Pasta the poverty line

Virgil Evetts
I’ve been thinking about the term ‘peasant food’ lately. It’s become such a clichéd part of the western food lexicon. We use it to describe anything vaguely rustic and it makes us think of crumbling Tuscan farm houses, wood fired ovens and good-natured, salt of the earth country folk. Can’t you just smell that spit roast lamb? Yes, well it’s also deeply patronising. Describing the culinary traditions of rural Europe as peasant-like is about as flattering as calling African American culture slave-like.
I think the only reason most Europeans don’t noisily object is that they know they’re on to a good thing. Ignorance may breed bigotry, but it also breeds rampant stupidity. The attraction of living in a restored farm house is a complete mystery to most Italians. Why would you want to live in a crumbling old dump that has no indoor plumbing and is full of snakes and scorpions? Who cares, if you’re willing to pay a million Euros for it.

But that’s not to say that there isn’t genuinely humble country cooking in Italy and the rest of Europe. Many of my favourite dishes would be described in Italian as cucina la povero. This literally translates as cuisine of the poor, but is meant to be complementary rather than chin-ticklingly patronising. The logic being that cash-strapped folk can work miracles with very few ingredients. I think this is a truth that extends (or at least, used to) well beyond the borders Italy.  We were as poor as particularly down-trodden church mice when I was growing up, but we still ate very, very well every night. But then, I had the good fortune to be to be born into a family that cared deeply about food- more so than each other in some cases. Thanks to the fungoid spread of convenience foods and cheap takeaways, whole generations are now missing out on learning to cook. Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners anyone? I rather fear that that the modern New Zealand equivalent of cucina la povero would either come from a box in the supermarket freezer or via a drive through window.

But I digress; I was talking things Italian…

If you paid too much attention to the advertising campaign of a certain pasta sauce company (the one with the horribly stereotyped puppets) you would think that Italians always smother their pasta (which is the only food Italians eat according to these puppets) in rich tomato, cheese or meat-based sauces. This is hyperbolic at best, and the further south you go in Italy, the more wildly inaccurate it becomes. The harsh climate and poor soil of southern Italy has traditionally made meat, dairy and even tomatoes luxury items. Sure, they still eat plenty of pasta down Napoli way, but it’s often dressed far more frugally than in the relatively affluent north. Gone (or at least less common) here are the Bolognese and Carbonara, replaced instead with simpler but deeply satiating dressings of good quality olive oil, garlic, chillies, perhaps a scattering of salami or pancetta and some seasonal greens. These sorts of dishes are designed to be made in a flash, by anyone – be they a lone shepherd high in the myrtle scrub or an urban mamma with a gang of hungry mouths to feed in a Neapolitan housing project.

Ask a southern Italian what their favourite pasta dish is and they will probably tell you fettuccine al aglio e olio or something very similar. This is just about the simplest recipe imaginable, containing, in its purest form nothing more than garlic (LOTS of garlic), olive oil and seasoning. With deft execution, this is about as good as eating gets. It confounds the taste buds every time. How can something so simple be so damn good?

This, and myriad other oil-based pasta dishes, are classics of Southern Italian cooking. Despite their simplicity they offer some of the best eating of Italy’s vast and varied cuisines.  The ingredients of this family of dishes are either fried or steamed quickly before being tossed together with cooked pasta. There are some established classics such as fettuccine al aglio e olio, which save for a few regional variations, are made according to strict tradition. But, as with fried rice in many Asian cuisines, you can add whatever you have at hand. Just use your best judgement and good taste to match flavours and textures.

Oil-based pasta dishes are best made with shells, orecchiette, spirals or in some cases flat noodles such as fettuccine. These shapes snare plenty of delicious little nuggets of garlic, chilli and other tasty things. Avoid macaroni, penne, and other tubular pasta – these are designed for very wet sauces and won’t work so well here.  I have an irrational aversion to bow-tie pasta (Farfalle). Perhaps it’s because I once worked for a man who wore actual bow ties everyday as his signature dress thing. How I loathed those bow ties…

Anyway – here are a few recipes that are on a regular turn around at my place. As is typical of this sort of dish, they’re quick and easy to make – being far more about assembly than actual cooking – and are an affordable way to feed a crowd. In my experience all of these recipes go down well with kids too, which is always a bonus.

Fusilli con Broccoletti
(Spiral pasta with broccoli)

1 head of broccoli (chopped into small florets)
6+ cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
Fresh or dried chilli to taste (crushed)
1 cup black olives (preferably Kalamatta)
4 strips free range bacon (roughly chopped)
½ cup slivered almonds (toasted)
3 tomatoes (deseeded and roughly chopped)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large packet Fusilli (spirals)

In a dry pan sauté the bacon until crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.
In a deep pan/wok heat the olive oil. Add garlic and chilli, stir until fragrant. Remove from heat. Do not allow to brown.
Bring a large pot of well salted water to boil. Before adding the pasta use this water to either steam of blanch the broccoli- it should still be vibrantly green and slightly crunchy.
Cook and drain the pasta. Return the oil to the heat and add the pasta. Fold in all other ingredients, season to taste .
Serve immediately with a little shaved parmesan, pecorino or fried bread crumbs (recipe below)

