Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thought for Food

In the highly readable and entertaining Delizia, John Dickie explodes the myth of good solid Italian country cuisine: the slow simmered sauce, the rustic bread sopping up extra extra virgin oil etc etc etc. All the clichés of Italian peasant cooking are paraded out and deflated.

And he also destroys the myth of the Italian momma slaving over a hot stove 24/7 - though he admits it still happens, more and more Italians turn to ready made or quick to prepare pre-packaged foods. Gone are the days when the lady of the household would spend an hour laboriously stirring stock into the rice spoonful by spoonful to turn out a creamy risotto. Perhaps for a special dinner yes but why would you spend that time when there are perfectly good prepackaged versions available for every day meals.

As an example the nice people at Gallo (since 1856) make several types of quick risotto that only take about 12 minutes to cook and they guarantee have less than 2% fat. One of those variaties - the Milanese, Shrimp or Asparagas are big favorites - appears on our dinner table at least once a week and is so good I've even served it - jazzed up - to company.

However, and you knew there had to be a however, even the prepackaged people take for granted that you must have watched your Nonni,Zie and Mama while they worked in the kitchen. The cooking instruction, though colourful, often lack the precision that we expect in North America. This is a direct translation from the box at the left:
Pour two glasses of cold water into a pan for every glass of rice.
Stir and bring to a boil.
When water has come to a boil cook for 12 minutes, stirring occasionally.
When the liquid has been completely absorbed, take off heat and stir in a string of olive oil or a nut of butter.
Add grated parmigiana to taste.
To the North American eye this is totally unacceptable. How much is a glass? What size glass? We have five or six types in the cupboard. A wine glass? A juice glass? What heat? High, low, medium? How much oil is a string? Are we talking rope? Yarn? Thread? And what type of nut? Peanut? Walnut? Hazelnut?

I've been assured that these are foolish and frivolous questions. A glass is a glass and a nut is a nut. Use your judgement - do it the way your Nonna did and if she didn't do it then make a few mistakes, clean a few pots with rice glued firmly to the bottom, waift the smell of burnt rice out of the kitchen with a towel, you'll catch on.

Oh and they give you suggestions on how to personalize it a bit too:
To finish it off just add:
Mixed mushrooms sauted in a pan with sliced onions
Strips of red pepper sauted in a pan
Pitted black olives and minced rosemary
In what quantities? Don't ask! Just do what your Nonna did!

29 luglio - Santa Marta di Betania

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Will said...

I was partially raised by a French Grandmere and ate often with a passel of Italian and/or French great aunts. The confines of a strict recipe were rejected by these women and I learned a huge amount from them. Each had HER way of doing a sauce or a risotto; like Chinese food or, to an extent I'm exploring now, Moroccan cuisine, their cooking was a flexible process, not a fixed set of ingredients. And therefore there was not one way of making gnocchi or braciole in Italy, or pot au feu in FRANCE but thousands of ways depending on region of origin, family tradition and the adventurousness of the cook.

This, I think, is perhaps the best way to cook, one that can deal with seasonal availabilities or situational problems in the food supply. Cooking is fun this way, a creative exercise in a way that simply following directions doesn't allow. My mother (from an English family in an era when English food was among the worst in the world) followed my Grandmere around once as she was cooking some of her specialties, armed with a pad and pencil. "How much? she'd ask. "You'll know," my grandmother assured her.

My mother never knew.

sageweb said...

I love the instructions..I could even follow those..although I would spend hours looking for Olive oil string in the store.

Anonymous said...

Boy can I relate Will!

But having tasted the asparagus risotto you mention, I can vouch for it being delicious.


Doralong said...

The directions make perfect sense to me actually- Humm, you'll have to send me a few boxes...


standing over the stove and cooking all day long is highly overrated...

AMOROMA said...

Rachel Ray is always cooking this way on her TV show in the States! Her cookbooks LIBERATED me in the kitchen!