There is something awfully meta about cookbooks from “urban rustic” restaurants. They’re books about food that the authors often first learned about in other books.
That doesn’t mean they’re not good, but that they need to be approached from a certain angle. Restaurant chefs may have similar goals to Italian mamas, but they often use different methods. It’s amazing how much technique can go into making a dish that almost exactly resembles what someone ate in a little farmhouse somewhere.
“Franny’s”, the cookbook from the folks who founded the eponymous Brooklyn pizzeria cum restaurant and the Bklyn Larder food shop that followed it, is a case in point. It’s written by owners Andrew Feinberg and Francine Stephens with the help of peripatetic New York Times food columnist/cookbook ghost Melissa Clark (everyone from Paula Deen to Daniel Boulud).
It’s full of seemingly simple, big-flavored dishes you will want to make at home. But read closely and there’s often an unexpected twist. Generally, these are most successful when they hew most closely to the way a home cook (as opposed to a restaurant chef) might actually think.
A perfect example of where this works is the delicious zucchini soup. The first trick is that the 1-inch sections of zucchini are browned on one side only – that gives real depth to the flavor, without obscuring the pure taste of the vegetable that comes from the raw side.
Then the zucchini is simmered in water, not stock – again, a traditional Italian technique for letting simple flavors shine, rather than building layer upon layer of complexity as you would get if you used a more assertive broth.
When it comes to the more chef-fy stuff, sometimes it seems well thought-out: He’s particular about what kind of bread pairs with what style of crostini topping, and about how thickly purees should be spread so as not to overwhelm the other ingredients.
But sometimes it seems just a little much, though I’m sure somewhere there is someone who will make the pork cheek and beef tongue terrine, which begins “Check your pig’s head: it should be fairly clean, but if there is a lot of residual hair, use a disposable razor to shave it.” Besides the razor, it also calls for a brining needle to inject the head, shanks and tongue for marinating.
There is also an annoying tendency on the part of the authors toward self-congratulation. It’s a given in cookbook writing that you want to make the dishes sound as delicious as possible, but it seems a bit heavy-handed when it carries over into the chapter material, and when the book is punctuated with brief quizzes of staff members asking them repeatedly things like “Has your relationship to pizza changed since you started working at Franny’s” (you may not be surprised to learn they all answered ‘yes!’).
Zucchini soup with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Basil
(This recipe was not tested in the Times Test Kitchen).
Serves 4 to 6
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
8 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 8 cups)
1 cup finely chopped Spanish onion
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions
1/2 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
3/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper, plus more to taste
2 cups water
2 tablespoons chopped basil, plus torn leaves for garnish
Finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
In a Dutch oven, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil over high heat. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pot, cook the zucchini on one cut side until golden and caramelized. As soon as the squash has browned on one side, transfer to a large plate.
Add the remaining 6 tablespoons olive oil to the pot. Add the onion, scallions, parsley and garlic and season with 1/4 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper. Cover and cook over medium heat until the vegetables become soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.
Return the zucchini to the pot and season with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir in the water. The water will not completely cover the squash. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low, taste for seasoning, and add salt if needed. Cover the pot and simmer until the squash is soft but not falling apart, about 20 minutes. Stir in the basil.
Use an immersion blender to puree the soup, but leave some texture; it should not be completely smooth. Lingering morsels of zucchini are welcome. Or transfer three-quarters of the soup to a food processor and pulse to a coarse puree, then stir back into the pot. Adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with torn basil leaves, cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.