01 August 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: The Joy of Cooking Italian Redux

CHIAVARI,  Italy - 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. Italian 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.
 Nadia Santini, Chef Dal Pescatore, Rome - 2013 Veuve Clicquot World's Best Female Chef

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?  When I asked my Italian friends just how much cream is in a wine glass, they just shrug their shoulders and do that thing with their chin that means the question is too stupid to answer.

Just as I sat mesmerized by Julia Child 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 Child, they tend to stick to traditional recipes, and make them pretty much the same way their mothers and grandmothers always did. No point in arguing with success, is there.
Chef Mario Bacherini, Alice TV 
My current favorite is Mario Bacherini. The thing I like about Mario 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 una presa of salt 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.
 Chef Stefano Visini, Visini Restaurant and Catering, Como, Italy
I have given American measuring cups to some of my Italian friends who want to cook American. They love American food they tell me, especially brownies.  They take the cups and think they are cute but totally useless. Then they translate my recipes into grams and liters and all the rest and make whatever changes they think are necessary, heat their ovens to 175 degrees Celsius and bake the beejeebers out of the brownies.  Then they sit around and try to figure out why their brownies don’t taste like my brownies.  Now they want my recipe for pie crust but there is nothing here that even comes close to Crisco and I’m not parting with even one pizzico of my coveted supply.

Sometimes you find challenges in unexpected place like the time I 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 super-fine 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.
Italian Street Food Guru, Chef Rubio aka Gabriele Rubini
It didn’t take long to figure out that British cooks are much more adventuresome than I am. One recipe in the book called for 400 grams of cuttlefish and a few ink sacks. Cuttlefish we have in abbondanza, ink sacks are another story. 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 competence.

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 just do whatever Mario does. 

P.S. Thanks to cookbook author Pamela Sheldon Johns for picking up my Julia Child error - you'll notice I deleted the final 's' that someone added to Ms. Child's last name. I'll tell you who as soon as I can think of someone, other than myself, to blame. And a big thanks to Eddie Smith and Linda Love for giving me the skinny on British sugar categories. Castor sugar is not regular sugar, but super fine sugar, and yes, there is a difference. Thanks to you all for keeping me on my toes.

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