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Table Talk: Simple Italian Cooking

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A weekly blog about everything from farming food to cooking it.

“In Italy, if you have bad food, it is not a good day,” said Carla Guglielmino.

Guglielmino is the Italian culture consultant and director of the Italian childrens’ school at the Middlebury College summer language schools, which wrapped up last week. To her, there are just a few rules of good Italian cooking.

“The oil must be a very good oil,” she explained, “and the tomatoes must be fresh. And you have to understand that pasta must be cooked al dente.”

The most important part of Italian cooking, though, is simplicity. In the United States, she said, people often ruin Italian food by adding too many ingredients — the worst offender being heavy cream.

Simplicity of ingredients, however, does not limit culinary possibilities. In fact, Italian cuisine varies greatly from region to region. Though many dishes have become standard throughout the country over the years, each region has a very specific cuisine.

Guglielmino’s fingers moved across a map of Italy, and at each stop she described the specialties of that region. As she described each dish in detail, a smile crossed her face and her eyes crinkled at the edges.

She began with Turin, her hometown. There, typical dishes are agnolotti and brasato al Barolo — agnolotti is a type of ravioli stuffed with meat, while brasato al barolo is beef marinated in wine for between 18 and 24 hours, then roasted in those juices.

Alpa is truffle country, so they make risotto with truffles. Romagna is grazing country, so they make cheese to fill tortellini. In the coastal regions there is fish, and in Umbria there is boar. During the summers in Genoa, there is pesto with pasta. The food depends on the region’s agriculture, but also on its trading patterns — areas close to France have adaptations of French dishes, while coastal trading areas use exotic spices. A common dish in Milan is risotto alla milanese, prepared with saffron.

But go to most Italian restaurants around here and that cuisine is not what you will find. What we think of as Italian food — from pizza to pasta to tomato sauce — originates further south. In Rome you will find pasta carbonara, a pasta dish with pancetta and eggs, and in Naples and Sicily there is pizza and tomato sauce.

But even the pizza isn’t quite what we think of when we order a pizza here.

“The pizza must have tomatoes, peeled tomatoes and cheese. Not sauce,” said Guglielmino.

Today you can find pizza in the north of Italy and risotto in the south. Still, said Guglielmino, each region has very different food, which makes for delicious and varied traveling.

“Lots of people say, ‘In Italy they enjoy food too much,’” she said with a laugh. “But for us, it’s very symbolic.”

Family life centers around food; every night, families — often including grandparents and other relatives — gather to eat a home-cooked meals. Sunday meals are larger and longer. The days are also structured around food; many shops close between noon and three so that the proprietors can go home for lunch.

Even business often revolves around food.

“In America, they talk business, then maybe they have some sandwiches. In Italy that is absolutely shameful,” Guglielmino said. “You need to have a good lunch. In the meantime, you discuss.”

Food, in Italy, is as much about the social interactions that surround it as it is about the actual act of eating; about sitting down and taking the time to enjoy food and conversation. It is no wonder, then, that the origin of the Slow Food movement — an effort to celebrate local food traditions and counteract a “fast food” culture — is Italy.

“If you eat good food, you are at peace with yourself and you are happy,” said Guglielmino

Good food doesn’t have to mean Italian food. It can mean any kind of food prepared with care and eaten with enjoyment.

But one of the wonderful things about Italian cooking is that most of the basic ingredients are available here — eggplant, artichoke, garlic, basil, onions and tomatoes are all easily accessible, especially during the summers. Good olive oil and pasta will, of course, run you more than generic brands. Important as the ingredients are, compromises are sometimes necessary (I, for one, sometimes buy Hannaford extra virgin olive oil, much to the dismay of my family).

But try draining your pasta when it is still somewhat chewy, and tossing it with chopped fresh tomatoes in the summer, canned crushed tomatoes in the winter. Toss in some grated cheese, extra-virgin olive oil and some basil, and you’ve got yourself a simple Italian summer dish. Or try this risotto recipe, perfectly suited to experimentation:

Risotto

Recipe courtesy Nicole Conti

1 1/2 cups Arborio rice

3 cups broth (make your own, or use a boullion cube)

1 small onion

2 Tablespoons butter

White wine

1/4 Parmesan cheese

Sautee onions in butter until softened. Add rice and stir until coated with butter. Add a dash of white wine and broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until the liquid is mostly absorbed and then adding more. You won’t necessarily use up all of the broth—just continue to stir and add broth until the rice is still slightly hard in the middle, but creamy and soft otherwise.

Here’s where it gets interesting: add in the parmesan and whatever else you want. To make risotto alla Milanese, add in 1/4 teaspoon saffron. Or add tomatoes, shrimp, chicken — feel free to experiment.

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