Friday, January 13, 2012

Practice makes perfect in the kitchen

I took the family to the local pizzeria last night. The pizzaiolo, who’s become a good friend over the years, set my sons to work. For the past few months they’ve been learning how to make their own pizza - little pizza chefs in training you might say. My younger son, Giuliano, always opts for the classic margeherita. The older one, Massimo, likes to throw a little Italian sausage on top. It’s surprising how quickly, with a little perseverance and the occasional guiding hand, they’ve come to master the important art of pizza making. They now always make their own and last night, to my surprise, between the two of them they even managed to serve me up one of my own personal favourites – a pizza with extra onions, extra anchovies and olives. My wife wasn’t too pleased but the pizza was perfect! That’s practice for you.

A few days back I was watching TV and something I heard struck a chord. A celebrity chef was working his way through a recipe setting out a few key pointers in the making of a good stew.  The dish complete he said something along the lines that if you follow these principles ‘you never have to have the same stew twice’. In truth I can’t argue with that, there are no doubt endless versions on the theme. Similarly, in a cookbook I was reading some time ago, the author (a noted chef), pointed out that there is no reason ever to have the same bowl of pasta twice. Again, strictly speaking, I guess he’s right – if you consider the sheer number of commercially available pasta’s available these days, not to mention fresh pasta, coupled with infinite choice when it comes to dressing your pasta, you could theoretically go through life never having to eat the same bowl of pasta twice. I guess both chefs come from the ‘variety is the spice of life’ school of thought.

There is, of course, something to be said for variety. There’s nothing like a little experimentation in the kitchen to get the creative juices flowing. But then again, there’s also something to be said for revisiting a dish that’s been tried-and-tested. Here in the provinces my neighbours are true creatures of habit. They like to revisit the same old dishes time and time again. In fact, I would bet every single Euro in my wallet (which, trust me, isn’t many) that I could guess at least one dish that every one I have met and spoken with today has eaten in the past week. There’s nothing boring in that. In fact, it’s something that I (and my local neighbours) find reassuring. I still can’t bring myself not to eat fish on a Friday night – a habit I acquired as a child back in Belfast living above the family restaurant. I need a humble bowl of spaghetti red sauce at least twice a week or I start suffering withdrawal symptoms and Sunday lunch here just wouldn’t feel complete unless I started with a bowl of stuffed fresh egg pasta swimming in a sea of homemade broth.

As with the table, the same principle applies in the kitchen. If we are constantly changing what we eat, how are we ever going to achieve anything in the region of perfection? Let’s not forget that the same chefs who advocate a different dish every time we take to the kitchen probably cook the same dish dozens of times every day of the week at work. That’s why their food tastes so good - practice makes perfect!

Writing a short article on cucina della nonna for Taste Italia magazine a couple of days ago I got to thinking about the time I spent years back as my grandmother’s de facto apprentice in the kitchen. Like most Italian grandmothers, she was a creature of habit. She had her repertoire of recipes and she cooked them perfectly. Why she did so was simply because she had been cooking them all her life. And there was something wonderfully reassuring about knowing what to expect every time I visited. Those skills and flavours have carried with me and I’ve spent years trying to recreate her food to the point where I can’t tell the difference if my grandmother herself had been standing in the kitchen cooking – and, I still have some way to go!

I read somewhere once that to get really good at something – a trade, a skill, whatever – requires something in the region of 10,000 hours of practice. It’s a principle, I think, that applies well to the kitchen. You could, certainly, go through life never cooking or eating the same dish twice. But if you do so, how are you ever going to know what that dish could taste like? How are you ever going to become accomplished at making something? How would my sons ever have been able to make me my favourite pizza? Variety might be the spice of life in the kitchen - but practice makes perfect. No doubt the next time I have a hankering for a bowl of pasta or a warming pot of stew, I might well open a recipe book and try something new. But then again, I might just stick to an old favourite!


  1. My son's padrino is a pizzaiolo, and my kids love going to his restaurant because they get special attention (and have also assisted him in the past). My daughter is a margherita lover but my son takes after my husband and loves pizza diavola. You raise so many interesting points in your post. I think I need a Taste magazine subscription! I didn't watch my grandmother cook (she died when I was quite young). Infact I could hardly cook when I got married. I love your point about each time you cook, it is different, it is never exactly the same dish. I think there is room for both - old favourites (chocolate cake - what I usually bake)and new recipes (your coffee cake!). We usually make brodo (or Delia Smith's tomato soup), but as I said the other day I would like to try your minestrone recipe. Variety can be the spice of life. But I often tend to be a creature of habit.

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful essay. Also some dishes are changeable by design and necessity - that is one reason we had to write about Spaghetti alla Trabaccolara.

  3. It's hard to break old habits Cathy. Plus why do it, if you don't want or have to? But of course, there's always occasion to try something new!

  4. Mike and Martha, I love your blog. Great photography, very evocative and some great walks.