From the Kitchen… La Cucina Povera

published Jan 12, 2007
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

La cucina povera is an Italian phrase that means “cooking of the poor,” or “peasant cooking.” This often refers to a now-fashionable mode of Italian cooking, popularized by Mario Batali and usually involving entrails, in some fashion.

On a deeper level it reflects a necessary philosophy that is common in all cultures: making do with what you’ve got to transform humble ingredients into dishes that are more than the sum of their parts.

I came across this phrase in an article from Food & Wine. The author decides to live off his pantry for a weekend, without any last minute trips to the grocery. He discovers that la cucina povera is really a state of mind. He says…

“It is one thing to smack your lips in wonder at the powerful flavors of cucina povera. It is quite another to spend $40 for Laudemio olive oil and imported beans. And by the time you find yourself in a Tuscan village taking the seven-day cooking course on cucina povera that one Italian-vacation packager offers for about $2,000 – well, you are some distance from the peasants, spiritually if not geographically. The lessons of cucina povera are elsewhere.”

My cupboards are stuffed with dal, rice noodles, whole grains, canned tomatoes and other ingredients that I have amassed over the past year. My shelves are groaning with food – far too much for one person. It is both a challenge and a responsibility to use this food well. So I resolved to follow the spirit of cucina povera in my own kitchen this month.

The spirit of la cucina povera is about embracing constraints and discovering the delicious creativity that can spring from making do with what you’ve got – which is very much in line with our mission here at the Kitchen. Our culture pushes us hard the other way, of course, which is what the author is talking about when he says:

“America gives us more choices than we need: too many channels, too many Benjamin Moore paint chips, too many ways for Starbucks to overcharge you. Eventually you learn to shop first and ask questions later. This is how you find yourself buying a $40 bottle of olive oil when what you are really hungry for is a plate of beans.”

I’m going to eat my plate of beans the rest of this month and into February, resisting the lure of the last minute trip to the grocery store. I want to see what happens. Along the way I hope to offer tips for using up that can of chickpeas or half bag of rice that’s been sitting around since July.

What’s in your cupboards that you want to use up this month?