Fettuccine al aglio e olio
(Fettuccine with garlic and olive oil)

10+ cloves garlic (crushed)
Chilli to taste (crushed)
½ cup olive

Black olives
3+ Anchovies (finely chopped)
Fresh parsley (finely chopped)
1 large packet fettuccine

In a deep pan/wok heat the olive oil. Add garlic and chilli and anchovies, stir until fragrant. Remove from heat- do not allow to brown. Cook and drain the pasta. Return oil to the heat and add pasta. Fold in any other ingredients, season to taste and remove from heat.
Serve immediately with a little shaved parmesan, pecorino or fried bread crumbs (recipe below)

Chorizo, garlic and other good things with spiral pasta

This is a dish entirely of my own creation. It’s a good example of how well this style of pasta lends itself to improvisation.

6+ cloves garlic
250 grams chorizo or similar cured spicy sausage (sliced)
1 cup black olives (preferably Kalamatta)
Fresh or dried chilli to taste (crushed)
3 tomatoes (deseeded and roughly chopped) OR 2 red peppers, char-grilled, deseeded, peeled and roughly chopped.
Big handful of fresh basil OR fresh rocket
¼ cup toasted pine nuts/pistachios/slivered almonds
½ cup olive oil
1 large packet Fusilli (spirals)

In a dry pan sauté the sausage until fragrant and crispy. Drain on kitchen paper.
In a deep pan/wok heat the olive oil. Add garlic and chilli, stir until fragrant. Remove from heat- do not allow to brown.
Cook and drain pasta.
Return oil to the heat and add pasta. Fold in other ingredients, season to taste and remove from heat. Serve immediately with a little shaved parmesan, pecorino or fried bread crumbs (recipe below)

Fried bread crumbs

In the past, few southern Italians could afford expensive hard cheeses such as pecorino and parmesan, so to dress their pasta, they came up with this quite passable alternative. These bread crumbs bring a very pleasing crunch and a deliciously salty, toasty tang to each mouthful of silky pasta. They’re also a doddle to make. Roughly zap a few slices of good quality stale bread in a food processor. Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a pan, add the bread crumbs. Stir until dark golden-brown and super crunchy. Don’t be stingy with the salt, these need plenty- blood pressure, be damned.
Drain on kitchen paper or a tea towel.

So whether you’re poor or flush, why not give these recipes a whirl? If this sort of food is anything to go by (and in reality it probably isn’t) poor Italians must eat a damn site better than your average financially buoyant kiwi, don’t you think?

Desert Island Cook Books

Virgil Evetts

How many times have you heard it? Usually from the young and fervent, or the bored and vapid: ‘this book changed my life!’ I tend to stop listening at about that point, because what follows is usually a florid description of the latest self-help tome from the Oprah list. You know the sort of thing- three hundred pages of that very American brand of uber-politeness all to state the bleeding obvious: stop whining and pull yourself together. Not a bad title for a book actually.

So I won’t be offended if you decide to quietly back out of the room when I tell you that these books – the ones described below – really have changed my life. This is Foodlovers, so, yes, they’re all food books, and it might sound shallow and trivial when I say these titles have not just informed how I cook, but how I think about food, life and the world in general.

I don’t expect you to agree – nor do I claim that this is any kind of essential reading list. These are just the books that helped shape me into the sad little food-o-phile I am today. These books make me happy, hopeful and hungry.

 The Edmonds Cook Book -1970s editions

I was a weird kid by kiwi standards. I didn’t like sports, my wardrobe was heavily influenced by my mother’s hippie-dippy sensibilities (I thought nothing of going to school in cow-skin moccasins, gold silk jeans and a red velveteen sweater), I was forever chasing butterflies – literally – and my idea of recreational bliss was an afternoon spent baking.

The first book that really opened my eyes to flour, butter and a nice hot oven, the one that taught me that the kitchen wasn’t a scary place at all, was Edmonds. Every Friday after school (once Ollie Olsen had signed off) was baking time, and slowly but surely I worked my way through each and every recipe – several times.  Of course, I still needed my mother’s hands-on instruction to learn what was involved in creaming butter, folding-in flour and bringing egg whites to stiff peaks (that was assumed knowledge in even the most basic cook books back then), but otherwise it was all straight forward and easy to follow stuff, even as a total kitchen virgin.

Another of my childhood abnormalities was a precocious fondness for flower gardening. Oh, how I longed to visit the Edmonds factory with its garish, twee plantings out-front, but my dreams were dashed, unrealised, when a developer knocked it down back in 1990.

I’m not mad on the updated, slightly la-de dah new version of Edmonds, which features all manner of supposedly modern recipes involving pesto, hummus and other things done better elsewhere. I think I’ll just stick with the copy I learned to bake from – complete with oil stains and a liberal dusting of flour – if you don’t mind.

