Well that clearly didn’t go to plan.
The scheduling problem that started in February only got worse in March, primarily due to work life but also due to social obligations and changes in daily routines. I did manage to focus my cooking on Italian food but as for writing about it, that just… never found time in my schedule to get done.
Some Thought on Italian Cuisine
- I tried REALLY hard to cook “authentic” Italian (images of cranky grandmas tasting my food and screaming “this is not Italian” kept coming to mind), but I ultimately found this really difficult to do for several reasons:
- First what IS “authentic Italian cuisine”? Italy is divided into regions and each region approaches their food differently. Meat sauce is an Americanized thing? Well there’s ragu alla bolognese which is served in both Bologna and Naples (Also why is “ragu alla bolognese” an authentic italian dish while “pasta bolognese” is not? Looking at the recipes, they are the same thing). There’s a lot of debate between Italians from different regions about which region’s version of a particular dish is better.
- There’s a LOT of Italy-inspired recipes out there (primarily coming from the US). This can really dilute the search results when trying to find “authentic” recipes. Italy’s popularity means a lot of invention and adaptation has happened with the cuisine around the world, which makes it difficult to figure out what recipes are truly from Italy.
- Sometimes the only way to find something was to search in Italian, which is not a language I know. However, even when researching in Italian websites, the recipes weren’t really… recipes. More like suggestions of what to add with arbitrary measurements and optional ingredients. Perhaps, like me, measuring ingredients isn’t really a part of their ethnic culinary culture?
- There is a heavy reliance on ingredients sourced in Italy and honestly, you need to reside in Italy to really have access to it all. It’s something you hear a lot about anecdotally. Your basic table wine in Italy is better. The tomatoes grown in Italy are better. The cured meats are better. Even the wheat used in Italy is better (and in fact, there are several stories of people with gluten intolerance being able to eat wheat products when in Italy in spite of this (1 reasoning is that Italy’s wheat is not as “hard” as American wheat (that is to say, it has less of the “hardiness-against-pests” protein… I need to research this more))). We can get processed versions of Italian ingredients imported, but it’s never going to be the same as sourcing them locally, not to mention all the logistics of trade quality control that have been flagged issues in the past (anyone remember the scandals of imported Italian olive oil being cut with other oils?).
- At the same time, Italian food was easy to cook in the US. Perhaps too easy. Because of its popularity, there are a lot of Italian-style premade ingredients to work with: gluten free dried pastas, jarred marinara sauces, vegan pesto, refrigerated raviolis, olives, etc. In the US, one of the quickest home meals to make is to boil pasta noodles, mix in a premade sauce, and serve. Whether that could be considered “authentic” though, is pretty questionable. It certainly made weeknight dinners easy though.
- “Authentic” really depends on who you’re referencing. When Italians immigrated to the US, they brought their culinary cultures with them. But then, as all immigrants do, they began to adapt their foods to their new way of life in the US. Which is to say, Italian food in the US became hardier, more filling. The US was founded on industry and hard work, so much of its food is meant fuel long days and to be eaten quickly or on the go. Plus in the modern days of the busy dual-income household, food needs to be cooked quickly too (after all, why am I even doing this 12-month challenge if not to figure out better ways to eat well at home with those same time pressures?). If you ask any Italian-American, they would say their dishes are authentic Italian because they were adapted from their Italian heritages. But those local to Italy would probably not recognize it.
- Modern adaptations have resulted in new options that swing Italian cuisine from the popular hardy & filling style back to light and healthy. Zoodles (zucchini cut with a spiralizer to take the shape of noodles) became really trendy in 2020, returning the pasta dish to people on a variety of diet trends (keto, paleo, gluten free, etc). You can find premade zoodles in the grocery aisles now, including other spiralized vegetables like butternut squash, kohlrabi, and carrots.
- Ultimately, I decided to focus the month on adding Italian “flavors” to healthy dishes, and came out learning a few quick and easy ways to get get a weeknight meal on the table without resorting to takeout.
Some Thoughts on the Monthly Cuisine Challenge
- With April already underway, I’ve decided to use this month to take a break and put into practice what I’ve learned so far. This will also give me time to catch up on some posts and share the recipes and base recipes (!) that I’ve come up with from this challenge.
General Cooking Lessons Learned
- The magic of zoodles. Zoodles + sauce (any sauce really) + meat make for a quick and easy weeknight meal. I’ve learned to embrace the pre-cut pre-spiralized vegetables. It’s expensive but there’s always a trade-off between time and money isn’t there?
- Many dishes follow the same cooking method but use different ingredients, such as the sauté. Or the stir fry. Japanese and Korean have their own dishes that do this (Japanese chashu pork & cabbage, or Korean spicy chicken & cabbage). Italians have plenty too, just with olives and tomatoes instead of garlic and soy sauce.
- Oven steaming is super easy. We’ve been wanting to eat fish more and found an amazingly simple way to do this: oven steaming. Fish + ingredients of choice in a covered dish (or aluminum foil packet for minimized mess) popped into the oven for 20-30 minutes results in a moist, flavorful 1-pan meal that takes minimal active attention to make.
- Premade seasoning blends make the process even faster. Or premade formulas for flavor combinations. That’s the purpose of the “flavor alchemy” section of this site. For instance, I used to scoff at premade “Italian seasoning” blend, preferring to buy the dried herbs separately and adding them in as I need them. There’s value in owning the separate herbs (many are used across different culinary cuisines) but having a jar of something that just makes a dish taste “Italian” is magic.
While I don’t think I’ve learned as many dishes that are “Italian” as I would have liked this month, I think the process of researching the cuisine while living in the US has opened my cooking practice to new quick-and-healthy methods and skills that are great for weeknight meals. We’ll touch base again at the end of April. For now, I plan to practice what I’ve learned so far and get back into learning new cuisines in May.