Over the past decade, Luciana Sampogna’s Sydney cooking school, Cucina Italiana, has been covered by virtually every food magazine in the country. Not to mention newspapers, community journals, Sydney travel guides and the like. Every one of these articles is proudly on display in the “teaching area” of Lucia’s home. In between dough rolling and ravioli filling, students take in the glowing editorial.
The wallpaper of praise is due, too. Luciana has a passion for pasta and Italian cooking that seems unique, but I suspect lies within all Italians. After three hours with Luciana, you’ll wonder why you ever laid hands on a store-bought frozen lasagne. The four-course dinner made and served at her home had students astounded by their own ability. If you love Italian food, you owe it to yourself to view it through Signora Sampogna’s eyes.
1. Dance with your dough
For Luciana, teaching is an art, and a decade of practise has taught her the golden rule: “A teacher should inspire you and, at the same time, educate you. One should not be without the other.” What she’s particularly good at is changing the way we perceive laborious food tasks. Take kneading, for example, which she describes as “a midnight dance”. “To most people, kneading is not enjoyable,” explains Luciana. “But dancing is something light. It’s when your body is relaxed; so make your body move like a midnight dance. When I’m teaching, I want the students to transport their hard day onto the table… If you knead your dough by moving your body, you’ll notice how satisfying life can be.” How is this done, exactly? Step away from the kitchen bench and, using your palms, really heave your body weight into the dough. Continue this “dance” for six minutes.
2. Don’t wait for pasta to float
We’ve all heard this pasta tip before, but no-one quite knows where it came from. Luciana, for one, is adamant we’ve been misinformed. “Sadly, there’s a misunderstanding that pasta is ready when it floats. Pasta is ready when it’s al dente. Floating and al dente are not synonymous.” Instead, she recommends removing a string of spaghetti or ravioli parcel from the boiling water, and testing it by mouth. What you’re looking for is a certain “bite”, rather than softness.
While dry pasta usually comes with cooking guidelines (depending on the variety), al dente is still personal. “Once you place the pasta in salty water – very close to the flavour of the Mediterranean – the heat reduces, causing the water to come off the boil. It’s only when the water returns to the boil that we begin counting the minutes that the pasta will cook.” If you’re boiling fresh homemade pasta (good for you, by the way), wait at least three minutes before conducting your al dente test.
3. Good stock signals a good cook
Italian stocks are simple. Unlike, for example, a French stock which uses herbs and garlic, Luciana sticks to four ingredients, plus salt and pepper (freshly ground, of course). “The secret to Italian stock is simplicity – hence the difficulty. Our stock goes in our sauces, ragus and soups. All you need is celery, carrot, onion and parmesan rind,” she says. Meat stocks follow the same idea: “All you have to do is to add cuts with plenty of bones, such as osso buco. For fish stock, I prefer the shells of prawns, so it’s not too strong or overpowering,” says Luciana.
While it’s easy to opt for the supermarket-bought stuff, Luciana stresses the importance of making yours from scratch. “It’s so easy, and is as important as a good olive oil, parmesan or tomato sauce. A good stock is the sign of a good cook – it is the ultimate. It’s all a good plate of tortellini needs; the perfect broth.”
4. Don’t forget to freeze
Home cooks are no strangers to freezing extras for later. What you might not realise is you can apply the same for ravioli fillings and pastas sauces. “Really learn to freeze; it keeps things fresh and makes life easier,” says Luciana. “You can freeze so much – ravioli fillings, such as pumpkin or beetroot, freeze well. So when you’re ready, make the dough from scratch and spoon in the fillings. Or take ragu, for example, which has to be slow cooked for many hours. Make plenty and freeze it.” Make two to three times the amount you normally would, freeze, and you’ll end up with a few extra meals per week.
5. Make time for your meals
Listening to Luciana describe the pleasure she gets from cooking, it’s easy to see why she’s made it her full-time gig. For those of us with little time and groaning stomachs, spending hours on a fillet of pork slow-cooked in milk (one of Luciana’s specialties), is – simply put – not gonna happen. But what Luciana teaches her class is that by eating out, we actually lose out. “Cooking should be fun and give you pleasure in each moment you’re doing it. If you don’t have time to cook during the week, then see my commandment on freezing. When you do cook, cook properly and do it with heart. Make time to prepare, to discover; enjoy every part of it. If you don’t feel like cooking, then don’t. Get takeaway or eat toast!”
6. Balance flavours by taste
Luciana’s holistic food philosophy reminds us that each ingredient we encounter is unique: “Consider that vegetables and fruits come from the earth. And it’s the earth, sun and rain that finalise their flavours. Hence, a chilli may not be so strong today as tomorrow, or a lemon may not be so juicy as on another day,” she says. To allow for these variations, Luciana urges we learn to maintain balance through taste. “Take care not to add too much salt early on, as it may be too much later. Learn to create balance as you go. Go slow with certain herbs as their balance is imperative in Italian cooking – any excess of flavour may destroy your whole dish.”
If you are making a pasta sauce, for example, taste it, and, if necessary, adjust to suit – regardless of how many tablespoons of such-and-such a recipe calls for. Taste as you go and be the judge.
7. Traditions must be upheld
“Traditions are like roots. A beautiful tree can only survive the changes that nature brings if the roots are big and deep into the earth,” says Luciana. Clearly, it’s something she is passionate about, in light of the fusion and modernisation of food. “Tradition will keep you alive; your roots identify who you are. Remember, if you don’t do your part and tell your story, it might be too late tomorrow. So spend time with the old and learn something new to give to the young.”
8. Forget fussy presentation
Elaborate garnishes and perfect lines aren’t welcome here. If anything, what you want is messy. “Italian food is so simple and so rustic that, as ‘chefs’ try to interpret it and reinvent it, they end up killing it. You should respect the history of each dish, understand the struggle of some; the joy of others,” says Luciana. “Many dishes tell a story. Before cooking, try to understand what Italians really want from a dish, which is usually a little comfort, a sense of security, and a sense of love given by a mother.”
9. Ignore what you see on TV
Words like “fast”, “easy” and “cheat’s” are heavily used to promote recipes that can be churned out in less than five minutes – a concept unheard of in an Italian kitchen. “We do not have instant food in Italian cooking. We can’t even decide what we’re going to cook in less than half an hour,” asserts Luciana. Rather than gracing our television screens, the best Italian chefs, she says, are more likely to be hidden in a home kitchen. “You may find them in a supermarket smelling a fruit, touching a vegetable. It is the old lady around the corner who struggles to walk. It is that same old lady who decides to sit down and pour some flour, water and yeast… controlling her arthritis, she moves her hands gently. Kneading, dancing, making the room fragrant. Life is not made in five minutes.” And neither is a worthwhile meal.
10. Cucina povera isn’t just “peasant food”
At the heart of Italian cuisine is cucina povera – hearty dishes made up of basic ingredients, such as chickpeas, potatoes and bread. Think comfort food that’s doesn’t cost much yet fills the belly: bean stews, gnocchi, pasta with cheese and pepper. For Luciana, “It’s about our people, our struggles, our memories. The simplicity and comfort of Italian food symbolises our fight for survival. So when you come across a pappa al pomodoro, acqua cotta or ribollita, remember that these dishes tell the story of Tuscany… Tuscany which was once poor.” The day-old bread commonly found in said dishes is symbolic of hard times; the bread being introduced to calm the hunger. “Trying to replicate such dishes is challenging because they carry love as the main ingredient; love for survival, love for your country; love for where you come from.”
What do you know of Italian cooking? Share your tips in the comments below.