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Volume xviii, Issue 4 ~ January 28 - February 3, 2010

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The Poet’s Cookbook: Recipes from Tuscany

edited by Grace Cavalieri and Sabine Pascarelli

In Italian, it tastes even better

reviewed by Sandra Olivetti Martin, Bay Weekly editor

A poem should be palpable and mute, as a globed fruit, poet Archibald MacLeish thought.

There’s more in that thought. Poems belong in the mouth. They began as speech and, despite living all these centuries on the page, are still matters of sound. You can feel them in your mouth, and sometimes the words are so good you can taste them. Poems are made to be eaten.

So Annapolis poet Grace Cavalieri and Italian poet Sabine Pascarelli are onto something in The Poet’s Cookbook, a 140-page paperback combining poems and recipes.

The recipes derived from their shared Italian heritage make the combination all the more delicious. That’s true because Italian culture values food and poetry, especially spoken poetry, as equal arts necessary for sustaining life. It’s true again because authentic Italian recipes lead cooks and eaters to enlightened bliss, where lightness and depth are each other’s other half.

Perhaps, as Cavalieri writes, that’s because Italian cooking was “born in a place of worship,” the monasteries of the Middle Ages.

Cavalieri and Pascarelli have arranged their Poet’s Cookbook in the seven-course sequence of a full Italian meal. Antipasti leads to Minestre to Primi Piatti (pasta and rice) to Secondi Piatti (flesh) to Verdure (vegetables) to Insalate to Dolci.

Each chapter begins with 10 recipes. “From the earliest tradition of Italy, we take the wisdom of our ancestors and create modern day menus,” Cavalieri writes. “The recipes are for a person who has a love of excellent dining and yet has only a very minimal time to cook,” she promises.

Each course of recipes is followed by a course of poems, first in English, then in Pascarelli’s translation into Italian. Both authors are poets; Cavalieri also founded the long-running The Poet and The Poem series on public radio and produces the series From the Library of Congress. But they have included none of their own poems, instead gathering a poem each from 28 poets living near and far. Each poem has food as its subject, and each is joined to the recipes in its course.

Risotto with Saffron, a primi piatti, pairs with St. Mary’s County poet — and just retired Maryland poet laureate and professor at St. Mary’s College — Michael Glaser’s Risotto. Both are simple and good in the mouth.

Risotto with Saffron

1/2 small onion finely minced

pinch of saffron

1/2-cup long-train white rice

2 tbs dry white wine

2 tbs grated parmesan cheese

1 tbs butter

1 tbs butter

1 tbs olive oil

2 cups beef broth

Sauté the onion and rice in 1 T butter and 1 T olive oil over moderate heat until very lightly browned. Add the wine and cook until it is absorbed. Dissolve the saffron in the hot beef broth.

Add the beef broth a little at a time and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until all of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender and creamy in consistency. This process should take 18 to 20 minutes. Stir in the remaining butter and the parmesan cheese and allow the cheese to melt. Serve immediately.

Michael Glaser’s Risotto

I make risotto
in an old brass pot.

My mother,
adding a dash of this and that

to all she cooks,
thinks me grand

I am not.

I am making risotto
in an old brass pot.

In Italian, it tastes even better.

Faccio il risotto
in una vecchia pentola d’ottone

Mia madre, aggiungendo
un piccolo di questo e di quella.

e tutto cio che cucina
mi ritiene grandioso

Non lo sono.

Sto facendo il risotto
in una vecchia pentola d’ottone.

Readers of cookbooks will savor the poems as secondi piatti to the primi piatti of the recipes. When readers turn to cooking, however, they will be annoyed that the perfect-bound book resists staying open. Cooks will need a strong clip or two and a cookbook stand.

The Poet’s Cookbook: Published in 2009 as a VIA folio, a reference book series dedicated to Italian studies and the culture of Italian-Americans in North America: $12.

© COPYRIGHT 2010 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.