Last Thursday morning, visitors to BookExpo America had a chance to get to know chef, restauranteur, and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich better during an interview conducted by New York magazine critic Adam Platt. Platt quizzed Bastianich on some of her preferred dishes, recipes, tools, and techniques. They also discussed the thinking behind her ninth cookbook, Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking: 150 Delicious and Simple Recipes Anyone Can Master (Knopf, 2013), written with her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali.
Platt opened by describing his own experiences reviewing restaurants Bastianich is involved with, recalling a visit to New York City’s Del Posto. “One of the great sights in the culinary world is watching Lidia make risotto,” said Platt, describing watching Bastianich preside over a “giant copper urn, calmly stirring with a beatific smile on her face. Meanwhile, her son Joe and Mario Batali are staring knife eyes at me from the kitchen.”
Platt went on to describe the present day as “a very stripped-down, commonsense era” in restaurant cooking and asked Bastianich how prevailing trends in the food world related to the way her career has unfolded. “The restaurants, and then my show, resonate with the public, what they want, and what they’re ready for,” said Bastianich. “Italian, Italian-American, regional Italian—I went through all of that.” Now, she said, people tell her, “I want to cook but I can’t cook,” something she set out to address in Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking. “I think people, if they give themselves a chance and open up to the information they have collected, would be surprised how much they can do.”
“Cooking is also about responding to yourself,” continued Bastianich. “I tell people to use [the book] as a guide, not the final chapter of that recipe. Make it your own.”
Bastianich invoked her familiar tagline, “Tutti a tavola a mangiare,” to emphasize the importance of busy families making time to share meals together, especially with the wide availability of packaged, processed alternatives to home-cooked meals. “Eating well, eating healthy, eating seasonal, eating together is the basis of a good life,” she said.
Asked about some elemental recipes from the new book, Bastianich returned to the subject of risotto, walking attendees through the technique-driven process. “You realize this is like the world’s expert on risotto,” Platt told the audience after she finished. “You’re never going to hear anything more definitive.”
Platt followed with questions about how long it takes a person to learn to cook (“I think that it’s a lifetime pursuit,” Bastianich responded, noting that her 94-year-old mother “still tells me how to do things. She hasn’t stopped learning—or bossing me around”) and her most recent kitchen gadget purchase. (Bastianich thinks Microplane zesters are “genius,” but also spoke lovingly of an olive wood spoon and a forged knife she’s had for 35 years.) Asked about various favorite dishes, Bastianich professed her love of a good hamburger, linguini with clams, and rabbit, as well as tracking down Korean food in Flushing, Queens.
Audience questions included a request for tips for novice fresh pasta makers; Bastianich recommended a food processor for mixing the dough and a wooden board for kneading and rolling it out. “The rougher the pasta, the better the mouthfeel, the better it absorbs sauce.” Another listener asked about Bastianich’s earliest food memory. “I think the aromas of herbs are all over me,” she responded, recalling her childhood in Italy. “We had rosemary bushes, bay leaf bushes. Playing hide and seek, I would smell like rosemary the whole day.”
Bastianich said one of her “fondest and simplest memories” was a dish her grandmother used to make. “She would fry potatoes in a little black pan in a live fire she had. When the potatoes are nice and brown, crack an egg and mix it all together. Olive oil, potatoes, egg. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I make that for myself.”