My Italian mom is a fantastic cook. No matter what or how many ingredients she may have on hand… no matter how little time or notice she may have been given… no matter if unexpected guests turn up wanting to be fed… she always, without fail, has the enviable ability to take whatever is available and turn it into a delicious celebration of taste and goodness.
I wanted Mom to teach me her secrets. My organizational mind foolishly assumed that I, too, could become a fantastic cook simply by watching her as she was making a favourite dish, transcribing her instructions and quantities onto paper, then following the directions. As you might imagine, my efforts to do so exasperated us both!
The problem was that we weren’t speaking the same language.
I’m not talking about Italian and English… rather, something more akin to the language of heart versus head. Mom cooks by feel, by instinct, by taste – a little of this, a little of that – until it’s right. I wanted specific amounts and precise times to scribble down onto my little piece of paper; Mom would shrug and say something like, “Enough” or, “Until it’s ready” as she was tasting the sauce. “How much is enough?” I might ask, pen poised, to which I would receive another shrug as a waft of delicious scent emanated from the pot on the stovetop.
All the while as I was asking all the wrong questions, trying to turn art into science, Mom was working her magic and I was failing to learn.
But you know, I think I might finally get it.
A couple of summers ago I had the opportunity to watch a live cooking demonstration by David Rocco, star of David Rocco’s Dolce Vita on Food Network Canada, at Carrousel of the Nations.
He made two planned dishes – Risotto con puré di barbabietola (Risotto with Beet Purée) from his cookbook David Rocco’s Dolce Vita, and Saltimbocca di Pollo (Chicken that “jumps” in your mouth) from his cookbook Made in Italy, as well as an impromptu dessert concoction of strawberries, freshly-cracked black pepper, and balsamic vinegar. The food smelled absolutely divine, and David was charm itself, but it was his explanation of his cooking style and philosophy that gave me a glimmering of insight into what I’d been missing when it came to understanding Mom’s art.
Several times throughout his demonstration, David used the term Quanto Basta, and later as I paged through his gorgeous cookbook Made in Italy (which is full of beautiful photographs and is almost as much a coffee table book as a cookbook) I noticed that the abbreviation QB turned up in almost every recipe. He goes into detail near the beginning of the book explaining the cooking philosophy of Quanto Basta, which essentially means that you should tailor a recipe to your taste by using “as much as you need” or “as much as you want.” It’s about using what you have and making a dish your own. It’s about freedom instead of rules… about listening to your senses instead of following a strictly prescribed recipe.
This – this Quanto Basta – is the concept I couldn’t seem to grasp with my pen and paper and organizational mind, yet I see now that Mom is a perfect example of the philosophy.
Perhaps now that the penny has dropped, I’ll be able to put aside my writing implements (at least where food is concerned) and start paying attention to smells, to tastes, to textures. I may never become a fantastic cook like Mom, but perhaps I can learn to create with my heart rather than my head. And maybe something delicious will happen!
Thank you, David Rocco… and thank you, Mom.
(Updated from original post in June, 2012.)