Colman Andrews loves the story as much as the food

Colman Andrews is a food storyteller and historian as much as he is a cookbook author and cook, and he's taken to the countryside in his last two photographed volumes: The James Beard Award-winning "The Country Cooking of Ireland," and the hot-off-the-presses "The Country Cooking of Italy," with a foreword by Mario Batali.

Featuring 230 recipes from every region of the country and descriptions of the rural traditions behind the dishes, it's hard to decide whether to settle into a comfy chair and read the engaging text or throw on an apron and start cooking the farm-to-table recipes.

Andrews co-founded "Saveur" magazine and is currently editorial director of thedailymeal.com. In a recent Daybreak interview, he talked about his new cookbook.

Q. Can you describe your love affair with Italian food, and how it changed in the 1980s and '90s as you began traveling and eating beyond Rome? What did you learn that most struck you about the dishes being prepared outside the cities?

A. My experiences in Rome, where I traveled frequently in the '70s, although later I went further afield, really introduced me to Italian food-a lot of it is very rustic, pretty simple, straightforward food, even though Rome is a big city.

But when you get out into other parts of Italy, especially the smaller towns, places in more agricultural communities, you do find dishes that probably don't make it into urban restaurants, and are very simple, based very much on what's around. If you're in an area that has local catfish, they'll make a sauce from catfish?there's something about the adaptability, ingenuity of Italians in general in rural areas that looked around them to not only make what was available edible, but make it taste good.

Q. Can you describe the process of "whittling the book down" as you say, to 230 recipes, based on 40 years of travel, eating in Italy, and cooking Italian food at home? What were your criteria for the recipes you included?

A. As far as narrowing it down, there are so many different, separate cuisines. There's a tremendous breath of influences and approaches to food in that country. I could have done the whole book on pasta-there are probably hundreds of shapes and sizes, in addition to how you sauce them. I tried to include some classic dishes everyone would recognize by name like eggplant parmigiana-that appears on menus everywhere but doesn't necessarily have a lot of similarity to how you'd have it in Italy. Chicken Cacciatora is another example of that.

Beyond that, I wanted to include dishes no one ever heard of, just to expand people's ideas of what Italian cooking can be. We think we know so much about Italian food-there are more Italian restaurants than there are Starbucks-but there's still so much you have to get out and travel around.

Q. You give such interesting history and details about each dish. I never would have imagined one could eat grape hyacinth bulbs. How do you do your research? Do you eat something wonderful in your travels, and then ask the locals for their recipes or cook with them?

A. It's a little bit of everything. I was a history major at UCLA and was always interested in the background of everything. I'd much rather than give you a formula, give you a little story first-whether it's something you tell your guests before serving or assimilate in cooking.

There were many instances when working on the book in the Italian Riviera that I spent a lot of time in people's homes eating and an element of being in the kitchen and asking to help cook and asking questions. Also, reading books, and trying (to make the) dishes I encountered in restaurants and trattorias.

Q. You talk about it being hard for Americans to feel like they're getting their money's worth in a restaurant if the dish isn't complicated and how we need to gussy up Italian food. Is your point that it's better to keep it simple, with less ingredients but higher quality choices, such as better olive oil, cheese, but still easy to find locally?

A. Yes, exactly, and people probably don't spend the most money buying the best ingredients (even when they're) buying less ingredients. People take short cuts and wonder why the dish doesn't taste as good.

Q. Does knowing so much about the food you prepare make it a more exciting, rich experience, and is that what you're trying to do for your readers? Comments on the back of the book are that you've captured the soul, the spirit of the food. Is that what you're striving to do?

A. I almost can't help myself. If I (come across) something with a strange name, I want to know what it means, (such as) Sguazabarbuz (bean and pasta soup). I saw it on a menu in Romania. It means "beard" or "chin splasher" in the Ferrarese dialect. I loved the name and the image you have of someone at a table in a trattoria shoveling it in, and so I included it.

Ribollita: Twice-Cooked Tuscan Vegetable Soup

This is the definitive soup of Tuscany, enjoyed all over the region. Just as the Marseillaises insist that bouillabaisse cannot be made without rascasse (scorpionfish), Tuscans will tell you that, other than the beans and the stale bread on which it is based, this soup absolutely demands cavolo nero, or "black kale" (also sold as lacinato or Tuscan kale). This may be found at farmers' markets or in specialty stores. In its absence, I've found that red Russian kale, increasingly common in American markets, makes a good substitute.

One other essential: this soup must be made the day before it is served, and then reheated-otherwise it is not ribollita (reboiled).

Serves 10 to 12

2 cups dried cannellini beans, cooked, with their cooking liquid reserved

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

2 onions, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 bunch black kale or Russian kale, coarsely chopped

1 bunch Swiss chard, coarsely chopped

1 small head Savoy cabbage, about 1 pound, coarsely chopped

2 ripe tomatoes, seeded and grated

4 thick slices dry country-style bread, torn into pieces

Salt and pepper

Measure 1 cup of the beans and 2 cups of the bean cooking liquid and set aside. Process remaining beans and their liquid in a food processor or blender until smooth, and set aside.

Heat about half the oil in a large flameproof earthenware or metal pot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the celery, kale, chard, cabbage, and tomatoes, cover the pot, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes.

Add the pureed beans and reserved cooking liquid, re-cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for about 1 hour to thicken and blend flavors. Add the bread, re-cover, and cook for about 10 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper, then stir in reserved beans.

Remove from heat, let cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate for at least 12 hours or up to 2 days.

To serve: reheat soup over low heat, stirring frequently. Drizzle in remaining oil before serving, and serve with additional olive oil, added to taste.

Upcoming booksignings

"The Country Cooking of Italy" (Chronicle Press) by Colman Andrews, photographs by Hirsheimer and Hamilton is $50, hardcover. Andrews will give a talk and booksigning tonight, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison. Tickets are $5; call (203) 245-3959 or online www.books@rjjulia.com. Andrews will appear at Bank Square Books in Mystic on Saturday, Nov. 12, at 11 a.m. For info, call (860) 536-3795 or visit www.banksquarebooks.com.

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