Respect the Ingredients: Alida Solomon

Alida Solomon

When Chef Alida Solomon opened her award-winning restaurant Tutti Matti, in 2002, many Toronto diners expected the tomato-based pizzas and pastas they thought of as Italian. Instead, she serves seasonal Tuscan cuisine—simple, hearty dishes from central Italy. No pizza (it hails from Naples via New York), no chicken, and, except in late summer, no tomatoes.

You’re not Italian, although you worked in Tuscany for many years. How did you connect with the region and its food?

I first went to Italy when I was really young, with my closest friend. I became fascinated by the flavours of braising and stewing—slow, slow cooking—and I fell in love with the Tuscan philosophy of cooking. It’s not just the food that’s important, but the process of cooking and sitting down with family three times a day. And as a young Jewish girl growing up in Toronto, with all the traditions and holidays, I saw the relationship in my family between food and culture.

Why are seasonal ingredients important to you?

To cook based on tradition and flavour, you just have to stick to what’s in season. Nowadays, it’s easy to get whatever you want, whenever, but that doesn’t make it right and doesn’t make it taste good.

In late summer, Tuscans eat fish, barbecue, and what comes from the garden. Meats are cured in winter, but in summer, when it’s hot, you get to eat the prosciutto and salamis. One of my favourites then is a simple mix of watermelon, other melons, and proscuitto.

Even animals in Tuscany have a season. We serve game birds in the fall, when they’re hunted, with other fall foods, like chestnut and quince. In summer, what would I serve pheasant with? Eggplant?

This year, we’ve had amazing fruit, because it rained and then it got dry. Here in Canada, at the end of August, beginning of September we have everything, and it’s so much sweeter because it’s had so much sun. That’s the best time to be a chef. Unfortunately, that’s also when a lot of my regular customers are at the cottage.

You mentioned barbecue. What do Tuscans grill?

We do a lot of pork and a lot of steak. Ribs. And pork loin—arista—flavoured with orange and rosemary.

If cooking seasonally is easy now, is it difficult at other times?

I love squashes and cabbages, the winter vegetables, but our winters are so long. There’s a green, grassy flavour in cooking then, and we miss the sweetness of late summer. This year especially, to get from winter to spring was the longest six weeks of my life. It was spring everywhere else but here. I just so desperately wanted to stop cooking squash.

Italians pickle and jar everything; that’s how they can have tomato sauce in the winter. We only serve tomatoes in season, but we preserve cherries, fruit, lemons, and other stuff. In this building alone, we have two to three hundred jars in rotation at any time.

Have Canadians lost sight of when ingredients are in season?

If you only go to a basic grocery store, you would have no idea; there’s always an avocado, always a tomato. But as farmers’ markets become popular, people are noticing what’s out and when to look forward to, say, strawberries.

In Italy, it’s easier because grocery stores don’t even carry vegetables that are out of season, except maybe tomatoes. The colours you see in the grocery stores change through the year—in winter, Italian grocery stores are very green. Persimmons are about the only colourful fruit then.

What vegetables should home cooks try?

I love fresh-shucked peas. And nettles. Don’t be afraid of dandelion; it’s so versatile. Macerate some strawberries in red wine vinegar to get a bit of that sweetness, add olive oil, and toss with raw dandelion. In summer, you could pair dandelion with peaches and ricotta. Or sauté fresh chile and garlic with dandelion. Like radicchio, cooked dandelion loses a lot of its bitterness.

You need so much less to make good food: a great olive oil, a really good vinegar, and a few other things. You don’t need a cupboard full of crap.

Tuscan cuisine, and other regional styles, often developed because they were somewhat isolated. Can new regional cuisines develop in the modern world? Or do good ideas in cooking now just spread instantly everywhere?

That’s a great question. If a new regional style comes from anywhere, Canada is a good place for it, because we have allowed people to maintain identity and culture within a Canadian context. Susur Lee is a perfect example of this: he uses Canadian ingredients to create Asian food, and he’s done it really well. It is hard to do. Many chefs screw it up, because they try to take things from everywhere without having a foundation in anything specific. You become a much more solid chef if you have a base; from there, you can create your own identity. You can do that in Canada.

How do you relax?

Next weekend we’re going to the cottage and I’ll just cook, for four days. It surprises people, but chefs actually enjoy cooking. I like to cook alone. It’s therapy.