It’s late fall when I meet Paola Ferrario. I walk into the classroom at the local food co-op. She sits on the edge of a folding table surrounded by food. She looks comfortable there, with people and food surrounding her. I notice right away about her is that she’s energetic and thoughtful in her approach. I’m a few minutes early for her cooking class on Italian food, so I pick up a copy of new cookbook while I wait.
Paola’s book, 19 Recipes 22 Stories isn’t your typical collection of recipes and photographs, it reads more like a poetry chapbook in both size and scope, except the recipes, photographs, and stories stand in as poems.
19 Pictures 22 Recipes includes a collection of photographs found at various flea markets and antique shops around the world. Each recipe, gathered mostly from her Italian childhood, is a meditation on food, photography, and human capability. They reveal family vignettes and musings about her life in art. I don’t know whether her stories are fiction, memoir, or both. But, I like this fact. I like that a cookbook can mix mediums and truths.
“Today is a gray fall day, conducive to sadness, yet it’s cool light combining with the yellow velvet of the living room chairs and the marine smell escaping the safety valve of the pressure cooker make the moment perfectly enjoyable. Everything is as though mixed on an artist’s palette. This is how I try to understand moments. Maybe all we have to do in order to live well is to learn how to combine colors, materials and flavors. We should buy things not to have them but to fit them into expanding compositions: Living room, apartment, building, town. Lunchtime, day, month, year…simple cooking done with what is fresh or in season and good 35 mm photographyshare the principle that photographers and cooks are only mediators of remarkable physical realities. Intelligence, humility and close observation are at the basis of this philosophy of seeing and tasting—a philosophy that has created some of the best dishes and images ever.”—Paola Ferrario, Introduction, 19 Pictures 22 Recipes.
Perfect-bound with matte paper, the cover photograph has the look of an old Polaroid, muted colors soften with time. In the photograph, a woman (lies in bed with her head propped on two pillows. She gazes out the window at a cluster of palm trees. The white slip she wears ends just below her hip. Her face is hidden by the turn of her head and brown shoulder length hair. Legs crossed, her arms are wrapped under the bent leg and she dreams of another time and place.
I study the folds in the white bed sheets, the flower print curtains, the space where meaning is written into, I imagine the photo in someone’s dresser drawer slid under the woman’s white slip. The photo is discovered years later in a box of stuff to be sold in an estate sale.
I flip through the stories and make notes of recipes to try: Pasta with Tomatoes & Basil, Three Vegetables (Zucchine in Umido, Eggplant alla Napoletana, and String Beans with Cherry Tomatoes), and Chocolate Mousse & Sugar Cookies.
A few minutes later, class begins. Paola stands at the front of the room, next to the projection screen. A few strands of chestnut fall around her face before she traces them from cheek to ear then pushes her dark rimmed glasses into place. Close to fifteen people sit nearby in the back of the room. A few more latecomers sneak in as Paola introduces herself.
The room is outfitted with a make-shift or really no kitchen to speak of, since there’s no stove or sink, only a crock pot warming the pasta. For her cooking demo, Paola shows us a video of her in the kitchen, sauteing mushrooms at the stove. The video fits: the book, the artist, all of it.
“I took this Polaroid of Debbie with an SX-70 that I bought for fifteen dollars at a thrift shop in 1983. I still use it. Debbie like many other of my friends had lovely legs. At the time they bought three-dollar polyester dresses with wonderful flower patterns. My friends shed the androgynous art-school work-clothes in order to wear art-school fashion on a Saturday night. Within the saturated colors of our apartment walls everything was worth staring at and everything was cheap and beautiful. When I look at this picture I remember that my youth was serene because I was a dreamer with simple desires. I envied people who could dance well and read fast but never the ones that had more than I. Whenever I feel old or poor I make this dish, which is as beautiful as youth seems through the eyes of a happy middle age. It takes little time to make and it costs almost nothing. It’s the perfect meal when we are assessing our needs.”—Paola Ferrario, Pasta with Tomatoes & Basil, 19 Pictures 22 Recipes.
We listen to stories from the book read in an Italian lilt. As a child, Paola learned to forage for wild mushroom, cut vegetables to fit a particular dish, bake a cake, and cure fresh salmon with her family. It was both ritual and necessity. The food she made was simple yet memorable. Each one came from ritual. We sample dishes from her cookbook: Zuppa Vittoria (Victoria’s Soup), Aunt Maria’s Capponata, Pasta with Tomatoes & Basil, Cheese with Pears. The food is comforting and unbelievably stripped down in its ingredients and preparation. Everyone gathers around the food. As if we’re inside a real kitchen. After class, I chat with Paola. We make plans to go mushroom hunting and cook together. A year later, her book remains one of my favorites, for its intimacy and pairing of food, family, and art.
I bought two extra copies of 19 Pictures 22 Recipes to share with you for this giveaway, which means I’ll choose two winners at random next week. The details follow.
How to enter:
1. Leave me a comment here by Wednesday, September 5th at midnight, EST.
For extra chances to win:
2. Follow/Like me on all or one of my social hangouts: twitter, facebook, pinterest, google +, and/or sign up for my monthly newsletter (see box at the top of this page), and tell me that you did at the end of this post.
Thanks everyone for your comments and for participating in the giveaway. The contest is now closed. Congrats to the winners Shanna and Nicole—check your email ladies!
Also, Paola now sells her wild mushrooms at the Holyoke Open Square Farmers Market through October. The boletes are incredible, earthy, nutty, hearty. If you’re around this Saturday (or any Saturday through October), stop by and say hello. You might even get a story or recipe to go with bag of your mushrooms.
Eggplant alla Napoletana
reprinted with permission from 19 Pictures 22 Recipes by Paola Ferrario
2 medium-size eggplants
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup of finely chopped parsley
Cut the eggplant in cubes of identical size (about an inch square). In a large casserole pour olive oil until the bottom of the pan is covered with about a 1/8 of an inch of oil on the bottom and 1/4 cup on top of the eggplant. The pan should have a heavy bottom; clay casseroles are best. Add garlic. Set pan on very low heat and add eggplant, salt and pepper. Stir often (every 5 to 10 minutes) and cook until done (about an hour).
Cover the pot for the first half an hour of cooking. Add parsley right before serving; a bit of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese goes well with this dish.
Paola’s Eggplant and Mushroom Variation: Start with olive oil, garlic and a few fresh mushroom like porcini or bolete and saute them in a little beer until softened. (You can also use dried porcini mushrooms. To rehydrate the mushrooms, leave them in beer for a few hours until soft, then drain, and saute them in oil like the fresh ones). Then add the eggplant (which absorbs the mushroom taste) and proceed with the recipe.