All over today’s news: more evidence that the “Mediterranean diet” can have powerful positive effects on heart health. Seems like a great opportunity to remind everyone of The Puglian Cookbook by Viktorija Todorovska, a collection of delicious and simple-to-prepare recipes from Italy’s Puglia region that typifies the best of the Mediterranean diet. While we get ready to publish Viktorija’s next great collection of Mediterranean recipes, The Sardinian Cookbook, next fall, it seemed like a great time to post this interview with her.
What attracted you to the cuisine of Puglia?
A big part of my love for Puglian cuisine is my appreciation for the people of Puglia and their passion for their food. Puglian cooks focus on the quality of the ingredients they use: each dish tells a story and the flavors reflect the history and traditions of the region. The clean flavors and simple preparations captured my imagination from my very first visit. Puglian dishes have simple preparations that let the ingredients shine. Many of the dishes are quite unique, which makes learning about them and enjoying them a culinary adventure.
How would you describe Puglian food culture?
In Puglia, food permeates every aspect of life. Historically, Puglia has been one of the largest producers of food products in Italy, from olive oil to wheat. It is the breadbasket of Italy. Puglia was also historically very poor, so the cuisine was born out of the need to create flavorful dishes from simple and affordable ingredients. To this day, Puglian cooking is simple and makes the best use of local ingredients. The recipes developed based on what was grown in the area, and they are deeply rooted in the region and its cultural traditions.
Because the dishes are simple, the quality of the ingredients is tantamount. To this day, Puglian people focus on selecting the best ingredients they can as the flavors of those ingredients really come through in the dishes.
Why do you feel that the cuisine of Puglia has been overlooked?
Puglia has been overlooked by travelers and as a result its cuisine has remained less familiar even to Italians outside the region, let alone to people outside of Italy. For a long time, Puglia was so poor that despite its natural beauty, it remained little known. That is changing very quickly as a new generation of food and wine producers in Puglia are working hard to introduce their region to the world. Travelers and food and wine professionals are starting to discover this sunny region’s charms and treasures.
What made you decide to write The Puglian Cookbook?
I fell in love with Puglia the very first time I set foot there. The colors, smells, and flavors stayed with me when I returned home. The food I tasted on that first trip was so unforgettable that I had to recreate some of the recipes at home. I had learned a little about Puglian cuisine when I took courses at Apicius, the International School of Hospitality in Florence, and that along with my visit to Puglia gave me the necessary skills to start cooking Puglian food. When I shared those dishes with my friends and clients, they were impressed. Not only did the food taste good, but also many of the dishes were surprising. They were unlike the things we typically see in Italian restaurants in the States, or in cookbooks on Italian cuisine. So, I kept returning to Puglia to discover new recipes and culinary secrets. And I wanted to share these extraordinary treasures with my friends and clients, so I started posting some of the recipes on my website and teaching them in my cooking classes. This motivated me to gather the recipes in an easy-to-use book that home cooks can use to create this wonderful cuisine
Do you have any particular favorite recipes from the book?
Tough question. Different recipes appeal to me for different moods and occasions. In the summer, I love to make the linguine with cherry tomatoes and capers: it’s quick, easy, and full of flavor. In the winter, lamb stew is the perfect comfort dish. And year-round, hand-made cavatelli with orecchiette always excites my taste buds and reminds me of why I fell in love with Puglia in the first place.
What is your own background as a cook and writer?
I have been a serious home cook for more than a decade now. I learned how to cook by reading recipes in magazines and cookbooks and trying them out. Once you start cooking at home and realize how great homemade food tastes, you want to keep learning more. After several years of teaching myself and taking classes at local cooking schools, I went to a professional cooking school in Italy for a summer. That experience taught me more technique and the culinary secrets of Italian cooks, and propelled me into the world of semi-professional cooking. After a second summer spent in Italy, at Apicius in Florence, I was on my way to creating new recipes and teaching others how to cook at home.
I have been writing for as long as I can remember, but learning about food and taking cooking classes made me realize that my writing skills combine very nicely with my cooking skills. So, I started writing about the recipes I was discovering and the people I was meeting in my culinary travels. My background in technical writing helps me write recipes that are simple, clear, and easy to use.
What are your opinions on the benefits of home cooking?
For me, home cooking is the best kind of cooking. There is no experience that even comes close to eating something you prepared yourself. It feeds your body and soul. Home cooking provides a great opportunity to gather friends and family and create memories. Cooking together and sharing food with loved ones are integral parts of our social and emotional lives.
Home cooking is also healthful: you can decide what ingredients you want to use and select the recipes accordingly. You can also regulate the amount of fat and salt you consume.
Finally, for me, home cooking is like meditation: it helps me relax and clear my mind. And knowing that I’ll enjoy something delicious at the end of the process is energizing and fulfilling.