Thou shalt eat well

For this spe­cial is­sue of Cook, ded­i­cated to the food of Italy, Bri­tain’s doyenne of Ital­ian cook­ery sim­pli­fies the cui­sine into 10 com­mand­ments, priz­ing good in­gre­di­ents, sub­tlety, and giv­ing taste god-like sta­tus ...

The Guardian - Cook - - The Italian Special - Anna Del Conte

Ital­ian food re­lies on the key in­gre­di­ent. To em­u­late an Ital­ian in the kitchen, you need to pri­ori­tise flavour

When I was asked to write The 10 Com­mand­ments For Mak­ing Good Ital­ian Food, I felt God had an eas­ier job to do. What, in­deed, are they? And how to de­fine them? Are they so im­por­tant as to be termed “com­mand­ments”? Af­ter think­ing – and munch­ing – it over for a few days, I de­cided on the fol­low­ing 10 rules for cook­ing food

all’Ital­iana. You will not, how­ever, go to hell if you do not fol­low them, nor to heaven if you do – though the re­sult of your ef­forts may send you there, granted. Here they are: not on two tablets, but just a piece of news­pa­per:

1Buy the best in­gre­di­ents

Ital­ian food is rel­a­tively sim­ple; its suc­cess is based mainly on the flavour of the key in­gre­di­ent, so this must be the high­est qual­ity. The Ital­ians spend far more on food than the Bri­tish. Ac­cord­ing to a 2008 Washington State Univer­sity sur­vey, the Ital­ians spend $5,200 (£3,600) per per­son per year on food, while the Bri­tish spend $3,700 (£2,600) – lower than the Ger­mans, French, Spa­niards and most other Euro­peans. To em­u­late an Ital­ian in the kitchen, you need to pri­ori­tise flavour.

2Use the right pan

What dif­fer­ence could a pan make to the fi­nal re­sult? Well, a risotto made in a paella pan would never have the soft gluey qual­ity of a good risotto. A saute pan, be­cause of its depth and curved sides, is bet­ter for brais­ing meat or veg­eta­bles than a fry­ing pan. Pasta should be cooked in a cylin­dri­cal pot so the wa­ter re­turns to the boil more quickly once you have added the pasta, pre­vent­ing the shapes from stick­ing to­gether. Ragu, stews and pulses are cooked in pots made of earth­en­ware, the best ma­te­rial for slow cook­ing, be­cause it dis­trib­utes the heat evenly.

3Sea­son dur­ing cook­ing

Pep­per is not used a lot in tra­di­tional Ital­ian cook­ing, but, when it is, it’s usu­ally added dur­ing – not af­ter – cook­ing. Salt, al­ways sea salt, is added as a dish cooks, usu­ally at the be­gin­ning, so it dis­solves prop­erly, which means less call for serv­ing salt.

4Use herbs and spices sub­tly

Both are added to en­hance the flavour of the main in­gre­di­ent, not to dis­tract from it. Pellegrino Ar­tusi, one of the great cook­ery writ­ers, wrote that flavour­ings should not be de­tected; they should only be a gen­tle foil. Chilli, nowa­days the most pop­u­lar, was once used only used in Cal­abria and the prov­ince of Siena. It is added in mod­er­a­tion mainly to shell­fish and some tomato sauces. Nut­meg is of­ten added to mashed pota­toes and meat­balls; cin­na­mon to braised meat, cus­tard and cakes, and cloves al­ways go into stock, chick­peas and game. Flat-leaf pars­ley, rose­mary, sage and basil are in­vari­ably used fresh, but oregano is al­ways used dried.

5Make a good bat­tuto

A bat­tuto is a mix­ture of very finely chopped in­gre­di­ents, and varies ac­cord­ing to their use. The most com­mon bat­tuto is onion, car­rot and celery, which is the ba­sis of the sof­fritto (see Com­mand­ment 6), but there are bat­tuti of other in­gre­di­ents, too. Some bat­tuti are used a crudo, which means that they are added to the main dish with­out be­ing cooked be­fore. The most com­mon of th­ese is that of pars­ley, gar­lic, ca­pers or olives and a touch of chilli; it is used for dress­ing cooked veg­eta­bles, such as cau­li­flower, on boiled fish or with boiled meat, tongue or ham. Tra­di­tion­ally, onion and gar­lic are never present in the same bat­tuto.

6Keep an eye on your sof­fritto

A sof­fritto is a cooked bat­tuto, mostly a mix­ture of pancetta or lardo and veg­eta­bles. It is a vi­tal part of many Ital­ian dishes. A sof­fritto must be watched and stirred with care while it is cook­ing. Two min­utes longer watch­ing the telly and your sof­fritto be­comes a burnt mess. I al­ways add a pinch of salt when I saute the onion (usu­ally the first in­gre­di­ent to go into the pan), be­cause the salt re­leases the liq­uid in the onion, thus pre­vent­ing it from burn­ing.

7Use the right amount of sauce

The Ital­ians like to eat pasta dressed with sauce – not sauce dressed with pasta. The usual amount of sauce added to a por­tion of pasta is two full ta­ble­spoons, so the amount of ragu nec­es­sary for dress­ing about 500g of pasta is made with 400g of meat, plus the pancetta, all the veg­eta­bles for the

sof­fritto and the toma­toes. A tomato sauce for 400-500g of spaghetti is made with 1kg of fresh toma­toes or with two tins of plum toma­toes.

8Taste while you cook

Food in Italy is mostly cooked di­rectly on the heat and not in the oven. The food in the pot is nur­tured all through the cook­ing: a spoon­ful of wa­ter or wine may be added, a pinch of salt, a grind­ing of pep­per, a touch more of chilli, a tea­spoon of sugar, a drop or two of lemon juice or vine­gar may all go in the pot. The cook is per­pet­u­ally tast­ing and ad­just­ing. The fi­nal re­sult is a labour of pa­tience and love.

9Serve pasta and risotto alone

I shall al­ways re­mem­ber a lunch at our house when my hus­band, a very re­served English man, cat­e­gor­i­cally re­sponded to one of my cook­ery col­leagues who asked for the salad with her penne: “No, I am sorry, you are in an Ital­ian home and you can’t have salad with pasta.” That’s it. Nei­ther pasta nor risotto are ever served with salad, veg­eta­bles, meat or fish or any­thing. Only one pasta dish and two risotti are tra­di­tion­ally ac­com­pa­nied by meat: Carne alla

Gen­ovese – a braised beef dish al­legedly brought to Naples by the Gen­ovese mer­chants, served with penne;

Os­sobuco alla Mi­lanese – the tra­di­tional os­sobuco with­out toma­toes served with saf­fron risotto; and Cos­to­lette del

Pri­ore – breaded veal chops in a cheese sauce, served with risotto in bianco (plain risotto).

10Don’t overdo the parme­san

There may be a bowl of grated parmi­giano reg­giano on the ta­ble when pasta or risotto are served, but the usual amount added is not more than 1-2 tea­spoons, so as not to over­power the flavour of the main dish. It should be grated, not flaked; ex­cept on spe­cial sal­ads, such as those with fen­nel or ar­ti­choke. The cheese must dis­solve, im­part­ing an over­all flavour like a sea­son­ing. Parme­san is not added to fish or seafood risotto, apart from some va­ri­eties with prawns.

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