[Photo Credit: Rob Patronite]
I pride myself on having a profound understanding of what Italian food is and what makes it authentic…And yet, I ask myself, what is authenticity and does it really matter? Italians are, of course, passionate about their food culture and ready at all times to chastise a foreigner for not understanding that right combinations or sequences of flavors. Salad always comes after the entrée — never before. Pasta and soup fill the same slot in the meal, so you eat one or the other and not both. Plum tomatoes are for pasta sauce, globe tomatoes are for salad. And so it goes, a dizzying array of rules and regulations for how you eat. But still I wonder, what is the importance of authenticity?
Italian food and flavors changed dramatically after 1492 with the influx of the New World fruits and vegetables — tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes — that were gradually integrated over four centuries of gardening and cooking and are at the core of today’s version of Italian food. If we wanted to be really authentic with Italian food, shouldn’t we do away with all the invasive species? Doesn’t that make tomato sauce and polenta inauthentic?
Food is not static. What we eat is constantly evolving and changing. New things become available. When I was a child in Rome, cilantro, limes, and yams were unknown and unavailable; today, thanks to immigration and the global produce trade, you can probably find all three at the corner vegetable stand. When I first started paying attention to my neighbors’ farm in Tuscany, they were extremely self-sufficient in terms of their food. They grew, raised, and foraged probably 90 percent of what they consumed. Their food and flavors were delicious and unvarying, and the dishes Mita cooked formed the basis of my understanding of Italian food.
[Photo Credit: Quick Gardens]
I’m perturbed that people have gotten so turned around that they think restaurant food is the best food, and that today’s modern, self -aware “foodie” thinks that the highest level of cooking is to cook restaurant-style food in the home. Even in the finest restaurants, restaurant food, while delicious and deserving of its place as entertainment and theater, is really not the best food at all. It’s over-sauced and over-salted and over-rich, because the only thing restaurant chefs have to worry about is that the food tastes exquisite on the table. They don’t have to worry about whether you should eat less salt and fat or eat more vegetables or if you are consuming trans fats or saturated fat or petroleum. Even very good restaurants buy industrial commodity chicken and veal bones for their stock, and bulk up the plate with cheap commodity vegetables. What you pay for in most restaurants is for the transformation from ordinary into good or exquisite. And one of the ways that food is transformed is through copious amounts of butter, salt, and stocks.
If you really want to put great food on the table day in and day out, restaurants are not really what you want to emulate. What you need is a few techniques and a few standards and eventually you will have the ability to improvise and adapt. Learn a couple of recipes well and then build on them. I’m a huge fan of broiling a fish filet or even a fish steak. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s healthy, and you can change it endlessly depending on what you season it with. I like to have a couple of different dried grains and beans in my pantry, because you can cook up lentils so quickly and mix them with olive oil and herbs, and have a simple and quick dish anyone can make in 20 minutes. I keep a couple of great cast-iron pans, and because they hold and transmit heat so well I can pan-sear things as diverse as shrimp, chicken breast, or lamb steaks. On weekends I am more likely to make a slightly more complicated braise or stew that can get extended later in the week with some beans or grains.
I control the amount of salt and fat that goes into my cooking, and know that I have bought high-quality ingredients I want to put into my body. Best of all, because I’m cooking for two or three or at most for 10, I control what I cook so much better than in my restaurant kitchen. As proud as I am of the food I put out professionally, I know the best food of mine you can ever eat is what I serve you at my home table.
Right on, sister. I like to eat out but I need to cook at home. I get happy thinking about what to cook. And I enjoy shopping, preparing the meal, serving it, and, of course, eating. I can’t imagine life without cooking.