 Elizabeth David- Italian Food

My first copy of this, perhaps my favourite food book of all time, was a rather dog-eared 1960’s edition with charmingly kitsch cover art. I was in my late teens before I found it, long-forgotten at the back of a wardrobe, but was instantly hooked. It taught me that la cucina Italiana is a whole lot more than the ‘spaghetti and sauce’ idea I had in my head, and that glossy photos aren’t necessarily the measure of a good cook book. Save for a few line drawings, Italian Food is all text, cover to cover. Instead, the emphasis here is on the quality of the writing and the authenticity and reliability of the recipes.  Although published in 1954, Italian Food is still, in my opinion, the greatest English-language book on the subject ever written – and I’ve read more than I care to recall. Unusually for the time, Elizabeth David writes with a deep respect for the Italian people and their cuisine: patronising pomposity was the usual tone in those days.  Her work here is at times laugh-out-loud funny, but unerringly intelligent throughout. I remember being shocked to the very core of my know-it-all teenage being to find recipes for such modern and fashionable delights as pesto, saltimbocca and gelato, in a book that was nearly as old and moth-eaten as my parents.

 Jane Grigson- Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery

There is natural progression from Elizabeth David to Jane Grigson. The two often referenced each other in their work, and both had a similarly authoritative, waspish tone and reverence for their subject matter. French Charcuterie and Pork Cookery was the book that first demystified the murky, frankly frightening world of charcuterie for me, and thereby triggered one of my most enduring food passions – home-cured meats.

Again, this book highlighted that all food fashions are really just revivals, featuring as it does recipes for Spanish style hams, pork rillettes, potently seasoned suacisson, and many other a la mode meaty pleasures. This book, more than any other, taught me to be brave in the kitchen, to take risks for good food – after all, the difference between a good ham and a bout of botulism is only a few grams of salt. I can think of no greater virtue for a food book.

 Maggie Beer – Maggie’s Farm

This was the first book I found which successfully brought together my biggest extracurricular obsessions – growing good produce and cooking great food. Sure, there are plenty of other books for cooks who garden and gardeners who cook, but most seem to be either soulless affairs aimed at trainspotter types, or overly obsessed with pulses and respect for the Earth Mother. Maggie’s Farm is definitely a food book first and foremost, but it’s written with not just a cook’s love of good food, but a farmer’s love of the land.  And although written from a decidedly Australian perspective, with a good measure of German-influenced Barossa cooking, I found a lot of familiarity here. The seasons were around the right way for one thing, so it didn’t make me feel excluded from the cool clique in the way northern hemisphere cook books sometimes do. And apart from just extolling the pleasures of cultivated food, Maggie’s Farm also delves into foraged food, another pet passion of mine. Using Maggie Beer’s instructions I even collected, purged and eventually poached a pot full of fat garden snails (which taught me I do not like poached snails). Forget A Year in Provence: this is the book to make you long for the lifestyle block idyll.

 Australian Women’s Weekly Home Library: Chinese Cooking Class Cookbook

In the 1980s this series of books was everywhere. The glossy, magazine-style publication presents mouth-watering, accessible Chinese cooking in an idiot-proof format, and with competent but unintimidating photography. Admittedly many of the recipes are rather tame by today’s standards, but when I was growing up this book was like training wheels for Chinese cooking to me. Mum worked nights throughout my teens, so I had plenty of time to experiment with its many excellent, mostly Cantonese, dishes. While my friends and their families were presumably supping on stew and packet-mix macaroni-cheese, I was home alone, gorging myself on homemade crispy-skin chicken. Those were the days.

The Chicken with Lychee recipe from the Chinese Cooking Class Cookbook is still a much loved part of my family’s food repertoire, and the deep fried toffee apples… oh my God the deep fried toffee apples! This book looks a little sad and dated now, but I’m yet to find a more clearly laid-out beginners guide. Not only are the instructions simple and reliable (with step-by-step photographs), but the dishes taste great too.

Antonio Carluccio- The Carluccio Collection: Antipasti, Vegetables & Salads, Pasta, Mushrooms & Truffles, Fish and Shellfish, Meat, Poultry & Game, Desserts, Baking.

Although actually a serious of small books, I tend to think of these as one title, and it’s a shame they haven’t been released that way. I have a lot of time for Antonio Carluccio; he writes so lovingly of his native Italy, but with none of the patrician haughtiness of writers such as Lorenza de Medici. The phrase ‘salt of the earth’ comes to mind. This might just be the carefully crafted public persona of a shrewd businessman (which he surely is), but I’ll buy it.

Rather than just regurgitating clichés of Italian food, these books present reliable recipes for the sorts of dishes you might find in a small village trattoria, including tofeja del canavese (pork and beans), insalata di neonata (salad of baby anchovies),  fichi al forno (baked figs) and many more.

Whereas Elizabeth David made me fall in love with Italian food, Antonio Carluccio, through these books, made me fall in love with the idea of Italy, and over successive visits and successive re-reads, in love with the land itself – maddening, breathtaking, filthy and gorgeous as it is.

 And there you have it. My big 5.

And certainly, there are  many other food books I have loved and learned from in various ways, but so far only this modest selection have actually changed my point of view. I hope this list will grow.

 So have you too been moved by a cook book? Has Delia rocked your world or has Julia shown you the light?

Time to share…