Italian cooking 101

Making a simple supper

Emiko Davies
September 12, 2013

The first lesson to learn about Italian cooking is that there really is no ‘Italian cuisine,’ but 20 diverse regional cuisines, each with their own character, style, flavours and traditions. What you find in one region you may never see anywhere else on the peninsula. There are, however, four constants that are the underpinnings of any regional (or family) recipe, and the instructions for a simple supper show how they work.

 

 

Italian food is essentially traditional.

 

In the home, the favourite family meals are made frequently and are often passed on through the generations, with recipes unnecessary because the dishes are memorised in the cook’s hands. Exotic concoctions, foreign ingredients and fusion recipes are less common when you have such a strong attachment to these tried-and-true favourites.

 

 

Italian cooking has rules.

 

Yet, despite this, cooking is often also very liberal, with much room for personal taste and intuition to come into the equation, particularly when a recipe is made so often that it becomes second nature. And that is key to those favourite family dishes, made and eaten so often that the cook can likely make them blindfolded and the diners know the flavours and textures inside and out.

 

 

Italian food is simple.

 

Yes, some things are best done slowly or by hand, like soaking beans overnight or stirring a pot of polenta for 40 minutes. But, in essence, it is food that is never too fiddly and is wonderfully simple and pleasurable to make. On top of all that, it is easy on the wallet.

 

 

Cucina povera, peasant cooking, is at the heart of most Italian cooking.

 

This means it is cheap to make, the leftovers are good (if not better) and the food is satisfying. Tuscan cooks know how to get the best out of the most unassuming of things: the cheapest cuts of meat (have you tried the delicious panino col lampredotto yet?), stale bread, last night’s leftovers, the old rinds of Parmesan cheese (excellent for adding flavour to soups like ribollita).

 

The recipe I offer here is a great example of these four constants of Italian cooking. This traditional Tuscan dish, braciole rifatte (literally ‘remade’ or ‘recooked’ thinly sliced beef), highlights the Florentine love for giving leftovers a second life by adding a simple tomato sauce. It is the sort of thing you find in the university mensa (canteen) or in an old-school trattoria (the kind of eatery open only at lunchtime and never on the weekends). The crumbed fillets are like sponges in this tomato sauce, soaking up the flavours like nothing you can imagine.

 

 

RECIPE

 

Braciole rifatte (serves 6)

Inspired by a recipe from Trattoria Mario, Florence

 

 

Ingredients

6 thin slices of lean veal or beef (cooked or raw)

1 egg, beaten, seasoned with salt and pepper

A handful or two of breadcrumbs

Extra-virgin olive oil

A couple of cloves of garlic

1 tin of peeled tomatoes

Some water

Chopped fresh herbs (parsley or basil are the favourites)

Salt and pepper to taste

 

 

Preparation

Pass the slices of meat first in a bowl with the beaten egg, then in a bowl of breadcrumbs, pressing down to coat. Fry them in plenty of olive oil until golden and crisp. Set aside on paper towels while you prepare the tomato sauce.

 

For the tomato sauce, squash the garlic cloves with the side of your kitchen knife. Over a low heat, gently sauté them in a skillet with some olive oil until golden. Add the tomatoes and dilute with some water (use the empty tomato tin, filled about a quarter to a third of the way). Season with salt and pepper.

 

Place the crumbed meat slices in the tomato sauce, covering them completely. Simmer over a moderate heat until the crumbed meat takes on a marvellously spongy effect. If the meat starts to soak up too much of the sauce and is beginning to dry out, add more water.

 

Once the braciole have absorbed plenty of liquid and the sauce has reduced to the perfect saucy consistency, take it off the heat. Serve immediately with fresh herbs, plenty of sauce and some crusty bread to wipe your plate clean.

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