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The Vegetarian Silver Spoon taps into a rich tradition of plant-based Italian cooking

Our cookbook of the week is The Vegetarian Silver Spoon . To try a recipe from the book, check out: Buckwheat pizza with green beans and tomatoes , farro salad with poached eggs , and broccoli, kale and cauliflower gratin .

Every summer, when eggplants are at their peak, I make the same perfect dish from The Silver Spoon : parmigiana di melanzane. The pages — 514 and 515 — now stuck together with splatters, it’s really just a handful of ingredients. But it also epitomizes how, at the right moment in time, greatness can be found in a combination of eggplants, tomatoes, basil, olive oil, Parmesan and mozzarella.

Phaidon originally launched the English-language edition of The Silver Spoon in 2005. An Italian classic featuring more than 2,000 recipes, Il cucchiaio d’argento (the silver spoon) was first published in 1950 by Editoriale Domus — publisher of the design and architectural magazine of the same name. When Emilia Terragni, publisher of Phaidon, was growing up in Como, Italy, it was the only cookbook in her family’s kitchen.

The Silver Spoon is almost like a reference book,” says Terragni. “People in Italy, they don’t follow recipes line by line. They just want to make sure what they’re doing is right, but the recipes somehow are in each family’s DNA.”

In the intervening 70 years, the Silver Spoon kitchen has continually updated the tome, travelling the length of Italy gathering regional recipes. For Phaidon, the success of the original English-language version 15 years ago not only initiated more titles in the series — including The Silver Spoon for Children , Tuscany and Puglia — but its entire catalogue of cookbooks .

“Whenever you start a new series of books, and you start with something so incredibly successful and so incredibly good, this puts you on a good path. But also because we didn’t really have any experience with cookbooks, it made us understand the nature of the book and the nature of the recipes even more deeply,” says Terragni. “How you adapt recipes that are written for an Italian audience for an international audience. How you deal with certain ingredients that are not very common. So we had to ask ourselves a lot of questions in a very short period, and this helped us understand the world of cookbooks even better.”

Terragni has copies of Il cucchiaio d’argento from the 1960s, 80s and 2010s. When we spoke, still in lockdown in London, she had been turning to the books regularly and had just made an onion focaccia from one of the latest titles, The Vegetarian Silver Spoon (2020). She attributes their enduring appeal to the quality of the recipes. Designed for the home cook, they’re well tested; the ingredients are largely affordable, and the techniques are straightforward and clearly explained. And while the series is rooted in tradition, The Silver Spoon “is still a living book in Italian culture.”

Merging the classic with the current, this evolution is central to The Vegetarian Silver Spoon . In line with an increased interest in plant-based eating, it feels new while simultaneously tapping into a wealth of time-honoured Italian dishes built on grains, legumes and vegetables.

If you look at traditional Italian food, plant-based is something that is both traditional and contemporary

“If you look at traditional Italian food, plant-based is something that is both traditional and contemporary. Italy was a very poor country for a very long time. The consumption of meat and fish was just a Sunday treat. If you think about the basic ingredients and recipes of Italian cuisine, you have pasta. You have tomatoes. You have olive oil, and you have plenty of seasonal vegetables,” says Terragni. “This book is probably the most contemporary in the series. But it also looks at ingredients that we think are new ingredients, but actually have been in the Italian diet for centuries.”

Whether recent or old additions to the Italian repertoire, exceptional produce is at the heart of Italian food culture, Terragni says. She offers the example of spaghetti aglio e olio — a pasta dish made with olive oil, garlic and chilies. Like parmigiana di melanzane, there’s nothing to hide behind. If those four elements are lacking, the dish will be too. On the flip side, if they’re good quality, your job as a cook is nearly done. “Italian cuisine is based on very good produce,” she says, “and this book is really a celebration of that.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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