Baby steps towards Piemontese cooking

by Laura A

There’s an excellent vegetable vendor across the street from me.  People come from all around to shop in this tiny store, and that helps to make up for the fact that I’m now too far from a market to shop at one when I’m busy.

A youngish woman who works in this little shop considers me her pet project, I think, just because she speaks a little English and she once visited Boston.  A couple of weeks ago when I was looking for watercress, the other people who worked in the shop pulled her out of the back room to figure out what on earth I was talking about.  When I remembered enough Italian and she enough English to make the connection, I heard cries of “Brava!”  I looked up and no fewer than four well-dressed middle aged housewives were watching us eagerly, eyebrows raised, to see if we could figure it out.

Yesterday I was early enough (right after the shops reopened) to be the sole customer, so my mentor had time to explain things.  “Do you want to try something Piemontese?” she asked. A rhetorical question, for me. She pulled out a roasted beet. I’d spied the wonderfully ugly things in a box near the entrance and thought they must be special, but I really had no idea what you did with them.  Then she went to the back shelf and got a jar of bogna cauda, which is not Italian, but Piemontese dialect, for warm sauce (actually, it sounds like hot bath to me).  She showed me several vegetables that you could eat it with, including a kind of knobby and silvery celery that I’d never seen before, but I stuck with the beets for the first try.

It was easy to prepare, which is a good thing, because the plumber (I would get sidetracked if I explained) was still in my kitchen at 7:00 p.m.  The roasted beets are peeled, sliced, and eaten cold.  All you have to do with the sauce, which is made of anchovies, garlic, and oil, is to stir it over low heat in a saucepan.

I know.  You’re thinking, “Anchovies and beets?”  It is an acquired taste, I admit.  But the Piemontese seem to specialize in such combinations, and they’re surprisingly good.  Another surprising combination is vitello tonnato, or veal carpaccio (thin, almost raw slices of veal) with pureed tuna sauce. If done well (which is to say, it’s not well-done), it disappears quickly from the common appetizer plate.  There seem to be many combinations involving small doses of a heavily salted food (anchovies, sardines, olives, tuna, or various kinds of cured ham) with something more neutral or even sweet.  I’m not even sure whether this is a local cuisine, or an Italian one generally, especially since the Piemontese didn’t originally have olives, but used butter, like the French.

But I’m very much in the beginning stages of learning about Piemontese and Italian food.  This experiment involved little more than opening a jar.  And at this point I’m more likely to get my Italianate recipes from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food than the classic Italian cookbook Artusi. But when I get a fully-working kitchen and can read enough Italian to learn from Artusi (which I just now realized has been translated!)  I hope to share more.

Buon appetito!

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