Cookbook: Cucina of Le Marche
by Tejal Rao
The theater is inevitably evoked when seated for dinner
at Maestro in Washington DC, where Fabio Trabocchi
designs his high-concept Italian cuisine. There, each dish
is plated with the surgical precision of long tweezers and
the theatrical flair of the open passe, front-center of
the dining room. And so Trabocchi’s new cookbook,
a highly personal delve into the little known cuisine of
Le Marche, Italy, surprises with its sepia-toned pages and
mostly pictureless recipes. Trabocchi illustrates the regional
specialties with only a handful of photographs near the
center of the book, photos that could pass for touched up
19th century daguerreotypes: family-style plating, rustic
backdrops of worn tablecloths and wood, ladles of broth
over bowls of paysanne-cut vegetables, and a whole suckling
pig bound with string. Without the crutch of design and
distraction of photography on every page—which so
many cookbooks rely on—Trabocchi’s family recipes
and short stories stand on their own to communicate his
eloquent culinary philosophy: chefs are products of a specific
place and time.
For those who’ve watched Trabocchi
confidently lead his team of cooks by headset system in
the grand open kitchen, what might seem even more surprising
than the limited dish photographs is the small black and
white one of Trabocchi himself on his family’s balcony
as a small child. While the book is about the food of his
childhood, it’s hard to imagine Trabocchi as an untrained
culinary student proudly serving his family one of his first
invented recipes, a simple chestnut soup (page 38).
But before he zipped off to Spain, England, Russia and finally
established himself as part of DC’s culinary pantheon,
he reminds us with Cucina that he was a starry-eyed boy
filling his head with his first “heavenly” smell
of black truffles (from the full basket of a truffle-gathering
monk in the woods by the hill-town Sant’ Angelo).
The stories have notes of pastoral bliss,
yes, but for those tired of the romantic imagery and over
emphasized old world quaintness of the rustic cookbook genre,
Cucina doesn’t fall into that trap. In a time when
chefs and consumers alike are idealizing and celebrating
the farm and the farmer more than ever, Trabocchi proudly
notes he comes from a pedigree of farmers under Italy’s
mezzadria system but goes on to explain how in
the 60’s, when he was a kid, the cities lured workers
away from their family farms with factory jobs and big-time
agriculture took over. As the sharecropping-like system
collapsed, his father became a long-haul truck driver whose
few days home were always celebrated with family and food—the
book is dedicated to him.
The recipe-driven book is sorted simply
by appetizers, pastas, meats and so on, and prefaced with
a personal story, often witty (in a fussy olive appetizer
recipe he shrugs, sure they’re time-consuming, all
that sitting around and stuffing each individual olive,
but hey, the national pastime is gossiping so it’s
perfect!). He celebrates Le Marche’s quirks with explanations
of dialect differences from Italian, scattered jokes, and
well-researched traditional recipes. A basic section at
the back gives recipes for stocks, tomato sauce, and two
pasta recipes, one for stuffed pastas and one for noodles.
While Trabocchi admits to specific
nostalgia for life on the farm, the book itself is not a
simple romantic contemplation. In fact it seems more of
a study in how history and scent-memory can all, in context,
provoke meaningful spontaneity and originality in the kitchen.
The proof: Smoky Hay Turbot (page 117). The idea
came about one afternoon while reminiscing with fellow Italian
sous chef about the smell of burning hay, when the two noticed
a piece of turbot lying on the counter...mischief ensued.
At Maestro the proof lay in the eating; the turbot
arrived plated on glass through which long strands of hay
were visible, referencing his affectionate memory of the
countryside, authentic in terms of philosophy, but somehow
new. In Cucina that same turbot is adorned only with olive
oil-mounted mashed potatoes and fleur de sel, served family-style
Smoky Hay Turbot with Potatoes
From Cucina of Le Marche by Fabio Trabocchi
(Harper Collins, 2006)
Adapted by StarChefs.com
Yield: 6 Servings
- 2 2-3 pound-turbots, split lengthwise, filleted and attached
to the bone
- 4 handfuls clean hay
- 4 sprigs rosemary
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 12 fingerling potatoes
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 Tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley
- Kosher salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 8 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- Fleur de sel, to taste
Rinse the turbot under cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
Divide the hay, rosemary, and thyme between 2 Dutch ovens
or other large, heavy pots with lids. Set one pot aside for
the fish and nestle the potatoes in the other. Cover and place
of medium-high heat. After about 45 minutes, remove the potatoes
and peel them using a cloth napkin to protect your fingers
from the heat. In the meantime, cover the pot and take off
heat to stop the smoking. Fold in ½ cup olive oil and
chopped parsley, and season to taste. Cover and set aside
somewhere warm until serving, reheating only if necessary.
