FOOD & DRINK / Pronto per favore: The Italians, too, are demanding food that is quick to prepare. Michael Bateman suggests tips for maestros of taste in haste

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The Independent Culture
ITALIAN families never sit down to anything less than a six-course meal. You'd know this if you'd ever watched an enthusiastic TV series on Italian regional cookery presented by Valentina Harris.

So who is Ms Harris trying to kid with her book Instant Italian? She has been more than a bit-part player in some gargantuan feasts which have taken days in the preparation.

Ten-minute cooking isn't what it's about in Italy, and viewing the new Keith Floyd series (BBC2) it's clear the natives are puzzled by our hero's interpretation of their dishes. Given the opportunity to boil spaghetti in 10 minutes, many cooks in Italy would rather spend all morning making a pasta dough and hand-

rolling the spaghetti: the dough is rolled out to one-eighth of an inch, cut into matchstick widths a foot long and hand-rolled. There's an explanation for this which is good enough to satisfy any Italian; freshly-made pasta tastes better than dry spaghetti.

Valentina Harris agrees, but has to confess this attitude is changing, especially in the north. 'Life has become too hectic. Young people especially don't want to spend the hours of preparation in the kitchen that I recall at home.'

Valentina Harris is the perfect ambassador for Italian food. To all intents and purposes she is as British as Harris tweed, her voice suggesting an English boarding-school background. In fact she was born in Italy and sent to the English school in Rome, her father being a teacher of English language. 'I'm completely bilingual. I'm told I'm a bit of a freak.'

It's certainly freaky to see her on television, one minute raising her voice (and her glass) in exuberant enthusiasm at an Italian table spilling over with abundant confusion, then switching to a cooking sequence in a TV studio, aseptic surfaces shadowless under glaring lights, as she measures out precise quantities in small glass bowls. Not very Italian.

So, is it the English half of her that's into 10- minute cooking? Not at all. 'Modern Italians still have a passion for delicious eating and a love of good cooking, but they want it in a way that uses less of their valuable time. They may not want to prepare lengthy dishes like osso bucco or lasagne, but luckily the basic ingredients have good strong flavours and firm textures so they can create colourful, gutsy dishes, which are authentically Italian, in minutes.

'We are not averse to using sauces in bottles or canned foods as long as they are good enough. Many of the varieties of pasta sauces sold in Britain taste horrible and give Italy a bad reputation. Although they have given it an Italian name, and claim it is an authentic family recipe, the leading brand of tomato sauce here is actually made in Holland. It's disgraceful.'

This is Valentina Harris's guide to cooking in 10 minutes Italian-style.

MEAT: You need expensive, well-trimmed cuts to cook quickly. It is better to serve small quantities of top-quality meat than large quantities of something inferior. Calves' liver is very quick, tender and delicious. Use your delicatessen to buy Parma ham and salami, which are basic to quick eating. So are pancetta (dry-cured bacon) and bresaola (air-dried beef), a dish on its own with a sprinkling of olive oil, lemon juice and black pepper.

FISH: As long as it's fresh, it's perfect for fast cooking, especially in ready-prepared portions: trout, salmon tails, cleaned squid, mussels, raw prawns (skewer, brush with olive oil, and grill till pink and juicy).

VEGETABLES AND SALADS: Juicy peppers, fennel, courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, spinach, rocket and radicchio typify Italian cooking. Cook for the briefest possible time to retain flavour, crunchiness, vitamins and colour. Break broccoli and cauliflower into small florets and shred cabbage to cook quickly.

PASTA: Fast - very fast - food. The varieties are infinite; macaroni tubes and penne, ears and shells, stuffed ravioli and tortellini. Freshly-made tagliatelle cooks in 3 to 4 minutes and dry spaghetti in 7 to 10 minutes (not longer, you want it al dente, the centre still a little chewy.) While you boil the pasta you can make a quick sauce, or simply dress it with butter or oil, herbs and freshly grated parmesan cheese. A quick family favourite is avocado puree flavoured with garlic, some chopped parsley and a handful of grated Parmesan cheese, whizzed together in the food processor.

TOMATOES: Tins of plum tomatoes are good, but cartons or jars of passata, the strained pulp, are better for quick, tasty dishes.

MUSHROOMS: An Italian passion. Buy dried porcini and, after soaking, incorporate them with fresh mushrooms to enhance flavours.

PESTO: A sauce that represents the strident taste of an Italian summer. This famous paste, sold in jars, is a mixture of basil, pine nuts, garlic, pecorino cheese and olive oil. Stir into pasta or soups, brush on fish before grilling, or use as a spread on toasted breads (bruschetta). Use it if you can't get fresh basil.

TINS AND JARS: Anchovies impart an intense flavour to many dishes; melt down a tinful in a saucepan to make a creamy brown base for a pasta sauce (salted anchovies, if you can buy them, are better than tins). Capers are good with anchovies combined in a pasta sauce. Cans of beans - borlotti, cannellini, pinto - and lentils and chickpeas are superb for quick soups and salads (rinse carefully first). Whiz a can of chickpeas in the blender with olive oil and garlic to make a creamy sauce for pasta.

HERBS AND SPICES: Rosemary, mint, basil, sage, oregano, thyme, marjoram and bay leaves are essential to Italian cooking. If you can't get fresh herbs, use excellent freeze-dried herbs rather than dry (Daregal is the name to ask for in supermarkets). Dried red chillies are crumbled into many sauces for piquancy. Use fresh garlic rather than powder or purees. It's easy to make your own when you have time: crush 20 or so peeled cloves of garlic in the food processor and keep in a jar in the fridge.

EQUIPMENT: For fast cooking the main techniques are quick grilling, quick frying and rapid boiling. To cut things into small, thin pieces, you must have a very sharp knife; you also need a heavy-based saucepan and frying pan, and preferably a non-stick pan to save time, and a very large pan for boiling pasta (always use plenty of water). No Italian kitchen is complete without a crescent-shaped blade with a handle at each end, called a mezzaluna, for chopping herbs with a rocking motion. And naturally a food processor saves time, as you can make smooth soups and sauces in seconds.

RECIPES on page 41