Cucina povera, Italian for poor kitchen, is not so much poor as imaginative as it involves creating something really tasty out of a few simple ingredients. The ability to conjure something out of foraged or left over ingredients that is thoughtful and heartwarming always inspires me and it was on a trip to Sicily that I found an example of cucina povera that was truly inspirational.
While aimlessly roaming around by car we happened on a Roman villa, a UNESCO world heritage site, off the main road that traverses the hilly centre of the island of Sicily. The remains of the 4th century AD Villa Romana del Casale turned out to be fascinating, with magnificently preserved floor mosaics in each room, one depicting hunting scenes and another showing women in bikinis exercising with dumbbells. An early Roman aerobic class perhaps.
Before we knew it, it was closing time, and being the last to leave we found ourselves driving out into the darkness, not entirely sure where we were and without accommodation planned. This was pre-GPS days. Seeing a sign for the town of Piazza Armerina, we headed there and once we secured a sparsely furnished room in the local convent we ventured out in search of dinner. We walked for what seemed like an hour, not finding a single place open, virtually no one on the street and a bitterly cold wind blowing. One can never be sure in Italy if one is too early or too late for dinner; it depends on the region and the climate. We eventually stumbled on a friendly, warmly lit place that seemed to have just opened (obviously we were too early). It was here that I had the most delicious pasta simply flavoured with sautéed onion, breadcrumbs, anchovy and just a touch of saffron. In regions of Southern Italy breadcrumbs can substitute for expensive grated Parmesan and, while this pasta may seem simple, it was cooked with such care to bring out the sweet onion flavour and the lovely crunch of breadcrumbs that it needed nothing else. This was a great example of cucina povera and I told the waitress how much I loved it. An elegant woman on a neighboring table seemed to be complaining of something and later our waitress told us she didn’t like that pasta specialty and being from Rome perhaps she didn’t understand the nature of the dish, at which point the waitress and I gave each other a knowing nod. Romans, what did they ever do for us? I know, the list is long, not to mention 4th century villas with hot running water and the food of the capital is regarded by some as the best in Italy. But there is a lot to love about the food of the poor South and a lot it can teach us about how to cook, how to interpret flavour, how to build on it or not. In deference to both I have taken the essence of that Sicilian pasta and added a touch of Roman excess by adding chopped green prawns, fresh peas and a little more saffron. I think you will really like this dish for its simplicity, exotic flavour and enjoyable crunch.
Spaghettoni with Prawns, Peas, Saffron and Breadcrumbs
- 3 tbs olive oil
- 2 brown shallots, finely diced
- pinch of salt
- generous pinch of saffron
- 1/3 cup dried breadcrumbs
- 300 g spaghettoni (slightly thicker than normal spaghetti) or any other quality dried pasta
- generous pinch of salt for the pasta water
- a handful fresh peas
- 6 green prawns, cleaned and sliced into 3 or 4 pieces
Saute the shallots in the olive oil very gently until translucent. Meanwhile place a large pot of water on the stove for the pasta and bring to the boil. Slightly grind the saffron in a mortar and pestle, leaving some threads intact for effect. Add 1 tbs warm water from the kettle to the saffron to dissolve it and add it immediately to the shallots. Cook on low heat for a minute. Do not cook on high heat for or for a long time as the saffron will become bitter. Add the breadcrumbs and stir until they absorb all the oil and become a little toasted. Turn off the heat. Add the salt to the rapidly boiling water, then the pasta and the peas and cook until al dente. When the pasta is nearly ready return the saffron flavoured shallots and crumbs to the heat and add the sliced prawns, stir until they just turn opaque. Drain the pasta well, toss with the prawns, onions and crumbs, and enjoy.