Moving away from Italy was possibly the best thing I could do to truly become interested in the food of my origins. Before then, Italian food was just food, normal food, everyday food, something not worth talking about, not original, surely not interesting. I knew about regional differences, and I had a pretty clear idea of what the most iconic and traditional dishes from each Italian region were. Travelling around the country with my family, I would try the specialities of the area. Also, sometimes at home, my mum would prepare something exotic like sarde al beccafico (rolls of butterflied sardines with bread crumbs, pine nuts, and raisins, Sicilian style), or fagioli all’uccelletto (stewed beans, Tuscan style). Still, I was interested in the flavour, in the story maybe, but not in the recipe.
Living abroad, though, I became more of a nostalgic cook and more curious about Italian traditional recipes linked to a place and a culture. I have been travelling back to Italy quite often, looking for traditional dishes, eating in local, honest osterie, imprinting the flavours of Puglia, Piedmont, Tuscany, Rome, Friuli, Umbria, and Sicily in my memory. I also started to collect Italian cookbooks – something I never thought I would do – digging into recipes as much as into the travel stories and everyday tales the author would unfold around them. I discovered a fascination for traditional yet unusual recipes that were new to me, and I found it especially in books written by non-Italian food writers – Claudia Roden and Elizabeth David especially. I loved seeing the food and the country through the eyes of someone who was not originally from there, but could still appreciate Italian culture and its local cuisines, and had the curiosity to go beyond stereotypes and write honestly, reporting regional differences and bits of the culture that Italians would bring in the kitchen and to the table.
And then, together with three talented women – Emiko, Giulia and Jasmine – we started writing posts for Italian Table Talk, a project about real, traditional, regional Italian food and its thousands of nuances and variations. This project was truly important in the process of rediscovering the foods of my origins – it pushed me to discover, cook, read, try, experiment and write about Italian (mostly Venetian) recipes that I probably would have never tried otherwise. It enabled me to recall memories and tell stories I would have possibly never written. In the two years we have been writing recipes and stories for Italian Table Talk, I cooked from memories, I cooked from family recipes, I even cooked from word of mouth. I cooked from books in dialect and made those recipes accessible to many. And finally, I cooked from books in English, seeing those recipes with the fresh eyes of an expat.
I had no doubt I would have talked about Elizabeth David. She not only became my favourite food writer since the very first moment I could understand English, but one of the most inspiring sources for cooking Italian food I have ever encountered. Her tone is witty, her tongue is sharp, her tales drag you right in. Recipes are, of course, spot on, and seasoned with the most beautiful, engaging prose you will ever hope to find in a cookbook – you can almost read it like a novel. I love the way she tackles recipes by giving vague doses yet precise instructions, trusting the cook would be able to fill the gaps rather than being told the exact amount of salt called for. I love how, sometimes, she mocks English foods for being a complete disaster from a flavour perspective, and how Italian (and French and Spanish) food makes much more sense to her. She reminds me of another amazing English woman and fantastic writer and cook of Italian food, who recently told me the same thing – Italian food makes sense to her.
I have been cooking a lot from her book, Italian Food, lately. I have been making pesche ripiene (peaches stuffed with amaretti and baked until tender) over and over this past summer, not to mention the always perfect recipe for pollo ai peperoni, or peperoni alla piemontese with parsley and anchovies. And then, I have been cooking from her other books, enjoying gaspacho and always excellent rice-stuffed tomatoes repeatedly over the past warm months. I am now looking forward to heartier recipes as the cooler season approach.
I wanted to finish this cycle this way, with Italian food and a recipe from an English food writer, one of my favourite points of references when I reach for the kitchen and cook the food of my homeland. And I wanted to do it by sharing a beloved recipe of hers, and one I think embraces lots of the inner values of Italian food: Stewed lentils. This dish talks about simplicity expressed both through the short list of ingredients and the easy, likely one-pot preparations. Also, about most Italian traditional food being often times intrinsically vegetarian, with legumes playing a crucial role in everyday meals. This recipe makes the simplest yet most revolutionary pot of lentils I have ever tried – cooked al dente, full of flavour, and a meal on its own with or without an egg on top.
Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed our ITT journey and the recipes that came along. I also hope that, from our little corner of the web, we shared some interesting stories and insights, and made you a little bit more curious about the infinite flavours of Italy. It was indeed very enriching for us. Thank you for following us along!
Braised Lentils (Lenticchie in Umido)
12 oz. (340 gr) of brown lentils, a small onion, mint, garlic, olive oil. Wash the lentils and pick out any pieces of grit. There is no need to soak them. Cover the bottom of a thick pan with olive oil, and when it is warm melt the sliced onion in it. Add the lentils, and as soon as they have absorbed the oil pour 2 pints (1.13 L) of hot water over them. Add a clove of garlic and a sprig of fresh mint. Cover the pan and stew steadily for 11/4, 11/2 hours. By that time the lentils should be soft and the liquid nearly all absorbed. Now season with salt and pepper. Also good cold, with the addition of fresh olive oil and hard-boiled eggs.
Enough for four or five people.