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FOOD : Remembrance of Things Pasta : Cookbook Writer Elisa Celli Knows What Makes Good--and Bad--Italian Food

November 22, 1987|BETSY BALSLEY | Betsy Balsley is The Times' food editor.

ITALIAN-BORNELISA Celli is one of those rare, multi-talented people whose boundless energy allows them to develop careers in several fields. She is an actress, a writer and a slim (size 6), superb cook. Author of five books on Italian cooking, including the popular "The Pasta Diet," Celli has recently published "Italian Light Cooking" ($19.95, Prentice-Hall Inc.), her latest effort for those who love good Italian food.

A master of the finer points of classic Italian cookery, Celli has no hesitancy about criticizing what often passes for Italian food in this country. Pasta made with refined white flour rather than the preferred durum semolina wheat is a pet peeve. "It is a refined carbohydrate, high in calories and low in nutrients, and has a starchy, mushy texture," she says in her latest book. "Adulterated Italian food, as served in some 'Italian' restaurants, means heavy, saturated oils, white-flour pastas, thick cream-and-butter sauces and many other inferior ingredients that amount to nothing but ersatz tastes and extra calories."

She prefers what she calls "green" olive oil, meaning the extra-virgin first cold pressing of high-quality olives from Lucca in the Tuscany region of Italy. And she likes to add a bit of bite to her foods with Italian-style crushed red-pepper flakes, which she considers milder and slightly sweeter than the usual American-style hot red-chile flakes found in the spice sections of most supermarkets in this country. "Most classic Italian sauces are made with a dash of green olive oil, cooked onions, garlic, fresh or dried herbs, a clever combination of spices and little or no salt (with the herbs and spices you'll never miss the taste of salt)," she says in the book.

A number of the recipes in "Italian Light Cooking" have a relatively high calorie count, but Celli points out that this is not a diet book. There are, however, numerous suggestions that dieters could enjoy, since Celli eliminates rich and heavy cream sauces or reduces their caloric content, relying on fresh produce to provide the flavor in many dishes.

One nice addition to the recipes: Each is clearly marked with the number of servings it makes, the time involved in preparation and the number of calories per serving. To show the wonderful flexibility of Italian cooking, Celli offers variation suggestions with most of the recipes. If there is an ingredient that has little appeal to you, it's likely that an acceptable substitute will be listed.

When Celli is not writing cookbooks, she keeps busy working on her upcoming food-oriented television series, "Tastemakers," scheduled to appear on Channel 11 beginning next January. She is also preparing for a role in the new miniseries, "Hitler's King," the story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, starring Michael York.

The following recipes are from Celli's latest book.

GIUSEPPE'S PASTA SICILIA

1 pound penne, rigatoni, rotini or fusilli, cooked and drained

cup green olive oil

2 cups chopped onion

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 pounds broccoli florets, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 tablespoon Italian herb seasoning

1/2 to 1 teaspoon (or to taste) crushed dried red pepper flakes

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped, or 2 (28-ounce) cans Italian plum tomatoes, crushed

1 cup raisins

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 cups chopped Italian parsley

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions just to al dente stage. In large, heavy skillet combine olive oil, onion, garlic, broccoli, Italian herb seasoning and red pepper flakes. Cover and cook 8 minutes. Add tomatoes. Simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally . Add raisins, pine nuts and parsley. Cook 5 minutes longer.

Place drained pasta in large pan or pasta bowl. Pour sauce over pasta in small amounts. Toss thoroughly until all the sauce has been used in the pasta. Add Parmesan cheese and mix thoroughly. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.

Note: If substituting the spicier American-style crushed red chiles for the sweeter Italian crushed red pepper, add the chiles sparingly to taste.

Variations: Use colored rotini only, or use only small penne; use 2 cups chopped sweet red peppers instead of the tomatoes.

PASTA ALL' AGLIO ALLA SINATRA

(Garlic, Cheese, Oil, and Hot Pepper Sauce)

1 pound thin spaghetti

4 cloves garlic, crushed

teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3 tablespoons green olive oil

1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions just to al dente stage. In a large skillet, saute garlic and hot chile flakes in oil 2 to 3 minutes. Drain pasta well and add to skillet. Toss with oil; add parsley and cheese, mixing well. Heat for 1 minute. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Variations: Adjust the amount of garlic and hot pepper flakes to taste; add 1 cup chopped and lightly sauteed onions.

Styled by Norman Stewart/Roses courtesy Milo Bixby, San Marino

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