The idea of a modern push toward Cucina Povera is not about depriving ourselves of good food. Just the opposite: It’s really about celebrating the fact that the clever poor came to figure out how to prepare yummy stuff outta foods that the high and mighty threw out or ignored and in the process came up with a type of cuisine unmatched for local flavor. It’s about forage. It’s about using the concentrated flavors of preserved meats for flavoring a dish, and about having patience when extracting the incredible flavor out of naturally dense muscles of the parts low off the hog.
In its modern incarnation, the Cucina Povera we talk about can’t be just about extraordinarily cheap food—and especially not about the cheapest food. Sure, during the depression years northern Italians hung a salted anchovy or herring from a beam over the table so the family could take turns rubbing it up against the gnarly skin of their daily slab of baked polenta to give it a little flavor. The anchovy lasted several days if not weeks. That’s weeks of polenta. Every day. If you didn’t get pellagra from the lack of niacin in your diet, you were lucky.
Best not go down that path. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of using anchovies to provide a dense spike of flavor is lost to us. It’s part of the idea of Cucina Povera, using what humble ingredients you have in the larder to add a surprising zing that makes a dish taste better than you’d think it would.
One can, even today in Italy, forage for wild asparagus. Not cheap in stores (if you could find it). The French go even further, as Kate Hill points out in A Culinary Journey in Gascony: Recipes and Stories from My French Canal Boat, seeking out “des asperges de la pauvre” or “asparagus of the poor” which just happen to be wild leeks. You can even forage for porcini, as thousands in Italy do. It doesn’t matter that American shoppers will pay a great deal for an inferior mushroom; it’s still part of Cucina Povera.
The best of Cucina Povera will and should surprise you. Breadcrumbs, anchovies, and a curmudgeonly discussion of meat combine in Annalena’s Kitchen to become a recipe for Pasta con Mollica while Erica De Mane thinks of La Cucina Povera and Stuffed Zucchini
Get cooking. Imagine the smells.