In many countries, Italy among them, the traditional cuisine can be divided into two generic categories: cucina povera, or the food of the poor, and cucina riccha, or the food, which only the rich could afford. Ironically enough, it was pizza and pasta, the typical Italian “poor” food, that gained the world fame. Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine an Italian restaurant without them.
Cucina povera was shaped by two main factors: a limited number of ingredients, and the desire to use everything, without wasting a single piece. The meat was too expensive and what the poor could get hold of were either left-overs or undesirable parts. As it seemed unreasonable to eat the whole piece of meat straight away, the poor salted or dried it. This set up the basis for different hams, prosciutto, and salami. Fish was preserved in a similar way. Ironically, nowadays Italian cured meats are rather expensive and baccalà – the salted cod – is mere a special occasion treat.
The staples of the everyday diet were cereals and grain-based dishes, such as pasta in the south, polenta and rice in the north and gnocchi throughout. Bread was another important and valuable component: even when stale, it was never thrown away, but used in salads, like in traditional Tuscan panzanella, for stuffing the vegetables, for covering dishes, or for coating croquettes and other fried dishes. Usually, dishes were garnished with fruits and vegetables, in many cases gathered from the wild. With this scarcity of products, the poor put a lot of attention to the sauces, the combination of ingredients, and all possible elements to add some extra flavour – usually local specialities, available so broadly that they seem to have no value, like herbs or capers. This diligent research made the kitchen of the poor remarkable in its taste, and in centuries it made up its way to the world’s best restaurants. There are still many exceptional Italian dishes, mainly unknown, which may be found only in some small local osterias.
Oven-baked rice “Riso al Forno” in Italian, is definitely one the southern specialities worth trying. This dish though will hardly ever enter the restaurant menu: despite being delicious, it’s too rustic and messy in its appearance. This is the dish that represents the simple, comfort food for a cosy family dinner. My mother-in-law always cooks it, when we come down for a visit.
The recipe is very simple, but you will need to dirty several pots: to boil rice, peas (if you use frozen), cook eggs, and prepare Basic Tomato Sauce if you don’t have it ready (it can help you to heat the kitchen much better, than the vague British Heating). Another pro is the simplicity of ingredients: you can find them in any house.
Riso al Forno
- 20 min
- 30 min
- Ready in:
- 55 min
- Boil rice in salty water, at the same time boil peas (if you use frozen), cook eggs, and prepare the tomato sauce if you don't have it ready (you can find a Basic Tomato Sauce recipe in my older blog posts).
- Cut provola and taleggio (or cheeses you are using) and grate parmigiano.
- Put sauce and pease in the rice, mix well.
- Grease a rectangular baking dish, and put into it a smaller part of rice. Spread it evenly.
- Put the cut cheeses, and halved boiled eggs. Cover with the remaining rice.
- Top it with the remaining cheese, grated parmigiano and breadcrumbs.
- Bake on 200C (400F) for 20-30 minutes. The rice should be quite dry with a good, brown crust. Let it cool down for 5-10 minutes before serving