I'm late to the party, but I am finally willing to admit: Nate Appleman is the man.
Nate Appleman is best known as the executive chef of A16 and SPQR in San Francisco. He has received critical acclaim for his earthy and emotive Italian food, including a James Beard award in 2009 for Rising Star Chef (he was the only chef to win a national award outside of New York). This past year, a svelter version of his former self appeared as a contestant on The Next Iron Chef and excelled wherever there was pork. Sadly, pork does not an Indian meal make, and he was asked to leave the show. I recently picked up A16: Food and Wine, a book that he co-authored with Shelley Lindgren and Katie Leahy, from the library, and in a moment of bold adoration, cemented it to my right arm. I am unable to part with the book, whose pages I have stained with vestiges of its text. Please let me tell you how much I enjoyed it.
Now then, the A16 story begins with a lengthy explanation of the restaurant's name, a reference to the highway that laterally bisects southern Italy (connecting Naples to Puglia). We are given a geographic and socioeconomic account of the region, contextualizing the food and wine. We understand the south to be a bit poorer, a bit more relaxed in its ways, resulting in bready meatballs ratio and slow cooked meats.
Following the introduction, A16 is broken down into three parts: wine, pantry, and food. Shelley Lindgren, owner/sommelier of A16 and SPQR, makes sense of food and wine pairings as I have never understood them. To my delight, she draws distinction between the vineyards speckling each of the smaller highways -- a sort of micro-regionalism.
The baton is then passed to Nate Appleman to speak about the understated food of southern Italy. He first elaborates on the pantry items of the region. In the absence of supermarkets, which bring us rosy produce 365 days of the year, the people of southern Italy rely on preserving their bounty and using every part of their stock. When building our own arsenal, he instructs us to make broth from parmesan rinds (softly boil rinds for 3 hours), oven dry tomatoes in the summer (dehydrate for hours on a bed of salt), and preserve lemons in salt (pack cakes of salt in the sectioned cavity). A keen eye is drawn towards the slow concentration of flavors. I must say, this is my favorite part of the book.
As Appleman launches into the recipes, my hunger grows fierce. I want to cook and eat every recipe in the book, if only to get closer to what it feels like to be in the A16 kitchen or at an Italian dinner table. The recipes themselves are user friendly, easy to re-create in a home kitchen, and inspirational. Most importantly, the recipes show us how to be laid back cooks, patient cooks. Most dishes use the passage of time to develop flavors, instructing us to stew pork two days before eating, preserve tuna in oil, and pre-salt meat a day ahead of time. Additionally, the small number of ingredients gives credence to the less is more mentality.
I have cooked many of the dishes, including the octopus with ceci beans, blistered peppers with oil packed tuna, braised pork with chestnuts, ragu Napoleatena, and handmade cavelleti. They all exceed my expectations in taste and simplicity of preparation. You must try them. The flavor of octopus broth is marvelous, the sweetness of chestnuts is sultry, the flavor of the ragu is powerful, the bite of "00" pasta makes me proud. In a day, I am a maven of south Italy. And if it wasn't enough, Appleman throws in an entire chapter dedicated to the pig for good measure.
All in all, this book is a vivid celebration of the southern Italian spirit. It is also a nasty device used to torture people like me, who cannot stave hunger during the hours of food preparation. As I reach for another pork rind, I look longingly at the ragu… T-4 hours until hog heaven.