Lasagne, bolognese, fettuccine, tiramisu, margherita, gelato… These are all names that bring mouth-watering thoughts to any Italian food lover's mind. But ever heard of alla caprese or battuto? These terms refer to Italian cooking methods that are used to make some of these lip-smacking dishes.
Variety is the spice of life, and like Indian cuisine, Italian cuisine is renowned for its regional variety. Many cooking methods get their names from the region they belong to. Even dishes are usually characteristic to a specific region, and some have spread across the country to become not only national, but also international favourites.
So, here are some well-known Italian cooking methods you have probably already heard of:
1. Alla Bolognese
This refers to the way in which a meat-based tomato and vegetable sauce that is cooked for several hours over low heat. The traditional ingredients added are onion, celery and carrot with some minced meat. Red wine is added and cream or milk seals the sauce’s unique flavour. Originating in the Bolognese region, this sauce is usually served with flat pasta shapes such as tagliatelle or fettuccine.
2. Al Dente
‘To the teeth’ is the literal meaning of al dente which refers to a way of cooking pasta. Perhaps undercooking is a better word! If a pasta dish is going to be cooked once again, the pasta is usually cooked al dente the first time. This means when you bite it, it feels firm to the teeth and not soft. It is sometimes also used to refer to the way in which vegetables are cooked.
Most Italians cook their rice in this way. If you want to make a risotto, all you have to do is sauté some short-grain rice in olive oil, and add a meat stock to the rice to cook it. The rice is usually cooked without a lid, and each time the stock is absorbed, the rice is stirred and more stock is added. It is usually garnished with cheese or butter and eaten with meat. Sometimes pasta can be cooked in this way too.
What the Romans enjoyed as porridge is now enjoyed by Italian food lovers as a versatile dish. This refers to the method of cooking a cereal such as cornmeal, buckwheat, or semolina in water for about an hour. Chickpeas can also be used. Once it is ready, it can be served as is with an accompaniment, or it can be baked, fried or grilled. Side dishes and additions to this preparation vary: everything from fresh herbs, roasted garlic to fish sauce and sausages.
5. Al Forno
Italians love to cook their pastas and pizzas ‘al forno’ which means ‘in the oven.’ Although this term applies to any oven nowadays, the traditional wood-burning oven or open flame grill was and is sometimes still used to cook dishes al forno.
If you want to know how to become a chef specialized in Italian cuisine, you also need to know some not-so-well-known Italian cooking methods. Here are some of them:
6. Alla Caprese
Mozarella, olive oil, basil and tomato are staples at the heart of this cooking method which originated in Capri. These ingredients combined together are served as antipasto or a starter. These versatile ingredients are also combined to prepare a variety of pastas and dishes such as fusilli alla caprese and spaghetti alla caprese.
7. Alla Mattone
Mattone literally means a heavy brick or tile, and this cooking method gets its name from the brick that’s used to apply pressure to anything being cooked, especially for grilling or sautéing. Chicken or any other meat is a typical example of an ingredient that’s cooked in this manner.
8. Alla Genovese (Pesto)
Pesto is synonymous with alla Genovese which refers to the method of pounding or crushing olive oil, basil, pine nuts and garlic to make a sauce. The method originated in Genoa and a mortar and pestle are used to crush or pound the ingredients. There are other variations of this, for example pesto rosso uses tomato and almonds.
In Italian, battuto means to ‘beat’ or ‘strike’ and refers to the method of finely chopping onions, celery, carrots, parsley and some meat like bacon which are then cooked in fat, usually olive oil or lard. It forms the flavour base of many Italian pastas, risottos and soups.
Meaning ‘raw’ in Italian, the method refers to slicing seafood, usually fish, very thinly and topping it with olive oil, salt and citrus juice. You’ll find this served in Italian fishing towns. It can also refer to a mixture of raw herbs and vegetables chopped together and added to a cooked dish just before it is served.
Italian cooking employs these and several other methods to give the cuisine its gastronomic appeal.
Many aspiring chefs with a passion for Italian food turn to culinary institutes that offer a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts to master these techniques. If you want to master them professionally, there are several culinary institutes like AIMS Institutes which offer students a chance to study Italian cuisine in Italy. If you are an amateur chef, don’t feel let out because you can explore these unique methods through good books and online material.