Scott Conant's Scarpetta Cookbook, our Cookbook of the Week
Image courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pig wrapped pig from Scarpetta
Publishers love to send us cookbooks here at Fork in the Road, and often those books come straight from the chefs at some of New York's best restaurants. So we decided to share the love, and each week, we'll feature a new book, a recipe, and a few thoughts on cooking from the authors. Check back every Tuesday for a new book.
The Scarpetta Cookbook
By Scott Conant, 384 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35
At this point, Scott Conant may be best-known for his presence on network television (he frequently appears on Chopped and other food shows). But he got that gig only after founding several successful restaurants, all named Scarpetta, in cities across North America. And he was able to do that only after his flagship here in New York (355 West 14th Street, 212-691-0555) received a rave three-star New York Times review in 2008.
That's where Conant's stellar career really began. But before that, there was an Italian-American upbringing in Connecticut, a culinary arts vocational program in high school (he couldn't get into the plumbing program) -- which he followed with the Culinary Institute of America -- and a string of critically-acclaimed New York restaurants (L'Impero and Alto, among others) after that. Most of those earlier projects, opened under the auspices of other restauranteurs, live on only in the annals of New York's yawning restaurant history, but Scarpetta remains, and it remains still a task to get a prime-time table for four on a weekend.
We chat with Conant on his best polenta, grandmotherly hospitality, and taking the time to get it right.
What is the oldest recipe in this book and where did you come from?
Let me see. I've been kind of kicking around with a lot of these recipes for a number of years -- say, 10, 12 years or so. There's a recipe for polenta, which is a truffled mushroom polenta. I learned to make polenta from one of my old chefs at San Domenico's -- must be 20 years ago. And I've changed it, tweaked it, done lots of stuff with it along the way, but I'd have to say that that's where it extended from.
If you could give one essential piece of advice on making great Italian food, what would it be?
(Laughs) Well, it's not life and death, so you're starting from a pretty good place. But what I always try to tell people is just remember, you're trying to develop flavors. So make sure you take the time to do every step the right way. That's why those steps are in place. So if you don't caramelize the shallots or the garlic or the onions enough, and you kind of do it halfway, you're going to end up with a dish that's kind of half good. So it really is taking the time to do it right. If you do that, you're going to come out with great results.
What is your go-to holiday recipe what do you love about it?
There are a couple things. There's a Porchetta recipe I love; it's just pork belly. It's a little time consuming, but it's pretty simple to make, so that's one of them, and there's another thing -- a spice-rubbed ribeye beef, that's in the book. These are big pieces of roasted beef -- there's something always festive about that -- it's very King Henry, I guess. Also, the delivery of flavor. THere's so much flavor inside those dishes, it always makes people happy, which is kind of the whole point of celebrating.
What cook(s), living or dead, do you most admire and why?
Oh my God. There are so many! Whether it would be Escoffier, or my grandmother -- she wasn't exactly a chef, but she was a phenomenal cook, or Jean Georges, Wolfgang Puck -- a lot of the great chefs, like Daniel [Bouloud], and guys like that.
Why don't you tell me about your grandmother's cooking?
Well, my grandmother was such a fantastic cook, but what I loved about the nonchalance toward entertaining that she had was that she would be making pasta on a big giant board, and at any point in time, someone would show up. And it was almost like she never stopped making the pasta, but there was a cake there, or she had drinks there, and she would prepare lunch. And the whole time making pasta and entertaining and talking to people with this giant wooden board in front of her. Does that make sense? There's something about that level of Old World hospitality that resonates with me.
What is one winter ingredient you really love?
Parsnips. I happen to love parsnips! It's one of those dishes that lends itself well to any variety of preparations. So I'll put them with braised rabbit, I'll put them with steak, with all kinds of different things.
What's one unusual/unexpected/unique recipe from the book.
I'm not sure if I can point to one particular recipe, or thing about a recipe that really floors people, but one thing I get from people repeatedly is the simplicity of the recipes. If you really follow them verbatim -- maybe a few tweaks here and there, to personalize things a bit -- but more than anything else, it's about how simple and how easy the recipes are to follow and how great the final product is. That's the greatest compliment I can get from this book -- to have people make something and say, "This is exactly, if not more than, what I'd hoped it would be."
Click to the next page for a Conant Holiday Recipe, fit for a king!