Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Eating Cheap, Italian Style

I was really pleased to see Italy Unpacked return to TV screens last week. Showing on BBC2 on Friday evenings, the series follows art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli as they deviate from the well-trodden tourist trail and seek out some of Italy’s best-kept secrets – hidden art treasures, exquisite buildings and generally beautiful locations that are a little less publicised in the tourist brochures. Along the way they tuck into some fantastic-looking food that is usually simple and cheap to prepare, but that is bursting with fresh and colourful goodness. In short, the programme is a real antidote to any winter blues you may be experiencing right now, whisking you far away from our rain-lashed shores to the Mediterranean sun.

Beautiful Liguria, home of pesto
Watching the first episode in the series last week reminded me just how inventive authentic Italian cooking is and that its contribution to gastronomy reaches far deeper than the watered-down version of Italian food we’re all familiar with. On last week’s programme the two presenters accompanied a spritely old lady as she went foraging in the hills above her village for wild herbs. She was a great example of how Italian cooking remains deeply rooted in the principle of "Cucina Povera" – literally, "Cooking of the Poor" – and that some of the dishes that today are regaled as being regional delicacies were born of out sheer necessity.

My own father was brought up in post-war Italy, a country absolutely ravaged by conflict where food was in much shorter supply than in the UK. When I was growing up one of my favourite things to eat was fennel – something that my own dad, like many other Italians growing up at that time, would have picked wild and eaten raw, served in slices to be dipped into olive oil with a side sprinkling of salt. Simple, quick to prepare and bursting with nutrients, this is raw food at its best and it’s a comfort food from my childhood that I still love to eat today.

In more recent times, Cucina Povera has gained a bit of a fashionable reputation, with top chefs and foodies extolling its virtues and adding their own modern twists to standards such as pesto and polenta. But I think this takes something away from the true essence of this type of cooking – it’s not about fancy gastronomy but about simple dishes prepared with imagination, using whatever is available. And absolutely nothing goes to waste. That’s why it remains relevant for those of us trying to live frugally but eat well today.
Here are some Cucina Povera standards that I recommend if you’re looking for recipes that are simple to make, high in nutrition and taste delicious…

Pea Risotto
Or ‘Risi e Bisi’ to give this risotto its Italian name. I follow a Nigella Lawson recipe from her cookbook ‘How to Eat’. It’s packed with pea-y goodness and is creamy and delicious.  Like all risottos it requires a bit of care and attention but don’t be put off – it’s worth the effort.


60g butter
Approx. 1 litre of vegetable stock
150g frozen peas
2 tbsps freshly grated parmesan (& more for serving)
Grated nutmeg
I small onion, chopped
Olive oil
200g risotto rice (eg. Arborio or Canaroli)
80 ml dry white wine.


Put about 1/3 of the butter in a large pan, melt and add the peas. Cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes. Remove half of the peas and put to the side. To the peas in the pan add a ladle-ful of hot stock. Put a lid on the pan and let the peas cook gently for about 5 minutes. Puree this mixture with a tablespoon of parmesan, and a pinch of nutmeg and pepper. 

Back in the pan add some more butter, alongside a drop of oil, and add the onion, cooking until soft. Add the risotto rice and stir until the rice is coated in butter. Pour in the wine and let it absorb, before adding the rest of the stock, one ladle-ful at a time. Carry on in this way for 10 minutes, then add the just sauteed peas before adding the rest of your stock, a ladle at a time. In another 8 minutes or so the rice should be cooked and the risotto creamy. If it's still a bit hard add some more liquid - some hot water from the kettle will do. 

Then mix in the pea puree and serve with a sprinkling of pepper, a little swirl of olive oil and a handful of parmesan. 


Polenta is a bit of wonder ingredient. Traditionally used in Italy as a cheap ‘filler-upper’, polenta is essentially a ground maize porridge that can be used in a variety of ways.  I use it sprinkled on my pizza bases to give them a bit of authentic crunch and you can make some amazing cakes using polenta as a flour substitute – handy if you or someone you know has a gluten intolerance. I’m going to refer you to Nigella once again and her recipe for lemon polenta cake which is absolutely delicious – take a look at the recipe here

You can eat polenta ‘wet’, as a creamy side to meat dishes,or firm – if you’ve ever eaten the Polenta chips at Jamie’s Italian you’ll know how good it tastes in this form.  You need to make up a firm polenta or use ready cooked polenta which you can then cut into chunks and fry in some olive oil. After resting on some kitchen paper, dust with salt and add to a bowl with some fresh rosemary and parmesan.

Homemade Pesto

So much nicer and authentic than the stuff in the jars. There are lots of recipes for home-made pesto, all of which are super simple and quick to make, but I like to follow Marcella Hazan's recipe which can be made in large quantities in a blender rather than with a pestle and mortar, meaning you can buy a massive bunch of basil and make up a big batch you can eat immediately or freeze. Here it is:

Ingredients (to serve 6)

100g fresh basil leaves
8 tbsps olive oil
25g pine nuts
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
50g freshly grated parmesan
2 tbsps freshly grated pecorino
40g butter, softened


Put the basil, oil, pine nuts, garlic and salt in a blender and mix on a high speed. When the ingredients are blended pour into a bowl and beat in the grated cheeses by hand. Then beat in the softened butter. 

If you are freezing do not add the butter or cheese at the second step, but add the blender mix to a jar, seal tightly and freeze. When you're ready to use your pesto, defrost and then beat in the cheeses and butter before serving.

Recipes reproduced from 'How to Eat' by Nigella Lawson and 'The Classic Italian Cookbook' by Marcella Hazan.


  1. Really interesting insight into Italian cooking. Love the idea of freezing pesto - will definitely try this!

  2. That programme sounds really interesting! Thank for sharing those recipes, I'll have to give them a go. I keep meaning to make some homemade pesto but never get round to it! Must do better. Thanks for linking up to #ThriftyThursday :-)

  3. YUM! I love making pesto, but have never thought to freeze it. What a fab idea #ThriftyThursday

  4. OOh it all sounds delicious! #thriftythursday

  5. I really love reading and following your post as I find them extremely informative and interesting. This post is equally informative as well as interesting . Thank you for information you been putting on making your site such an interesting. I gave something for my information. Italian Cooking


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