Place the second pot of hay over medium-high
heat. While it heats, place 2 large skillets over medium
high heat with 4 Tablespoons of butter in each. When the
butter begins to sizzle, add 1 turbot filet to each skillet
and sear for 3-4 minutes on each side, or until golden.
Baste the fish frequently with butter as it cooks. Repeat
until all filets are seared.
When the pot begins to smoke, place
the seared filets inside, cover, and cook for 8 minutes.
Transfer the fish to a platter, cover with aluminum foil
and rest another 8 minutes. Once rested, remove the fish
from the bone and place on a plate skin side down, sprinkled
with fleur de sel and drizzled with olive oil. Serve immediately
with the potatoes.
WITH FABIO TRABOCCHI
In a way,
that’s similar to your book, celebrating regional cuisine
and the classics while figuring them out…
FT: Yes, and it’s also really
unexpected coming from a chef of that level. It’s so
interesting to find out the why and how
of a classic dish. Another of my favorite books is L'Encyclopédie
Culinaire du XXIe Siècle by Marc Veyrat; it's also
very traditional. It’s in three volumes, which are all
really great: the first is about the traditional French cooking
he started with, the second about where he is now, and the
third volume, which I especially like, focuses on botanical
cuisine and Veyrat's knowledge of mountain herbs. I also really
like Michael Mina’s book.
your favorite recipes in your book?
FT: Every single one is true to a moment
in my life. The book is a very personal reflection, not just
in the sense of the recipes, but in the storytelling. It’s
really a story about how this kid grew up (me!) and didn’t
know he was becoming a chef. His father was not a chef, but
taught his son about food. They spent hours at the markets
together picking out the right ingredients then filled a jar
with fountain water and went home to start cooking. Some of
my favorite dessert recipes have been reinvented at Maestro
and it’s interesting to see what shape they take when
they come back, like the Crema Fritta. I love the Risotto
Marchigiana because it’s such a quick fix. If you don’t
know what you’re going to make it’s so easy to
put together. And the Porchetta, the whole suckling pig, is
are so rustic—the lighting, the wood in the background.
Did you take them at the restaurant?
FT: Yes, actually we took them right
next to my office!
introduction you talk about your trip to Le Marche to research
your book. How much time did it take?
FT: Peter and I only went for a week
because that was all the time I could take off, everything
else was memory and testing. It was great to discover things
I’d forgotten that were really amazing.
dishes evolve while you were recreating the old ones? Please
tell me about one.
FT: So many! It’s like Pierre
Gagnaire's idea of studying where something comes from, new
dishes naturally come out of that. We smoke a dorade which
gets the flavor of charcoal and then we serve it with smoked
potato soup, which comes cold. The crispy seared fish against
the cool texture of the almost mousse-like potato, it’s
great. The first time we made the fish on charcoal we nearly
burned the restaurant down…
any dish, or taste, that proved impossible to replicate?
FT: Not really because almost every
recipe is simple. Well, a couple are complicated in the sense
of being labor intensive, but I broke those down into day
1 and day 2 to make them accessible. I love
those recipes that purely reflect a special time of the year.
Some dishes turn out differently though because the products
are so different, like the Lasagna. It’s a challenge,
as a chef, to keep them simple and not go overboard adding
this and that flavor. I tried to keep them personal and simple,
which is much better.
do you go back to Italy?
FT: Not as much as I should. I’ll
be headed back at the end of the month though.
for a second cookbook?
FT: Not for something immediately.
I’ll talk with some people though and see how things
are going. Who knows?