Cucina povera inspiration
Budget-saving tips and Fabrizia's Sicilian Involtini di Carne
Ruth Reichl’s recent newsletter was about recession strategies and looking back on a recession “alphabet” that she wrote on June 30, 1980 (Loved the entry for K is for Kissing, “It’s free. It’s fun. It’s frivolous. It’s good for you. Everybody should do more of it. It makes you feel good. Available wherever you can find it.”). She has a good point about looking back on offering strategies for coping with rising prices today — adopting a dog, going out to lunch instead of dinner at the great restaurants of the world. And day old bread, always a bargain.
When it comes to cooking and eating on a budget, I just turn to cucina povera, the backbone of regional Italian cooking. Cucina povera (literally, “cuisine of the poor” or peasant cooking) is about making great food that doesn’t cost the earth, in more ways than one.
Cucina povera is inspired by age old traditions, by seasonal and local ingredients — because, naturally, in season and local food is cheaper. It is also about using what you have around you and not wasting food or utilising ingredients that might be considered by others as things that should be thrown away, things like stale bread, vegetable off cuts or using all parts of the animal if you are an omnivore.
I also think it really is about simplicity — simple ingredients, simple preparations — so this shouldn’t at all be hard work. If you have your own vegetable patch or even a few herbs in pots then you’re already a huge step ahead of me and other apartment dwellers as you’ve already got your local dinner inspiration right there!
Here are some of my budget saving suggestions inspired by cucina povera:
Day old bread — as Ruth Reichl mentioned back in 1980, you can find it selling for half price at the supermarket or bakery and this is still true now, at least in Tuscany, but I’m guessing also where you live. What to do with day old bread? I recently came across a no-waste reel pointing out that you can make croutons and breadcrumbs with old bread, but this is just the tip of the iceberg! Stale bread is a prized ingredient in many Tuscan dishes and it is used in the summer-staple panzanella salad (one day I will do another post about this but it is made with stale bread, revived under running water, not toasted bread, please), pappa al pomodoro, comforting, wintry ribollita soup and more. I also love it in bread pudding type cakes (like this savoury prune, goats curd and pumpkin cake) and even fritters, sweet or savoury.
Eat the seasons — it might be obvious but maybe it’s always a good reminder. I find that more and more at the market in Florence only the very local sellers have truly seasonal produce, the others are selling things that are completely out of season, grown much further afield and in hot houses, so you can find all kind of things that aren’t actually seasonal or local. And this probably is even more so in big, international cities where you can get anything from anywhere at anytime. Look into what is grown in your area’s particular climate month by month. And check the price tag, which should be the biggest giveaway: seasonal usually means abundant and cheap.
Preserve — when things are so abundant and cheap (here that might mean soon we will get apricots or peaches for 1 euro a kilo) consider buying up your favourite produce and preserving it for later. Make jam, granita (this melon one is my favourite) or sorbet out of your favourite fruits and pickle seasonal vegetables (here is my giardiniera recipe). I’m trying out a recipe at the moment for preserving egg yolks — I had a bowl of them that I didn’t have time to make a custard out of before going to the Pecorino e Vino workshop that just ended (some highlights here) so, I looked up something that would take about a week to do. Will let you know how they turn out.
Swap — here’s one I really love, especially as it involves your community. If you have an abundant lemon tree (or prolific rose bush or hens laying more eggs than you know what to do with) in the backyard, consider swapping some produce with a friend or neighbour for something else — a cake, some bread, a pot of soup. In my case, my friend Andrea Falaschi from the butcher shop in my town has an abundant bitter orange tree that he lets me pick, so I make enough jam for him and me!
Nose to tail — interestingly, recently at a guest lecture on food writing for a university in Florence I discovered that the room full of young students did not know what offal was. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea but is it just the idea of it, is it the availability or knowing how to cook delicious things with it? When I moved to Florence, I embraced learning about and tasting offal as I really feel that as a responsible omnivore we should value and respect the whole animal by eating all of it. Some of my favourite offal dishes are these fried tripe balls (Australians, keep an eye on new season of The Cook Up where I’ll be preparing this recipe with Adam Liaw!), cheaper pork cheeks cooked into a stew with red and yellow peppers make the most delicious, lip-smacking filling for ravioli, and for those who are more adventurous try getting the crests of a chicken for this ancient, luxurious Florentine dish.
Making a little go a long way — something that cucina povera does so well. Sometimes this means a little flavour that has a big impact (like a spot of pancetta) or using a small amount of meat and filling it out with bread and vegetables, like the Sicilian involtini below. Actually I feel like any stuffed anything is always a great example of making a little go a long way — stuffed mussels or for vegetarians, stuffed tomatoes (Rachel Roddy’s rice-filled tomatoes baked on a layer of potato wedges are so good, they’re the only thing I’ll turn the oven on for in the summer!). These warming cabbage rolls stuffed with potato and mushrooms are perfect for those of you down under in winter right now.
Fabrizia Lanza taught me this wonderful Sicilian involtini di carne dish last summer when I visited the dreamy Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school and they were so memorable. They embody so much of what cucina povera is all about, stretching something to go further around, using up day old bread, using the herbs growing around the pots of the courtyard. It’s a great sharing dish but scale it down and make it for just 1 or 2. Leftovers are great as well. Get the recipe here.
P.S. Workshop alert! I can’t wait to be back in Sicily at Anna Tasca Lanza to host a summer bounty workshop in September. It filled up so quickly we are putting together the dates for September 2023 now so keep your eyes peeled on their calendar for that one and join us in this courtyard.