This post comes to us courtesy of Jessica Theroux, the author of the 2010 IACP award-winning cookbook, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers.
People often ask me to tell them about the cooking secrets I learned from the grandmothers (nonnas) that I spent a year with in Italy.
Generally, they expect me to say something about pasta making or a particular technique with garlic. I indulge them with descriptions of special tips, telling them of how 96-year-old Armida taught me that a basic flour and water pasta dough typically requires more rest than one made with eggs, or that giving a long simmer to the carcass, head and feet of a free-range chicken results in a rich, gelatinous broth that is both delicious to the palate and soothing to the joints.
In addition to such specific secrets, I also talk about the three most important cooking lessons I learned from the Italian nonnas. These lessons are about an attitude and approach to cooking; follow them well and they will transform your cooking, quickly and deliciously.
The nonnas typically gathered ingredients for their meals from their gardens or the local farmers’ market, taking into account their region’s or family’s traditional dishes.
The perfect example of this was Carluccia, a self-declared Calabrian “peasant-farmer.” Carluccia grew all of the food her family needed, with the only exceptions being salt, sugar and coffee beans. Her land was kept organically, and she knew it so well that she could tell you how the different plots produced uniquely flavored produce.
This type of knowledge informed how she cooked her ingredients; for example, the beans grown in one of her fields needed less flavoring than those from another. By growing her own food, she was able to ensure its exceptional quality, making for delicious meals and healthy foods for her family. You can watch a video of Carluccia gardening and cooking at www.cookingwithitaliangrandmothers.com.
In the kitchen, each little ingredient we use has a shockingly large sphere of influence — from the effect growing methods have on the environment, to the quality of taste and nutrient density available from the ingredients themselves. I encourage you to purchase locally and sustainably grown food whenever possible; it will make a huge difference in the quality, pleasure and taste of your cooking.
COOK WITH LOVE
Cooking with love is one of the easiest and most impactful techniques you can bring to your cooking. Rather than being a fluffy concept, it’s actually very concrete, and a method that I learned most directly from baking with Usha in the Marches region.
Usha was teaching me how to make her renowned apple cake. During the beginning of our baking lessons, she had me sit and watch her while she prepared the fluffy cake. After a couple of days, it was my turn to try making it, pastry crust and all. She was there to talk me through any questions I had but emphasized that really I knew everything already; all I had to do was think of something dear to me while I cooked, something I really loved, and share that feeling with the apples and butter, the knife and scale.
Without a recipe, and with little help from Usha, I managed to make her magical apple-raisin-rum-cake. It came out exceptionally well and, according to Usha, with a unique, tasty twist of Jessica.
This approach to cooking is very simple: just think about something you love while you cook, and bring that care and respect to your cooking. It will transform your ingredients into something undeniably more delicious. I’ve seen it happen, time after time.
COOK TOGETHER AND HAVE FUN!
Cooking and eating should be fun! The Italians know a lot about this, having cultivated it as a way of life for centuries. Food alone is cause for celebration whenever possible, and all forms of special events are celebrated with food.
Families gather around the kitchen table daily for lunch and dinner, and often a group of women will share the cooking, discussing the joyful and intimate details of their lives while they chop and stir. Having predominantly cooked alone before going to Italy, I was delighted to discover this community aspect of food.
Cooking with Mary, an artist and landowner in Tuscany, was a striking example of how much fun cooking with a group of women can be. Mary had a warm-weather cottage outside of Arezzo. It was the place where she, her sisters and female friends retreated during the spring and summer months to cook, make art and spend time together.
The women debated over matters of great culinary importance, such as how much rice to add to a creamy white bean soup, or how best to tie a rabbit’s legs for roasting; almost always their discussions ended with strings of laughter! Each woman participated in the joy of making a meal special; some set the kitchen table, others foraged for lanky wild asparagus, and they all stirred the pots of simmering tomato sauce and bubbling soup. Each dish prepared in Mary’s cottage was touched by the simple pleasures of female conviviality and the hands of multiple cooks; the result was the most playful experience of food I had ever had.
Cooking together not only lessens the work placed on one individual, but also makes for greater joy in the kitchen. With a group of friends or the company of your family, time passes more quickly, cooking secrets and tips are shared, and you get to have fun with one another in the process.
About the author: Jessica Theroux is the author and photographer of the 2010 IACP award-winning cookbook, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. She lives in Berkeley, California, where she writes, cooks, teaches, and has a private practice as a holistic nutrition consultant. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org