I often ask friends about their favourite cuisine, and it’s surprising how many of them immediately answer: “Italian.” I, too, am very partial to good Italian food, and often gravitate towards an Italian restaurant in a town where I’m not familiar with the foodie scene. For a relatively small country, the variety of recipes and styles is amazing. From one town to the next, and from one valley to the next, there is a different spin on even very familiar dishes like Bolognese sauce and pasta Carbonara.
Millions around the world assume that Italian food is all about pizza and pasta, and stay stuck in this much-trodden culinary rut. And it’s true that most Italian restaurants catering to tourists in their own country, or to diners abroad, tend to stick to safe dishes familiar to the foreign palate.
I learned the basics from an Italian friend years ago, and then went on to expand my repertoire. What I like about Italian cooking is its simplicity and its use of fresh ingredients. Olive oil is central to most dishes, especially in the south. In Sicily, if some household has neither wine nor olive oil, neighbours will wonder what’s wrong with them. Giorgio Locatelli, owner of the Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli, star of TV cooking programmes, and author of several cookbooks, is an expert on olives, and claims that Sicily produces the best ones. He uses them and the oil they provide in many of his recipes. In his recent book Made in Sicily, he writes:
Italian food is much more than just pizza and pasta
“When you take away the twigs and leaves and press the olives into paste you have to separate the olive oil and water, which is done in a centrifuge which pulls the oil to the top. And that is it. The first, cold pressing is what gives you Virgin Oil, and provided it has an oleic acidity of less than one percent, it can be labelled Extra Virgin Oil which is the very best quality. If an oil is just labelled Olive Oil, it will be a blend of Virgin Oil and inferior oil that has been refined in some way, or the oil will have been extracted using a faster process which involves heating…”
However, when Locatelli deep-fries something, he uses vegetable oil as olive oil has a lower smoking point, and its chemical composition is transformed into a less beneficial cooking medium at very high heat.
One trick I have learned from Locatelli is to reserve half a cup of the water I have boiled the pasta in, and later pour it into the finished dish when you are tossing the sauce with the pasta. Here’s a recipe for Truck Drivers’ Pasta that is quick, simple and filling:
For 400g of spaghetti, you’ll need 450g of chopped ripe tomatoes, two tablespoon of Extra Virgin Olive Oil; two garlic cloves, finely chopped; 10 basil leaves, finely chopped; five mint leaves, finely chopped; salt and freshly ground pepper to taste; and 80g of freshly grated Parmigianino cheese.
Put the chopped tomatoes into a bowl with the oil, chopped garlic and herbs, plus salt and pepper to taste, and leave to infuse for an hour.
Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil, add salt, and lower the pasta in gently. Cook until al dente, or just cooked, and drain, reserving a little of the water. Add the tomatoes, the cheese and toss well, using some of the reserved water from the pasta. Serve in warm, deep plates.
This easy but elegant dish showcases Italian cuisine in all its simplicity. As long as you have good quality tomatoes, you can’t really go wrong. By all means use canned tomatoes if you can’t get good fresh ones.
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 10th, 2017