Monday, 9 July 2012

The Economics of Italian Cooking

Indulge in Food Archaeology and Dig Up Some Money-Saving Tips From The Past

All over Italy there are different traditions but all have one thing in common: seasonality, using all kinds of ingredients and local produce. In the UK we moved a long way from this trinity and our reliance on expensive, pre-cooked, pre-packaged food has led to our shopping bills growing exponentially.

With increased pressure on household budgets people are rethinking how to feed themselves and their families in a nutritious and tasty manner without spending excessively. Reining in food expenditure definitely doesn’t mean cutting back on taste, variety and health. I would like to suggest a little more effort might actually result in far better home cooked meals. With a little forward planning, preparation and inspiration from one of the finest peasant cuisine traditions in the world, weekday meals might be transformed into banquets. Certainly visitors to our Italian cooking courses have gone away with skill and knowledge they all say has transformed their approach to food in general.

Typically, in the past it was the women who made decisions about food and they became experts in making the very best use of everything available; innovative application of wheat, olive oil and eggs, as basic examples have inspired legends.

If we are going to tighten our belts in these economically straightened times we should learn from these experts. Old bread becomes breadcrumbs, cheap cuts of meat are used for Polpetonne, potatoes are the staple ingredient for soup and even the humble tomatoes can be transformed into an unctuous sauce with some home grown basil and the best olive oil your budget will allow. Polenta and Focaccia can all form the economic basis of something delicious. What is missing in terms of expense and instant pre-packaged, short-lived gratification is compensated for by zing and taste and I know which I would rather have.

I suppose we have to reinvent our passion for both food and ingredients while re-acquainting ourselves with knowledge which was in danger of being lost. What is required is a little time and love of what we are producing, buying and ultimately preparing and eating. For example making soups with cabbage, beans and cheese ends up being so hearty it is impossible to want anything more than a piece of fruit and you are likely to have enough left over for lunch the following day. If anything, soups and stews often improve with an additional marinade post cooking. They have always been an economic way to feed a family and have the added benefit of being such a social and easy food should you wish to sprinkle a few guests around the table.

Pasta e Fagioli is another hearty dish which can become as smooth and oleaginous or soup-like according to your taste, but basically you are looking at a traditional combination of beans and pasta cooked with the onion, garlic, herbs and stock. You can add pancetta or even toasted bread with Fontina cheese on top if the mood takes. Yet, rest assured this wonderfully filling dish will be far more satisfying than anything that emanates from a packet and will cost a fraction of the price.

What we should also do is make friends with our butchers once more, find out what the cheap cuts are and ask for inspiration if you don’t know how to use them. The Italian butcher and media star, Dario Cecchini would say that we have been wasting money for years buying expensive but tasteless meat like chicken breast and fillet of beef. He likes to promote the unusual cuts and suggests a delicacy such as Polpettone which is a Tuscan version of meatloaf. Flavours’ cooking scholars, while in Tuscany, all try to make the pilgrimage to his shop which is such a magnetic draw and usually takes a minimum of half an hour to be served amidst opera and string quartets.

So, the very best beef to use for this dish? Well, it’s is shin or shank and your butcher will need to prepare this for you, nothing fancy but oh so delicious. The recipe is simple too. Mix ground beef, red onion, egg, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper together in a bowl and form into a large ball then coat it in breadcrumbs. Transfer to a roasting dish and cook for 15 minutes at 425 then another hour at 375

You see, come home, open a glass of Italian wine, prepare the dish, clear up whilst it does its first quarter of an hour in the oven, turn down the heat and soak in a bath for an hour.

With a little thought we can build slow food, peasant food back into our way of life. We should embrace this shift from consumerism, fast food, convenience and think about why we eat. The Italians have always known why, how and when; if you make your own lasagna with nutmeg in the B├ęchamel sauce, fresh Mozzarella and shin beef you will never return to a pre-cooked version.

Take a leaf from the Italians, whether it’s basil or parsley and embrace the food that has persisted all over Italy and if you’re really serious you might want to book a week’s cooking holiday in Umbria or Tuscany and bring your new-found skills back home.

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