Flavoursome Fuel

Cucina povera is an Italian phrase meaning the cuisine of the poor, or peasant cooking; the literal translation is, poor kitchen. The reason I mention this is because a few nights ago I was watching TV and I heard a chef say, food is fuel. I thought this was an odd thing for a professional to say, as most chefs want us to believe they are creating gastronomic masterpieces rather than just filling us up with the culinary equivalent to diesel.

The concept of cucina povera is becoming trendy with many chefs now serving up platters of rustic food. However ask any aged Italian about it and they’ll shrug at the concept, saying it’s a romantic notion to give the humble cooking they grew up with out of necessity a fancy name.

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You could say that peasant food could be classed as fuel, as traditionally it was served up solely to stave off hunger and to nourish the peasant farmers. The concept is to create meals from what you have, be it from the garden or the store cupboard. One of the staples of poor food is polenta and if made well it can be as comforting as a bowl of creamy mashed potato. So last night I grabbed a few items from the store cupboard and made a simple but satisfying supper.

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Polenta is cheap but commercially produced brands can be gritty, so I prefer to use a local brand that’s extra fine and results in a soft texture. I rehydrated some porcini mushrooms, made a tomato and sausage sauce and after cooking the polenta in home made chicken stock, I served it up and sat in front to the log burner enjoying a satisfying supper.

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Beef and squash lasagne

Order a lasagne in the UK and it’s generally served as a main course consisting of two or three layers of pasta sandwiched between thick layers of tomato sauce and minced beef, however lasagne in Italy is very different. It’s made up of thin layers of sauce between several layers of pasta, as it’s served mostly as il primo (first course). In Italy lasagne is made with many variations, beef, pork, a mix of beef and pork mince and during autumn and winter you see lots of squash added to the dish. Several years ago when I tried my first squash lasagne it was made up of around 12 layers of pasta with the sauce. To be honest I find it a little bit bland and remarking upon this a friend told me, it is bland so that il secondo (second course) will shine.

Thinking about this I decided that after the luxury of Christmas and New Year food maybe I could do with something less rich, so I decided to make my own squash lasagne  So here’s the ingredients: 40g pumpkin or squash, 40 g walnuts, 400 g beef mince, 250 ml passata, 150 ml vegetable stock, salt, white pepper, cinnamon, garlic salt, 4 medium shallots.

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Roast the pumpkin and walnuts in the oven at 180° (fan) until soft and as the squash is roasting fry the mince in a dry pan and then sieve off any fat. Chop the shallots finely and sweat them down in a little olive oil. Add the squash, mince and shallots to a bowl and season with salt and pepper: As squash can be bland be generous with the seasoning. Add 2 teaspoons of garlic salt and 2 of cinnamon then mix together. Add the mixture to a saucepan with the passata and stock and bring to a simmer for around 15 minutes. Let the mixture cool then add to your serving dish. (I had an aluminium tray left over from Christmas so used that – see above).

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Now if you don’t make your own pasta; which very few Italian people actually do, I advise always buying a good quality brand and my brand of choice is always De Cecco. Sorry to ruin that romantic notion the TV chefs will have the UK public believe, but most Italians actually buy dried pasta for everyday meals.

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Layer the dish with sauce and pasta and repeat until the dish is almost full, leaving just enough room for the sauce. For the sauce make a standard white sauce and add to it a tablespoon of the pumpkin mix and a generous amount of grated cheese of your choice; I used grana padano as that was what was in the fridge at the time. Make your sauce so that it has a molten cheesy consistency and cover the lasagne and top with grated cheese and pop into a pre-heated oven 180° (fan) for 20 minutes. (Don’t let it stand uncooked as the pasta will curl up).

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Once golden on top remove from the oven and serve immediately or let it cool and reheat later for supper. This recipe makes enough for 4 portions served with salad or vegetables as a main course or 6 portions served as a primo.

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