The best thing about watching Biba Caggiano cook, in person or on her Learning Channel television show, is that her recipes are designed to lure everyone into the kitchen.
Uncomplicated, easy to prepare, satisfying and delightful, her simple dishes represent what the Italians refer to as la buona cucina – which translates loosely as good home cooking. Watch her cook and it’s a safe bet that everyone from gourmet chefs to weekend cooks to folks more familiar with fast food than haute cuisine, can duplicate or at least whip up a reasonable facsimile of the meal she’s prepared for the cameras.
Like Lidia Bastianich, Caggiano’s relaxed manner makes it easy and pleasurable to concentrate on how she prepares food. Her cooking methodology relies largely on the natural rhythm of the earth: Whatever is fresh at the market translates well to the table.
Thus, if the tomatoes are the stars of the show this week in the produce section, she’ll prepare a quick, redolent red puttanesca sauce to top almost any meat or pasta dish.
Caggiano, petite, titan haired and pretty, mostly favors Northern Italian cuisine which is only natural since she grew up in Bologna, a city known all over Italy for the wonder of its food.
In Biba’s Northern Italian Cooking, HP Books, she wrote that her own love affair with food began in childhood. “I was literally raised in the kitchen because the kitchen was, at that time, the center and soul of the house. My mother was a great cook. Her food was the simple, straightforward dishes of the area, loaded with aroma and taste, and she prepared it daily with an abundance of love. So, I can truthfully say, that I was raised on a great diet. Good food and love.”
She stresses that while cooking is second nature for most Italians, the traditional lack of rigid rules or formulas makes it easy to replicate.
“Today, more than ever, Italian cooking is at everyone’s fingertips because of the availability of Italian ingredients,” she writes. “Extra-virgin olive oils, cheeses, wild mushrooms, rice, sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto and great factory-made pasta, can be found almost anywhere.
“Keep in mind that Italian cuisine is a skillful blending of ingredients that complement each other. Once you have done that, you will have mastered the art of Italian cooking.”
A good example of that approach can be found in this week’s Lenten recipe selection:
Spaghetti with Tuna Sauce — Spaghetti con il Tonno
This very easy to prepare and economical dish consists of only nine ingredients but it makes a very rich and satisfying main course. Serve it with a tossed salad dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil and crusty Italian bread.
Do not serve cheese over this pasta, Biba advises. Be generous with pepper instead.
Makes 4 servings
– ¼ cup olive oil
– 4 flat anchovy fillets, finely chopped
– 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
– 1 (28-ounce) can crushed Italian-style or whole tomatoes
– salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
– 1 (7-ounce) can tuna in olive oil, drained and flaked
– 3 tbsp. chopped parsley
– 1 lb. spaghetti
Heat oil in a medium saucepan. Add anchovies and garlic. Saute gently for about 1 minute; do not let garlic turn brown. If you are using whole tomatoes, press them through a food mill or sieve to remove seeds. This step isn’t necessary if you are using crushed tomatoes. Stir tomato pulp into saucepan. Simmer uncovered 25 to 30 minutes or until sauce reduces to a medium-thick consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in tuna and parsley. Simmer 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, fill a pot two-thirds full with salted water. Bring water to a boil. Add spaghetti. Bring water back to a boil and cook spaghetti uncovered until tender but firm to the bite, 8 to 10 minutes.
Drain spaghetti, place in a warm, deep dish or bowl. Add sauce and toss gently until mixed. Serve immediately.