Lidia Bastianich is the Italian grandmother we all wish we had. She's a one-woman show: a chef, business owner, restaurateur, mother, author and entertainer. She's also a torch-bearer for Italian culture and a tireless advocate for public media -- and she knows the secret to really good marinara sauce.
Best known for her cooking show "Lidia's Kitchen" on PBS, Bastianich flew from New York to Anchorage last week. Hosted by Alaska Public Media, she was in town for several days promoting her new cookbook and meeting with local chefs and restaurant staff, including students from the AVTEC culinary program.
"When you watch Lidia's show, you realize how important staying true to the food you are cooking is -- honoring where it came from and the honesty of the flavors," said Sonya Wellman, director of special events at Alaska Public Media. "We wanted to foster inspiration in the young people who will be taking their place in our evolving Alaskan food scene."
Bastianich has dedicated more than 20 years to public television and is a staunch believer in the accessibility of it. "I want my message to be on public TV because it's for everyone," she said.
An ally in the movement to reconnect a nation with our food and the land it comes from, she says both her cultural roots and childhood taught her important lessons about harvesting ingredients.
"I'd go get hot eggs from the chicken and bring them to Grandpa," she laughed. Her earliest memories include ducks, goats, pigs and chickens. She remembers making olive oil and going to the mill to grind flour for fresh pasta.
"If you don't know how it grows, you don't know how to respect it," she said.
Bastianich was born in Istria, a small region in northeastern Italy that was taken over by Yugoslavia after World War II. In 1956, her family left for Trieste, where for two years they lived in a refugee camp awaiting visas to the United States. Bastianich was 10 when her family moved to Queens, New York, to start a new life. Cooking meals is how she has kept her childhood memories and culture alive.
"The food of a country is my story,'' she says.
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.
Almond and coffee cream mini-tarts (Tartellette alla Crema di Mandorle e Caffe)
"These mini-tarts are delightful as a finger-food dessert, and although here they are coffee almond-flavored, you can change the flavoring according to your liking or what you have. A simple egg custard with some jam at the bottom of these tarts can be a great option."
-- From "Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking" by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, 2013, $35)
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
12 tablespoons unsalted cold butter, cut into pieces (1½ sticks)
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons ice water, plus more as needed
1½ cups milk
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
3 large egg yolks
6 tablespoons sugar
Pinch kosher salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon almond extract
½ cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted, for serving
For the dough:
In a food processor, pulse together the flour, sugar and salt. Drop in the butter and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.
Beat together the egg yolks and water and pour into the processor. Pulse until the dough just comes together, adding a little water if crumbly, or a little flour if it is too wet. On the counter, knead the dough a few times, then flatten it into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to about 1/8-inch thick. Cut out eight rounds to fit into eight individual 4½-inch fluted mini-tart pans. Fit the dough into the pans, and trim so the dough is flush with the rims. Chill for 15 minutes, then place on a sheet pan. Dock the dough with a fork, and place parchment circles filled with pie weights or beans in each tart. Bake until the dough is set but still blond in color, about 10 minutes. Remove the parchment and the weights and continue baking until the dough is crisp and golden, about 10 to 15 minutes more. Remove from the oven and cool on racks.
For the coffee cream:
In a saucepan, bring the milk just to a simmer and whisk in the espresso powder. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, salt, cornstarch and flour until smooth. Whisk in the hot milk a little at a time, tempering the eggs. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan over low heat until it just begins to simmer and thickens. Strain it into a clean bowl, stir in the almond extract and chill, covering the surface with plastic wrap to keep it from forming a skin.
When the cream is chilled, fold in the whipped cream. Dollop the coffee cream into cooled tart shells and garnish with almonds. Serves eight.
Alaska Public Media will bring up Steve Raichlen of BBQ University July 26-27, and Jacques and Claudine Pepin will be here September 20-21.
Food & Culture