It’s taken me a while to get the hang of Italian recipes even though I’ve been cooking for – I don’t even want to tell you how many years. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that Italians must have an extra gene, a special cucina gene that I am missing. The recipes call for a lot of food knowledge and in typical Italian fashion they can be extremely detailed and deliberately vague at the same time.
I’m finally comfortable buying by the etto, gram and kilo, but there are other measurements based on things like wine glasses and desert spoons that I still don’t get. When a recipe calls for a wine glass of heavy cream do they mean a wine glass like my cousin Jimmy uses which is about the size of a Slurpy cup, or a wine glass like my Aunt Louise uses, which is more like a thimble?
Just as I sat mesmerized by Julia Childs back in the 70’s, watching her fumble through dishes I still can’t pronounce, I now sit mesmerized by a group of young Italian chefs on cable TV. Like Julia Childs, they tend to stick to traditional recipes, and make them pretty much the same way their mothers and grandmothers do.
My current favorite is Mario Bacherini. The thing I like about him is that he always gives you a little background on the origin of the recipe. And he explains things. For example I’ve learned that a pizzico of salt is the amount you can pick up with two fingers. But if a recipe calls for una presa of salt, that is the amount you can pick up with four fingers.
The abbreviations are another story. My personal favorite is q.b. quanto basta, or to taste. Lots of ingredients are q.b. but don’t fall into the trap of thinking Italians are lackadaisical about these things because that kind of thinking will get you into trouble.
I have given sets of American measuring cups to some of my Italian friends who love American cookies, especially Brownies, and want to make them at home. They think the cups are cute but totally useless. They translate my recipes into grams and liters and all the rest and make whatever changes they think are necessary. Then they bake them in an oven heated to 175 degrees Celsius and yum, real American cookies. They want my recipe for pie crust too but there is nothing here that even comes close to Crisco and I’m not parting with even one pizzico of my coveted supply.
I once made the mistake of buying an Italian cookbook that had been translated into British English. Some of the ingredients called for in the recipes were: caster sugar, bunches of aromas, lacetto and matured cottage cheese. I finally figured out that caster sugar is just British English for regular white sugar and bunches of aromas are bouquet garni, but I confess I still don’t have a clue what lacetto or matured cottage cheese is.
One recipe in the book called for 400 grams of cuttlefish and a few ink sacks. I guess they sell ink sacks at some fish stores but not at my fish store. Maybe it’s a special order. And then there was the recipe that started with: pluck and clean the pheasant. Remove the head, feet and giblets and singe the bird. Then cut it into four parts. This is scary stuff to me. We may speak the same language but we were starting from two completely different points of view.
But in the end, thanks to Mario, I’ve learned that even the most complicated dishes are really not difficult, they just sound that way. And as for the measurements, well you know what they say: when in Rome do as the Romans do, or in my case, I do whatever Mario does.
Photos:(1) Mario Bacherini:(2,3,)Learning to cook step by step: (4)Chef Mariangela Susigan, Michelin star chef of Gardenia Restaurant, Caluso (TO).