Get the family together and bring the flavours of Italy right to your table with Mario Matassa
In a country that loves and lives to eat well and, as a general rule, adheres to the principle of eating seasonally, it should come as no surprise that for many Italians spring is the most anticipated time in the culinary calendar.
It’s partly because we suffer, or at least complain that we do, such long, cold, dark winters. It is also because, for Italians, spring symbolises rebirth and renewal, usually with specific reference to the Christian calendar.
As food is so closely linked with culture in Italy, the two being practically synonymous in this writer’s view, inevitably the seasonal menu is emblematic of life renewed.
So perhaps there’s no more fitting a time to launch this new series – Saturday Night In – to celebrate family ties and friendship through sharing food together.
And as spring marks the beginning of a new season, so too, and inevitably for Italians, it heralds a new menu.
Whilst horticulturalists and keen gardeners will look to the garden, the trees and the earth for the first signs of seasonal change, the average Italian will look to the supermarket shelf.
The cabbages, pumpkins and root vegetables, which for months have held a prominent position, are gradually sidelined, giving way to the new arrivals – asparagus, artichokes, baby courgettes, peas, spring onions and baby spinach, amongst others.
The seasonal principle
Overnight, across the peninsula, the Italian menu magically transforms.
Instead of minestrone made with dried pulses and root vegetables, (which I have nothing against!) light vegetable broths are prepared.
Pasta, for months laden with ragù and sauces with dried mushrooms and beans (again these have their place and time) is given a spring makeover.
Stews and roasts give way to scallopine (thin, gently sautéed escalopes) and cutlets, and simple fish dishes are back in vogue.
Dried herbs are replaced with fresh, and even the dessert trolley is given a seasonal twist.
Most notably, the panettone, pandoro and panforte of the festive and winter seasons are replaced with, amongst others, colomba, a traditional Easter cake formed in the shape of a dove.
Having worked as a professional chef in Italy for fifteen years, one of the joys of my work is scouring the market stalls, the very best indicator of seasonal change.
And over the years I’ve been working in the kitchen I have come to a realisation. That is, good Italian cooking is less about recipes and more about sticking to principles.
This series is therefore as much about the principles of Italian cooking as it is about the recipes. The first of these principles, as you will probably have guessed, is seasonality.
The others follow in logical step. Use the freshest and best ingredients possible and, whenever possible, keep it simple. This is what makes Italian food stand out.
It’s food to be enjoyed and shared, and it is home cooking. At its very best, it’s prepared in the simplest of fashion, relying first and foremost on the finest and most readily available ingredients. The perfect recipe for an evening shared with friends and family.
Here’s the springtime supper recipes round-up:
Starter: Spring pasta – Pasta primavera
Main: Pan-fried salmon with toasted pistachio and lemon butter – Salmone con pistacchi tostati e burro al limone
Dessert: Mimosa Cake
Text, images and recipes by Mario Matassa