I was chosen along with some other booksellers from around the country to participate in a cookbook challenge. Our colleague’s at Vroman’s made their dinner last Saturday night, same as we did, and claim they won! Not so, my friends. The other participants are Third Place Books, Chapter One Books, Vintage Books, Watermark Books, Chester County Book Company, Books & Books, The Book Mark, Garden District Book Shop, Town Center Books, Northshire Books, and Book Loft. The challege: use Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita to cook for a dinner party. The cookbook comes from the Bottega Restaurant, an Italian trattoria with a bit of a Southern-US flair to it. Sounds fantastic. I already like throwing dinner parties. Now I have an excellent excuse to throw another one.
Aside from the appetizers in the cookbook, we started the meal with cheese and crackers, and some American proscuitto from one of Kentucky’s best artisan ham shops, Father’s Country Hams. The proscuitto had the texture and depth of the best Italian ham, but with a smokier kick to it.
The first dish was a decidedly un-Italian one: Onion dip. With potato chips. Who doesn’t like that? At Bottega, they make their own chips in house, but we did pretty well with store-bought chips and the Bottega dip recipe. As we discovered throughout the evening, the recipe was simple and the flavors were complex. A mixture of charred red onion, chives, sour cream, salt, pepper, and mustard spent the night in the fridge and emerged incredible.
Our pal Bronwen brought us two additional appetizers. First, Vegetables a la Greque: A quick-pickled mix of carrots, onions, garlic, and fennel. Again, simple and fresh beats overworked and contrived every day of the week.Â We overlapped with our competitors on the third appetizer: Beet and ricotta crostini. Bronwen made both the bread and cheese herself, as well as roasting the beets and nuts. Suck it, other bookstore!
Then, on to Tuscan white bean soup. It sounds impossibly simple:Â Sautee your garlic, carrots, rosemary, and leeks, then add your simmered beans, simmer more, and pour over some greens (the recipe called for escarole, but we used chard) that you’ve sauteed with more garlic. Absolutely fantastic. And check out the knife skills on the diced carrots!
Next, the animal part of the meal: A fish dish. When I told them about a recipe for roasted fish with fennel, onions, and baby artichokes, the guy at New Deal Fish Market suggested striped bass. He didn’t steer us wrong. We did make a mistake with the artichokes: You can substitute artichoke hearts for baby artichokes, but you can’t use much more than the heart. We tried, and ended up with number of tough chunks. The rest of the dish was fantastic though.
Finally, we had dessert: a cream cheese tart. The recipe’s introduction asks “how can something so simple be so delicious?” You could say that about most of the dishes in the cookbook, to be honest, but this one in particular is amazingly simple. It’s basically butter, cream cheese, sugar, nuts, and cinnamon. And it’s awesome.
Around the time we were putting the dessert into the oven, we realized we’d forgotten to start the meal with cocktails. So, obviously, we had to go back and make everyone the Tegatini. Despite the fact that we all hate the idea of any beverage with a cutesy name ending in “tini,” this was yet another example of simple, excellent flavors: A shot of gin, half a shot of Aperol, shaken and served with a twist. Half a bottle of gin and most of a cream-cheese pie later, some of us were ready to go out dancing… and the rest of us slumped into the couch to watch Planet Earth.
Our overall impression of the food was simple and delicious. While planning the menu, we thought each recipe looked simple. Too simple, even. But it seems like Stitt cut out all the fluff and pretense in his recipes and left only the flavor.Â Our photo skills are not quite as good as the folks at Vromans (what kind of lighting do you guys have?), but you can see more pictures of the food and us enjoying it on my Flickr page.