taste
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about one minute. Next add the capers, parsley, basil, and prosciutto. Stir and mix until the onion appears lightly browned, about another 2-3 minutes. Interrupt the cooking by adding the beef stock, and simmer the sauce for a few minutes. It should reduce by one-third and still be quite brothy. Next, per Artusi, turn off the heat and add the minced anchovy and lemon juice. Stir and set aside. There are a lot of salty ingredients here, so it shouldn’t need any additional salt. The sauce is better if it cools for a few minutes and isn’t piping hot.
For the eggs, heat a small pot of water so that it achieves a vigorous boil. Drop in the eggs and boil them for 6 minutes. When the 6 minutes are up, immediately transfer them to an ice bath. (The key to a good ice bath is a 50/50 mixture of water and ice.) Let the eggs chill for a few minutes in the ice bath and then begin to peel them under cold running water. Slice each egg in half, then plate and spoon the salsa piccante over the eggs. Crack some fresh pepper and serve.