I spend more time than I should looking for and reading news articles about cooking. A few days ago I found a provocative (to me, at least) news item in the online edition of The Guardian, a British daily newspaper. The article is entitled “Ten Commandments of Italian Cooking.” It was written by Anna Del Conte, who is described in the posting as “Britain’s doyenne of Italian cookery.”
First, I had never heard of Ms. Conte; and second, I had no idea what a doyenne is. In reverse order, a doyenne is “a woman who is the most respected or prominent person in a particular field” and Anna Del Conte is an award-winning author of seven Italian cookbooks and the “first cookery writer in England to specialize in Italian food.” So, now I’m hooked and ready to learn the ten “secrets” to mastering Italian cooking – or more frightening, learning what I have been doing wrong for seven decades!
Duck Ragu with Porcini Mushrooms served over freshly made Gnocchi.
Ready? OK! Here we go. Author Conte’s Ten Commandments are:
I. Buy the best ingredients. I absolutely agree. I was fascinated to learn that “according to a 2008 Washington State University survey, the Italians spend $5,200 per person per year on food, while the British spend $3,700 – lower than the Germans, French, Spaniards and most other Europeans. To emulate an Italian in the kitchen, you need to prioritise flavour.” I was unable to find this particular report, but another 2008 WSU study reported Italians spend 14.4% of their annual income on food, more than any other European country except Portugal, and over twice what Americans spend (6.8%). [Score: 10/10]
II. Use the right pan. OK, but that’s not only obvious, it’s certainly not unique to Italian cooking. [Score: 6/10]
III. Season during cooking. Yes, absolutely. I presented the same argument in my blog on the proper way to cook pasta – Preparing Perfect Pasta! Again, though, probably not unique to Italian cooking. [Score: 9/10]
IV. Use herbs and spices subtly. “Both are added to enhance the flavour of the main ingredient, not to distract from it. Flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, sage and basil are invariably used fresh, but oregano is always used dried.” I couldn’t agree more. [Score: 10/10]
V. Make a good battuto. Battuto is another new term for me. Fortunately, Ms. Conte explains that it “is a mixture of very finely chopped ingredients, and varies according to their use.” She mentions two common battuti: onion, carrot and celery; and parsley, garlic, and capers or olives. Apparently, they can be prepared hot or cold, and typically are served with vegetables, meats, and fish. It all sounds interesting and tasty, but I have never seen a recipe calling for a battuto. If I find one, I will certainly let you know. Perhaps more importantly, if you have one, you can let me know! [Score: 4/10]
VI. Keep an eye on your soffritto. Soffritto is not a new term to me, but I didn’t know it “is a cooked battuto”, and I wouldn’t think of taking my eyes off of it while it’s cooking – even in the midst of a terramoto (earthquake). Seriously, I’ve been sautéing onions, carrots, and celery for years (while doing several other things I hasten to add) and have never burned a batch! [Score: 7/10]
VII. Use the right amount of sauce. “Italians like to eat pasta dressed with sauce – not sauce dressed with pasta.” While this is generally true, and the way pasta typically is served in Italy, most Italians will enjoy their pasta and sauce the way their grandmothers prepared it. Mine, for example, dressed her sauce with pasta! [Score: 8/10]
VIII. Taste while you cook. “Food in Italy is mostly cooked directly on the heat and not in the oven. The cook is perpetually tasting and adjusting.” I’m not sure what to think about this one. Tasting and adjusting is important regardless of where the food is – and “perpetually” is a very long time!! [Score: 7/10]
IX. Serve pasta and risotto alone. It’s not just the pasta and risotto; it’s all courses – as I explained in a blog about Italian feasts – Dinner Italian Style. [Score: 9/10]
X. Don’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. Parmesan is not added to fish or seafood risotto, apart from some varieties with prawns.” Most importantly here, parmesan is not another name for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese – regardless of what you might read in many recipes. Except that both are made from cow’s milk, they are otherwise completely different cheeses – and hardly comparable. (The word Parmesan actually is prohibited in the European Union.) Furthermore, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is seldom used (by Italians) with pasta served with a tomato sauce. [Score: 4/10]
So while I give great credit to Ms. Conte for her very clever article – it did, after all, prompt me to promote it via this blog – I can only give her a final score of 74 out of a possible 100. And that’s without any deductions for failing to mention Italian wine, Italian bread, Prosciutto di Parma, extra virgin olive oil, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, and the importance of adding salt to the pasta water! We all know they are keys to Italian cooking, too. Right? Right!
[Note: all words and phrases in quotes above are taken verbatim from Ms. Conte’s online article.]
P.S. I can’t conclude without mentioning at least one new recipe. This one is a ragu prepared with duck legs and thighs and porcini mushrooms. It can be served over almost any pasta – especially the heartier varieties such as rigatoni, tagliatelle, and pappardelle. It's also delicious with Gnocchi.