Gennaro Contaldo puts a bowl of penne in front of me. “Eat! Enjoy it!” he says. It’s 10am, but you don’t turn down pasta at a famed Italian chef’s house – no matter what time it is.
He made it from bits and pieces he found in his kitchen yesterday: Parmesan rind, carrot, a chunk of guanciale (cured meat), a jar of chickpeas, one shallot, celery, a single potato, some romaine lettuce – cooked down for 45 minutes with stock and served with a scoop of starchy pasta water and a glug of olive oil from the enormous vat sitting on his outdoor kitchen worktop.
Very simple, and very tasty. The 74-year-old – known affectionately as Jamie Oliver’s ‘London dad’ (he taught him everything he knows about Italian cooking) says he throws “nothing” away, adding it doesn’t just annoy him when people waste food, “It really upsets me”.And not only for environmental reasons.
In a cost-of-living crisis, throwing any food away is literally money in the bin. Knowing what you can do with leftovers is the key to cutting your food bill, Contaldo believes.“If [people] knew how to cook, they would save at least half – at least! I really, really press everyone to learn how to cook because once you’ve learned how to cook, you can go around and use whatever you find in the house.”
Classic, Italian cooking, at its very heart, is cost-effective. The basis of many of the most famous dishes is known as ‘cucina povera’ – literally translating to ‘poor kitchen’ or ‘poor cooking’ – “Because there was not much, whatever you had you cooked in many different ways and nothing used to be thrown away.” This is reflected in his latest cookbook, Gennaro’s Cucina, which focuses on hearty, money-saving meals.
He learned to cook himself because, simply, everyone did. “Inside my house papa wanted to cook, grandfather wanted to cook, my grandma would cook, my mama would cook, my sister was taught by my grandma."
“There was no information, not many people wrote recipes down – I, myself, have a recipe book here,” he says, tapping his head.
Passatelli in brood
100g stale breadcrumbs
100g grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra to serve
2 pinches of grated nutmeg
Zest of ½ lemon
Plain flour, for dusting
1L chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine all the ingredients (except the flour for dusting and the chicken stock), including a little salt, in a bowl and mix well until you obtain a dough-like consistency. Form into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest at room temperature for at least one hour.
2. Remove the clingfilm, then take about a quarter of the dough and press it through a potato ricer with large holes, cutting it off with a small sharp knife when it is about five to six centimetres in length. You may get varying lengths and that’s fine. Place them on a lightly floured board, taking care not to break them.
3. Repeat with the rest of the dough, a quarter at a time.
4. In the meantime, bring the chicken stock to the boil in a large saucepan, then drop in all the passatelli and cook until they rise up to the surface. Remove from the heat and divide the mixture between four individual bowls. Serve with a little black pepper and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan.
Parmigiana di zucca
1 x 1.4kg pumpkin (you need approx. 1kg prepped weight)
3–4 eggs plain flour, for dusting
Abundant vegetable oil, for deep-frying
2 balls of mozzarella cheese (each about 125g), drained and roughly chopped
75g grated Parmesan cheese
For the tomato sauce:
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
6 basil leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. First make the tomato sauce. Heat the olive in a saucepan, add the onion and fry over a medium heat for about five minutes, then add the tomatoes, basil leaves and some salt to taste. Leave to simmer over a gentle heat for about 25 minutes until thickened.
2. In the meantime, peel the pumpkin, cut it in half, then into quarters, remove the seeds and then cut into slices about five-millimetres thick. Lightly beat the eggs in a shallow dish with a little salt and pepper. Dust the pumpkin slices with flour, shaking off the excess, then dip into the beaten egg.
3. Heat plenty of vegetable oil in a deep frying pan until hot, then add the pumpkin slices (you may need to do this in batches, depending on the size of your pan) and deep-fry for a couple of minutes on each side. Remove using a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil.
4. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180°C fan/200°C/gas mark 6.
5. Line an ovenproof dish with a little of the tomato sauce, then place some pumpkin slices over the top, sprinkle with a little black pepper, dot around some mozzarella, sprinkle over some grated Parmesan and top with some more tomato sauce. Continue making layers like these until you have finished all the ingredients, ending with a final sprinkling of mozzarella and grated Parmesan.
6. Cover with foil and bake in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake for a further 15 minutes until the cheese has melted and has taken on a golden brown colour. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
Gennaro’s Cucina: Hearty Money-Saving Meals From An Italian Kitchen by Gennaro Contaldo is published by Pavilion Books, priced £25. Photography by David Loftus. Available now.
Gennaro Contaldo: If people learnt to cook they’d save so much money
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