During Logan's and my year in Italy, we learned a bit about "la cucina povera," or cooking of the poor (Check out the Italy posts under "Categories" on the sidebar if you'd like to hear more). It's all about taking humble, inexpensive ingredients - potatoes, grain, legumes - and then stretching them almost to the breaking point while making something wonderful. Parts of Italy that were historically poor have this down to a freaking science. Think the potato-topped breads of Basilicata.
Or the ciceri e tria of Puglia - pasta, some fried, some boiled, served with a sauce of chickpeas.
In Tuscany, there's pinci co' le briciole (pasta with breadcrumbs):
More mouthwatering and inexpensive food after the jump:
Or one of the famed dishes of the region, ribollita (literal meaning - reboiled). This soup is made with vegetables and thickened with copious amounts of yesterday's bread. If you're here in Austin and haven't tried ribollita, the Soup Peddler has it on next week's menu, and his version is warming and comforting and even vegan (!) - order before Saturday night for delivery next week.
Of course, this is not a phenomenon limited to Italy. Check out these papas rancheras tacos from Marcelino Pan y Vino here in town. What could be cheaper to make than quick-frying some potato sticks, tossing them in a spicy sauce, and throwing them into a tortilla?
I haven't found much evidence of cucina povera in the United States. We've left a lot of that behind with the prosperity the USA has enjoyed over the past 65 years or so. Advancements in farming and ranching put steak and pork chops in the reach of the average family, and I'm sure most people that grew up stretching every dime were happy to ditch all that for modern casseroles and the finest cuts of meat their dollar could buy.
But around New Orleans, there's an example that's pretty easy to find. Most places that serve that New Orleans sandwich known as a po' boy (heck, even the name "poor boy" screams cucina povera) serve one stuffed with french fries, and it'll be the cheapest one on the menu. On Chowhound, some people argue that the french fry po' boy is the original, but that's one of those points of food history you could debate for years - and while you do, I'll eat your sandwich, please. On this trip, we picked one up from Bear's, a bar and grill near Logan's parents' house.
Like most versions I can find, Bear's tosses their fries in "debris", or the beefy gravy usually ladled on a roast beef po' boy. It's the perfect way to take all that deep, expensive flavor you get from a big roast and spread it out over a few meals.
This sandwich warmed the cockles of my carb-lusting little heart. The fries went a bit soggy by the time we portioned out the sandwich, but that was OK - there was still an enjoyable textural difference between the crusty bread, the crunchy lettuce, and the soft potato. Next time you're in New Orleans, be sure to try one of these - nobody visits this town on a diet anyway, am I right?
Or you could always go the seafood route, and get a fried oyster or fried shrimp po' boy with the fries on the side. You could do a lot worse than Bear's, by the way, if you find yourself in Mandeville.
Great, now I've got myself craving the rosemary roasted potato and goat cheese pizza at House Pizzeria here in Austin. I can only assume that it's my mostly eastern European heritage that keeps trying to convince me that I could survive on starch and pickles.
Do any other examples of cucina povera spring to mind?
Bear's is at 1809 N. Causeway Blvd. in Mandeville. 985.674.9090.
(And lastly, don't look at the Technorati man behind the curtain: 97JUKNBPJKXC)