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WomanOf the Month 6-04: Italian American Cooking Expert Eleanora Scarpetta

Whether she###s hand-selecting tomatoes for canning, planning a sumptuous Italian dinner for friends or concocting a new recipe using fresh herbs from her garden, Eleanora Scarpetta is by her own admission happiest in her kitchen. "I love making beautiful meals," she says. "I get a huge excitement from cooking. I grew up on traditional Italian food every day, and knowing nothing else, it###s in my blood." The author of Eleanora###s Kitchen, a new collection of (what else?) Italian-American recipes (Broadway Books; 2004; $29.95; Hardcover), Scarpetta was a regular guest on Martha Stewart Living and was under contract with Al Roker on the Food Network. She has led viewers on culinary marketing expeditions along Arthur Avenue in The Bronx###s Little Italy, where she grew up, and has demonstrated her passion and skill for everything from canning tomatoes to new twists on chicken cacciatore and eggplant parmigiana.

Scarpetta learned to cook at her mother###s side, but Eleanora###s interest in food led her beyond traditional Italian recipes to creative uses of ingredients and seasonings. "We didn###t have cookbooks in our house," recalls Scarpetta. "I thought all women knew how to cook-like getting dressed in the morning. I thought the whole world was eating Italian food!"

Working as a legal secretary before she got married, Scarpetta typed up recipes during her lunch hours. "I looked back at some of those index cards recently and had to laugh, realizing I had written them half in Neapolitan, half in English! But that###s what I loved to do." She always enjoyed entertaining at home and cooking for friends, typing up a menu of what she planned to serve.

When she and her husband started a family and moved out to Connecticut, Scarpetta found it lonely and quiet compared with her old neighborhood and began to devote even more time to cooking. "I###d put jazz music on, make big dinners, and do my canning. Pretty soon my neighbor started noticing and asked if I minded if she watched my canning method. Then she suggested I write a letter to Martha Stewart about my canning techniques."

The crew from Martha Stewart came out to interview Scarpetta, and they were duly impressed. She displayed her canning stock: about 300 jars of tomatoes, in addition to marinated eggplant, artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, sun dried and pickled tomatoes, caponatina (a tomato, celery, olive, and caper sauce to use as a side dish or spread), dried herbs, homemade liquors such as limoncello, and more. After she had appeared as a regular guest on the show, Stewart suggested she write a cookbook. "That gave me the confidence I needed," says Scarpetta.

While buying bushels of tender eggplants and ripe tomatoes in the late summer in preparation for a canning fest may not be realistic for many people, Scarpetta points out that it saves cooking time through the fall, winter and spring. "I don###t do cooking unless I know I can perfect it or make it better than in the store," she says. "My canned tomatoes are much better. Artichoke hearts are better. Marinated eggplants are better-it###s a labor of love. In the winter, I can fix braised pork chops, get my artichokes and peppers from the basement and I###m all set-how beautiful is that? I can have homemade pureed tomatoes cooking on the stove with fresh basil from my garden. When I open my jar, I smell the summer. That###s where it###s worth it. I can make a beautiful sauce in a little over an hour. Or, for example, an olive pesto sauce. I cure my own olives. Take pecorino-romano, parmigiano cheeses, some roasted pine nuts, garlic, basil, olive oil, and boom-there###s your pesto!"

For more information about Eleanora###s books, recipes, and more, go to www.Eleanoraskitchen.com.