When Mary Ann Esposito’s husband Guy figured out how to grow artichokes in their New Hampshire home despite the short growing season, it was the best gift he could give her.
“It was better than getting a diamond ring,” says the popular chef and TV host, whose 14th birthday Ciao Italia: plant, harvest, cook!is a tribute to New England farm-to-table in its most original form – the home garden.
The book should be especially appreciated here on the North Shore, as Esposito talks at length about her New Hampshire garden and offers advice on seasonal eating with a focus on New England’s challenging growing season. But really, with captivating stories and accessible recipes, the book is for anyone who dreams of enjoying homegrown food.
To celebrate the new book and the chef who at 30 has the longest running cooking show on television, Davio’s Lynnfield is hosting a cookbook dinner on November 30th. The five-course menu includes dishes inspired by recipes from Chef Mary Ann’s latest book, such as:
north shore chatted with Esposito about cooking, book signing at Kane’s Donuts and of course gardening.
What was the inspiration for this book?
I make no bones about it in this book—everything I know about gardening I learned from my husband, Guy. Yes, I got a glimpse of what growing vegetables was from my parents, but not to the degree that I got when I married Guy. He had a garden when he was in med school and then we got married and had our first child and every year the garden got bigger and bigger and bigger and now it’s 30 feet by 60 feet. We grow enough vegetables to not only feed ourselves, we freeze them, dry them and give them away.
Do you have childhood memories of gardening?
Yes. We have never done anything small. That’s how Italians think – it’s in their DNA. Everything has to be abbondanza – like a Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone else has a turkey. What do Italians do? They have turkey, they have lasagna, they have roast beef.
And so it was with my father and his tomato garden. He always thought big. He planted over 100 tomato plants. Now imagine what just a few plants will bring, right? [So at age 16] I say to him: ‘Dad, why do we need 100 tomato plants?’ Well, we gotta give Aunt Jenny a bushel. And then Martha needs hers. There’s Aunt Nancy and Uncle Gus.
Now, of course, I do the same. I don’t plant 100 plants… but we planted 70.
It’s early November. What is happening in your garden right now?
We have kale, Swiss chard and about 90 lettuce plants – different varieties that we planted before we went to Italy in early autumn. Because as I tell you in the book, lettuce is one of Guy’s favorite crops. We usually plant twice because lettuce is a cool weather crop – one in spring and then you can plant again in September when the days get a little cooler. We should have lettuce well into the first week of December if the weather holds.
Is there something you’d like to grow that just doesn’t work here in the Northeast?
My sister lives in Henderson, Nevada and she tells me about her beautiful pomegranate trees. I am so jealous because every time I travel to Italy I admire the pomegranate tree so much, I love pomegranates and this year they are terribly expensive – around 5 dollars.
You have quite a busy schedule with the book release. How do you promote it?
I’ve done a lot of podcasts. You can do this from the comfort of your home or your home office or wherever, so I’ve done them in New York City, in Kansas City, in Florida, and more to come. I also do a lot of book signings in New England at local bookstores. I like independent bookstores because they put you in the spotlight.
But I’m telling you, the most successful book signing I’ve ever had was at Kane’s donut shop in Saugus. At 7 a.m. I think we’re talking to 250 people in an hour because people would come in to get their coffee and their donut and then I was there.
At book nights like this month’s Davio’s event, do you decide what’s served?
no I can write a menu if you ask me, but usually they go through the book and choose a menu that their staff is prepared for.
Will you be in the kitchen looking over their shoulders?
I don’t like doing this because I feel it takes away the confidence of the chef. If I went into the kitchen it would be just to say hello or taste something or see the plate and that’s it. I trust Davio because I know Steve [DiFillippio, owner]. I’ve even had him on my show before, so I know they’ll do a good job.
How’s Thanksgiving at your house?
I’m really tired right now because I called three butcher shops and asked them if they had capon. I can’t get a capon and I don’t know what to do. Because we don’t eat turkey. This is not an Italian holiday [but] I make it an Italian holiday because for Italians, capon is much better than turkey. We inject it and grill it on the grill and then fold it back up.
I just made the cakes. Apple Cranberry Fig Cake is in the freezer and I made the shells for the pumpkin pie and the chocolate cake. Tomorrow I’m going to make the cranberry sauce.
If you’ve made turkey, you should make my Rolled Stuffed Turkey Breast, which you can find on my website. It’s an absolutely wonderful thing to do on Thanksgiving. You’re not fighting bones and wondering when it’s gonna be done and all that stuff.
Ciao Italia Season 30 was filmed at the La Scoula Culinaria cooking school in the Tuscan market of Salem. Will you be filming another season there?
We have to get enough sponsors so that we can do this in the cooking school. So if you know someone who would like to be a sponsor of this show this season, let me know.
Dinner at Davio’s Lynnfield is Wednesday, November 30th at 6:30pm, $150 per guest, including an autographed copy of Mary Ann’s latest book (excluding tax and tip). Pair dinner with wines for $200 per guest. For tickets visit davios.com/lynnfield