Step into most any upscale Italian restaurants and you’re almost certain to find three favorites on the menu: Polenta. Risotto. Peasant Salad (aka Bread Salad). All are absolutely delicious “mouth foods” that send signals to your brain almost as powerful and addictive as love or chocolate. The irony is that you’ll also pay $15-$22 per plate for three dishes that cost virtually nothing to make.
Being of Italian descent on both sides, I had many aunts and great aunts who were fabulous cooks and knew how to make a meal out of whatever was in the refrigerator. You could drop by their homes anytime on any day and – while talking about Uncle Tony’s sore shoulder and Cousin Maria’s bad boyfriend – watch them work magic at the stove. Not because there was lots of money for expensive meats or organic fish, but because these incredible cooks knew if you had a bag of polenta or box of Arborio rice, you were set to feed at least 10 people for less than 25 cents a piece.
Polenta, Risotto and Bread Salad are all peasant foods in Italian culture and basic staples in any Italian kitchen.
Polenta is corn meal dressed up with butter (and sometimes cheese). That’s it. Or you can pour yesterday’s leftover spaghetti sauce on top to turn it into a meal. If the budget is a little better this month, you can also add some ground beef to the sauce or throw in a couple of baked chicken thighs.
Bread salad is the most obviously inexpensive Italian staples because it starts with leftovers like wilted lettuce. If you’re like me, there’s always some of that in the refrigerator (for the same reason half the bananas you buy each week seem to turn brown in ten seconds). Add in a few over-ripe tomatoes, day-old (or even older) French bread cut into squares, a little Parmesan cheese and a dressing of oil and vinegar.
A box of Risotto rice is the most expensive item needed to make any of these classics, so buy a big box for the pantry (it will go a long way). If you’re in the money, you can add prawns or sliced chicken breast combined with some sautéed mushrooms. If you’re feeling more frugal, Risotto is absolutely delicious with just a little butter, chopped celery and diced carrots.
Knowing the history, simplicity and economy of these dishes, my Italian friends and relatives always snicker to themselves when they seem them on the menu when dining at an expensive Sicilian or Toscana restaurant. They immediately know the chef is definitely Italian and a brilliant marketer who knows how to make huge profits by presenting low-budget classics as haute cuisine.
That said, there are a few restaurants in San Francisco where I’d pay almost any price for their versions of these dishes (or any others). A16, Cotogna and Firenza at Night are the first three that come to mind and you’ll find links to all of them in our online Resources.
But the next time you’re craving an authentic Italian meal, why not try making one of these classics yourself? Invite a few friends, raise a glass of red wine and wish them all a hundred years of good living: Cent’anni!