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The Italian Idea of "Cucina Povera" & How It Can Help You Save Money

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I grew up in a house that cooked. The one thing my family all shared was a greedy enthusiasm for food: reading about it, talking about it, cooking it and, best of all, eating it. I learned to cook from watching my mother roll buttery pastry and my father crush garlic for roasts. But, like most of us, I didn’t really learn how to cook until I left home.

Photo by Skye McAlpine

It was in my first apartment share, where I hosted my first “grown-up” dinner party: For the first time, I planned, shopped, cooked (and paid for) it all myself.

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It was, looking back, a primitive affair, a “carpet picnic” of sorts served on the floor (sitting on cushions and eating at a coffee table because in those days we didn’t have a proper dining table), but it didn’t matter. I was making my own home “a house that cooked.”

Photo by Skye McAlpine

Cooking for friends was, in the days when I was still a student, as much an exercise in balancing the books, as it was in chopping and sautéing. I cut corners, sought out cost effective ways of catering for a crowd, and took much inspiration from Cucina Povera (literal translation: “poor kitchen”)—what we in Italy call those simple recipes that magic the most basic of ingredients (like a stale loaf of bread, a bunch of onions, and a rind of cheese) into a nourishing meal.

It is the kind of warming comfort food that we all love to eat, but by its very nature relies on inexpensive ingredients. Think: bean soup, pizza, risotto, and pasta dishes.

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Photo by Skye McAlpine

Farinata is both cucina povera and a favorite dish of mine for dinner parties. A crisp pancake made from a base of chickpea flour, water, and just the tiniest drizzle of olive oil, it's quick and simple to make, easy to scale up to large quantities, and deliciously moreish.

You can make it as fancy as you like, topping it with anything from small tomatoes and fresh basil to caramelized red onions and fennel, or you can serve it plain with a sprinkling of salt. I often serve it with pears, arugula, runny honey, and shavings of hard cheese.

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Farinata with Arugula, Pear, Honey, and Pecorino

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Serves 4

For the farinata:

  • 100 grams chickpea flour
  • 225 milliliters water
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 pinch salt, plus more for sprinkling

For the topping:

  • 1 handful fresh arugula
  • 1/2 pear
  • Shavings of pecorino
  • 1 tablespoon runny honey

Other tricks for hosting on a shoestring:

  • Make simple ingredients the star. There is no getting around the fact that meat from a good butcher or fish from a good fishmonger are expensive to buy. Sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself to a joint of roast beef or a salt baked sea bass, but more often than not I will make the central focus of dinner something like polenta topped with melted cheese and homemade tomato sauce. I like to give it all the attention and drama I would give a roast, so I pour the polenta out onto a large wooden board along the middle of the table and then top it with chunks of cheese.
  • Plan the menu around what is in season and what you find at the shops. Fruit and vegetables are not only more flavorsome when in season, but as a rule of thumb, they also cost far less than anything imported. I like to go to the shops and look for an ingredient that is on special offer, stock up, and then use it as inspiration for the rest of the menu.
  • Make what you can from scratch. Make your own bread, salad dressing, and other trimmings—you will be surprised by the savings.
Photos by Mark Weinberg, Mark Weinberg
  • Use leftovers where you can. Try to plan your menu around dishes that you can magic out of leftovers—or at least include them. Turn old, stale bread into panzanella and leftover panettone into a bread pudding. If you have a few vegetables leftover from dinner last night, toss them into a frittata and serve it as a side, or cut into small squares as nibbles with drinks.
  • Keep drinks as simple as you can. More often than not, guests will bring a bottle of wine which you can share at the table. Otherwise, serve beer in glass bottles with a slice of lime wedged into the neck, or bulk out prosecco with fruit juice for a fancy but not too pricey cocktail.
  • In terms of dessert, meringues and Victoria sponge cake are my go-to for simple dinners.
Photo by Skye McAlpine

A few cheap and cheerful dishes that you can dress up for the fanciest of dinner parties:

  1. Make Spaghetti alla Carbonara with a crisp green salad. Then use the leftover egg whites to make Cocoa-Dusted Meringues.
  2. Serve a Baked Onion and Walnut Frittata with a kale salad, followed by freshly baked madeleines with Salted Caramel Custard.
  3. Follow Butternut Squash Risotto with Ginger Poached Pears. 
Photo by Skye McAlpine

Tags: farinata dinner party dinner parties