Dishing up al dente delights

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 April, 2000, 12:00am

Valentina Harris's latest offering, Italia! Italia! (Cassell $320), shows why this cooking teacher, television personality and award-winning cookbook author is so popular.

The book is well-presented, with easy-to-follow recipes for antipasti, first courses, main courses, side dishes and desserts. The recipes within each section are divided up by region - Piemonte, Toscana, Veneto and Sicilia - where Harris conducts her courses.

The dishes tend to be rustic and hearty, rather than haute Italian, and this is reflected in the full-page colour pictures, which show the food plated simply, rather than with overly fussy restaurant presentations. Most of the recipes are easy, although there are a few that would best be divided into two or three days' light work, rather than one intensive, harried cooking session. The Timballo di Maccheroni al Ragu - a complex concoction of pasta, sauce, fried meatballs and pea and meat filling, baked in pastry - takes an unusually long three pages of instructions and ingredients. Most recipes, however, are limited to one page: there are simple but tempting dishes of cannelloni with veal and cheese filling, liver cooked in the Venetian style, and Florentine roast pork with rosemary. Harris's enthusiasm for food comes shining through in her text.

If you were to casually flip through Daphne's - Modern Italian Food (Simon & Schuster $425), you might be mistaken in thinking that this book is the polar opposite of Harris's rustic cuisine. Daphne's is a hot and happening Chelsea venue by restaurateur Mogens Tholstrup. The arty colour and black-and-white shots and stylised presentations might make the food seem intimidating, but closer inspection shows that the recipes, by executive chef Chris Benians and head chef Lee Purcell, are surprisingly easy.

What makes the food more 'restauranty' is the small touches and garnishes. Thus we're given a recipe for a simple crab, avocado and pepper salad - but it's stacked between layers of Parmesan crisps (easily made, by baking grated Parmesan in the oven). It's restaurant food that doesn't take hours of preparation, although there's no mistaking it for something the casual cook would throw together in a hurry. A skilled home cook will not have any problem with following the simple but detailed instructions for recipes such as pan-fried scallops with borlotti puree and pepper salsa, cod wrapped in fennel and speck, and chocolate and polenta cake.

The Lonely Planet has expanded its range of travel books to encompass food guides of different countries.

World Food Italy by Matthew Evans ($130) would be a great book to pack in your bags if you were travelling around that country - it's compact, but info-packed. It shouldn't be used as a cookbook - although it does include a few recipes - but rather as a guide to dining customs in Italy, best places to eat, and specialties of various regions. Like all Lonely Planet books, it has a section on useful phrases, together with an Italian culinary dictionary.