Making a Case for Recipes With Roots

What determines an authentic or classic recipe? One approach, used by some cookbook authors, is to tally and edit recipes solicited from restaurants throughout Italy. Although this may seem logical, these recipes are often either watered-down versions that have been redesigned to fit an individual restaurant's needs, or altogether misleading--restaurateurs may deliberately omit ingredients so as not to give away their secrets.

When I research the origin and evolution of a dish, one source is not enough. I compare documented recipes (as early as the 14th Century) with the many oral versions handed down from one generation to the next within a region's long-native families. Through this process, I believe the essence of a particular dish--its ingredients and preparation--is most fully revealed.

For me, it is important to use authentic ingredients and to eschew "creative" changes which bastardize the dish.

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This may make recipes that seem difficult for cooks to follow outside of Italy, but most Italian ingredients are now available abroad, although it sometimes requires a little effort to obtain them. Occasionally, I will list an ingredient which is truly hard to find, but in such cases I do offer a second choice. My experience over some 20 years has been that many ingredients that were not imported when my first books were published are now easily available. It is really worth it not to take the easy way out; the reward is a more delicious dish, in which the flavor comes from its historical roots.

SCHIACCIATA WITH FRESH GRAPES

3 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour

1 ounce (2 cakes) compressed fresh yeast or 2 packages (4 teaspoons) active dry yeast

1 1/4 cups lukewarm or hot water (depending on yeast used)

2 1/2 pounds red wine grapes (not Concord) or 2 1/2 pounds seedless ruby red grapes

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 tablespoons olive oil

Dash salt

Scant 1/2 cup lukewarm water

Prepare sponge by placing 1 cup flour in bowl and making well in center. Dissolve yeast in 3/4 cup water, then pour into well. Use wooden spoon to gradually incorporate flour into dissolved yeast. Sprinkle on another 1 tablespoon flour. Cover bowl with cotton dish towel. Let stand, in warm place away from drafts, until sponge has doubled in size, about 1 hour. (Two signs that sponge has doubled in size are disappearance of tablespoon of flour and formation of large cracks on top.)

Meanwhile, remove grape stems and carefully wash grapes in cold water. Pat dry with paper towels. Place grapes in large crockery or glass bowl and add sugar and fennel seeds. Mix with wooden spoon so that grapes are well coated with sugar. Let stand until needed.

Prepare bread dough by placing remaining 2 1/2 cups flour in mound on board and making well in center. Pour sponge into well along with olive oil, salt and water. Use wooden spoon to mix together all ingredients in well. Then start mixing with hands, incorporating flour little by little from inside rim of well. Keep mixing until all but about 5 tablespoons flour are incorporated.

Knead dough with palm of hand, incorporating remaining flour in folding motion until dough is homogeneous and smooth, about 2 minutes.

Divide dough in half. Roll out each half with rolling pin into round about 16 inches in diameter. Place 1 round of dough on bottom of oiled 14-inch pizza pan. Distribute half of sugared grapes over layer of dough. Cover with other round of dough. Seal edges together all around by pressing together.

Distribute remaining grapes on top of second layer. Cover pan with cotton dish towel. Let stand until almost doubled in size, about 1 hour. Remove towel. Bake at 375 degrees 1 hour. Remove from oven and let cool completely, about 1 hour. Serve from pan or on board to preserve rustic character, slicing like pizza. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

ROLLED STUFFED SWORDFISH CUTLETS ON SKEWERS

3 pounds swordfish with bone, cut into 3 (1/2-inch-thick) slices

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt

2 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 heaping tablespoons capers in wine vinegar, drained and coarsely chopped

1/2 cup very fine unseasoned bread crumbs, preferably homemade, lightly toasted

Juice 1/2 lemon

Freshly ground pepper

3 large ripe, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

2 lemons, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

Lemon wedges

18 sprigs Italian parsley, leaves only

Cut each slice of fish crosswise into 2 pieces, removing bone in center. Place 6 pieces of fish in bowl and add olive oil. Season to taste with salt. Mix to coat evenly. Let stand 30 minutes, turning pieces over 2 or 3 times.

Begin stuffing by combining garlic and capers in small bowl. Add bread crumbs, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Mix together with wooden spoon.

Remove fish slices from bowl and place on platter. Place 1/6 of stuffing in center of each slice. Fold fish to make small package.

Thread long skewers starting with slice of tomato, slice of lemon and then 1 folded fish package. Repeat until all ingredients are used. Brush everything threaded on skewers with oil left in bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Place skewers on jellyroll pan or baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees on middle oven shelf 20 minutes. Increase temperature to 500 degrees and bake 3 minutes longer. Remove skewers from oven and transfer to serving platter. Serve fish with lemon wedges and parsley leaves. Makes 6 servings.

TIRAMISU

6 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature

7 tablespoons granulated sugar

3/4 cup milk

1 pound mascarpone cheese or 1/2 pound ricotta cheese plus 1 cup whipping cream, blended very well in food processor until light cream forms

2 cups whipping cream

1 teaspoon powdered sugar

24 very crisp Italian ladyfingers

2 cups strong espresso coffee, cooled

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

Combine egg yolks and 6 heaping tablespoons granulated sugar in crockery or glass bowl and stir with wooden spoon until sugar is completely dissolved and egg yolks turn lighter color. Add milk and mix thoroughly. Transfer egg mixture (crema) to top part of double boiler set over boiling water. Cook, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, always in same direction, until cream is thick enough to coat spoon and just before mixture is about to start to boil. Do not allow mixture to boil.

Immediately remove top part of double boiler from heat. Continue to stir 1 minute longer. Transfer cream to crockery to cool, about 1 hour.

Place mascarpone in bowl of food processor. Add cooled cream and blend very well until very smooth and light cream forms. Refrigerate until needed.

Whip cream, remaining 1 tablespoon granulated sugar and powdered sugar in chilled metal bowl with wire whisk. Add cooled cream-mascarpone mixture and whisk very well.

Place ladyfingers in 1 layer in jellyroll pan and soak with cold coffee. Gently transfer 12 ladyfingers to 14-inch trifle bowl. Spread half of cream on top of ladyfingers. Sprinkle with half of chocolate. Make 1 more layer with remaining ingredients. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving. Makes 12 servings.

* This article is excerpted from the newly released "The Best of Bugialli," by Giuliano Bugialli; Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

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