In The Pedant in the Kitchen, Julian Barnes asks
How many cookbooks do you have?
(a) Not enough
(b) Just the right number
© Too Many?
If you answered (b) you are disqualified for lying or complacency or not being interested in food or (scariest of all) having worked out everything perfectly. You score points for (a) and also for ©, but to score maximum points, you need to have answered (a) and © in equal measure. (a) because there is always something new to be learned, someone coming along to make it all clearer, easier, more foolproof, more authentic; © because of the regular mistakes made when applying (a).
He then goes on to give a list of ten things to consider when buying any cookbook – avoid books with too wide or too narrow a compass, never buy a book because of the pictures – and I would say that most of my cookbook collection falls prey to those things he says to avoid. If only I’d discovered him earlier, because I fall squarely into © and I would say that most of the cookbooks I own are complete bullshit. Nowhere is this more clearly highlighted than when they start talking about Italian food.
Now, for those of you that haven’t been to Italy, let me explain something about Italian cuisine: it’s simple. This sounds stupid, but the sheer simplicity of the food here came as a huge shock to someone raised on Nigella, Delia and Jamie’s ideas of Italian food. Nigella (my favourite scapegoat when it comes to over-complication of cooking) seems to think that to achieve an ‘authentic’ Italian flavour, you have to raid your spice rack. In fact, you’re going to need a whole new spice rack. Preferably, like hers, hand-made by a merchant in Morocco and stocked by naked eunuchs who softly whisper and coax the herbs and spices to voluntarily leap into the jars. But I suppose, in a pinch, regular Schwartz will do. Her ‘basic’ tomato sauce will invariably contain some combination of nutmeg, star anise and turmeric. Tomatoes play second fiddle.
In Italy, a tomato sauce will contain tomatoes. Maybe some garlic, if you’re lucky.
So, based on the things I’ve learned while cooking in Rome, here’s a few tips if you want to cook better Italian food.
- Keep It Simple, Stupid
Like I was saying, in Italy, cooking is really about ‘less is more’. Why complicate things with 15 ingredients when 4 will do? At a certain point, you’re actually not making a difference to the flavour. Most of my favourite pasta dishes are shockingly basic. For example, Cacio e pepe is really just pasta, oil, cheese and pepper. That’s it.
- Break Up Your Dishes
This is tied into the previous one. Italians love to divide things, compartmentalize them so that they’re all doing their own job and have clear, distinct boundaries. If you’re Irish, chances are you think that pasta sauces must, by definition, have some meat in them. Fuhgeddaboudit. In Italy, pasta is usually one course (primo) and you get your protein in another course (secondo). Rarely will you get a meaty pasta sauce. And it’s just as well – it means that the pasta is less heavy, and also extends your meal by another 45 minutes, which means you can talk more and drink more wine, too. It’s a win-win situation.
- Choose The Best Ingredients
This is the first real secret to great Italian food. Rather than overloading with ingredients, just make sure that the ingredients you do choose are of the best quality you can afford. Spend just that little bit more on things like olive oil, cheese and vegetables. The lower-cost ones won’t kill you and might not taste bad, but when you use the expensive stuff, you can really tell the difference.
- It’s All In The Cooking
If you take nothing else from this post, please listen to this: good ingredients are one thing, but when they’re cooked badly, you may as well have used the cheap stuff. Italian food is all about cooking things just right. It’s all about timing. For example, when you’re making a tomato sauce, first chop your garlic and cook it slowly. Actually, so slowly you’re barely straddling the line between “cooking” and “warming”. Take the lowest heat you can, and then only put half the pan on the heat, if that’s possible. The garlic will give up all of its flavour this way and it completely changes the taste of a tomato sauce then. Likewise, when cooking pasta, it’s about timing, except this time, it’s all about getting the pasta out right before you think it’s ready, so it’s still al dente. Admittedly, this one is a lot harder to pull off, but when you get it right, the difference is phenomenal.
- Buy ‘The Silver Spoon’
Remember when I said that most cookbooks I own are complete bullshit? Not The Silver Spoon. It’s a gigantic book and may well cause your bookshelf to bend under the weight, but what it doesn’t know about Italian food isn’t worth writing down. Seriously, with this one book, you can ditch all of the other ‘Italian’ cookbooks in your collection. It’s also one of the few cookbooks I have absolutely no problem in giving to foodie friends as presents. I can’t think of any better recommendation for a book than wanting to give it to other people too.
Of course, there are other things too, like understanding the difference between the different types of spaghetti and knowing which one is appropriate for a particular dish, but that’s just nitpicking. If you can manage to follow the four guidelines I just mentioned, you’ll be well on your way to cooking better Italian food.