My girlfriend and I got lucky. We were backpacking through southern Italy without any plans (no hotel reservations) except to find an apartment and write books. We'd sublet our apartments in San Francisco and quit our jobs. Traveling without plans is risky, and for a week or so it didn't look good. But then we got lucky, and we found not only an apartment but a palace in southern Italy. Located in Lecce, the Bernardini Palazzo didn't have a website or even a sign yet; we simply called a phone number beside the door. For the next month we had a complete Italian kitchen at our disposal, and this is where we learned to cook in Italian style. Why? Because the kitchen was an Italian kitchen, not an American kitchen, and the grocery stores were Italian grocery stores, not American. It might seem like a small difference, but small differences make all the difference in Italian cooking, as the following 24 Tips show.
We returned to Lecce again and stayed over a year. I love the food and the people of Puglia, and the Online Culinary Tour of Puglia is designed to share all of that. Over the next few months, I'll post some of my favorites recipes from Puglia, as well as the basic cooking techniques that serve as the foundation of Italian cooking. I'll reference this page regularly, so that you don't have to read the same explanations of Italian cooking techniques over and over again in future blog posts. I hope you'll follow along, sitting around the cyber dinner table with me.
24 Tips for Cooking in Authentic Italian Style
Tip 1 - No Measuring Cups
Q.B. is a common acronym found in Italian recipes; it means quanto basta which literally translates to "the right amount." Our palace didn't come with measuring spoons or measuring cups and it taught us to cook intuitively. Unless baking, don't use measuring spoons. Q.B. really means do whatever you think is right, which brings us to the next tip:
Tip 2 - Cook from the Heart
If you enjoy what you're doing, everyone can taste it. I think that the more you love working on a dish, the more you get to know the dish through creative experimentation/inspiration. You'll test out different quantities of salt... you'll learn that tomatoes and potatoes can take whole handfuls while asparagus deserve just the slightest pinch. This is food love. This is cheesy.
Tip 3 - See Recipes as Guides, Not Holy Scripture
I promise you that after a few months of Italian cooking you'll know the basic cooking techniques used to create 99% of Italian dishes. What are recipes good for, then? Inspiration. If you don't like something don't included it. If you want something, add it. The main point: don't fret over recipes, have fun!
Tip 4 - Shop Fresh, Fresh, Fresh and Regional, Regional, Regional
Each region in Italy is different than the others. Each town in each region is different than the others. They have their specialties, why shouldn't you have yours? Growing up in Maine, my family cooked lobster whenever we had visitors. Get to know your local specialties and cook using the freshest ingredients you can afford.
Tip 5 - Simple Is Better
I tried to make my girlfriend's stew eggplant the other day. I added a healthy pour of wine to give it a rich flavor and an extra tomato and an extra quarter onion. When we sat down to dinner, it didn't taste right. Two nights later, she made it her way, using less wine and less tomato and onion. This allowed the eggplant brown, sealing in the moisture, so that each cube of eggplant exploded with flavor. What about the extra onion and tomato? I didn't miss them at all.
Tip 6 - Simple Is Better!
Seriously. Once I was interviewing winemaker Umberto Cantele and I boasted of a pizza I'd invented. It began with a dough made with a 24-hour fermentation, then topped it with ricotta, slice pear, parmesan, arugula, and white truffle oil. He said, "With those ingredients how couldn't it have been good?" What he meant was: Give me a regular pizza, one where I can taste the ingredients.
I'll post Italian Cooking Tips 7-12 on Tuesday.