Cucina Povera - 'the food of the poor'

The girls and I have been studying Italy lately.  We enjoy camping out on a subject and digging in deep.  It's not hard (obviously) for me to dig deep into Italy.  We started with studying where our Italian relatives came from - learned about Ellis Island, then turned our attention to working on learning Italy's 20 regions - and what makes them distinct.

While searching for information about the Campania region - we stumbled upon this BBC series that has captured us, called 'Two Greedy Italians'.  I was jumping up and down in my kitchen, actually - when I realized this show includes my favorite Italian chef - Gennaro Contaldo.  Remember him? I've posted a LINK to his video on how to make home made pasta.  I feel like he is family to me, somehow.   I just LOVE watching him cook, hearing him passionately talk about food.

In this episode, these two crazy, hungry Italians share about how 'poor man's food' - or 'Cucina Povera' came out of very difficult economic times in Southern Italy.  It led to food like pasta & pizza - when the more expensive food items were out of reach for most families.

We talked about Cucina Povera in the kitchen as we tried rolling out our own 'fusilli' like the 89 year old lady on the documentary had done.  (Wow, what a skill!  Ours took 4 hours, and didn't look half as pretty as hers).  

The next day, we talked about it some more.  I didn't have 'anything' for lunch... but I DID have that dried pasta, and onion and garlic.  We picked some collards from the garden, sauteed them with onion, garlic and a tiny bit of anchovy for flavor.  I dumped in some cooked garbanzo beans and even threw in a leftover cooked sweet potato.  After the pasta was done, we tossed it with our sauteed mixture.  Longing for some Parmesan which I didn't have... I remembered that Italian families who couldn't afford cheese on their pasta would toast some stale bread crumbs to sprinkle on top, instead.


We basked in the glory of that simple lunch.  All of our bellies were full - even though our meager pile of home made dried pasta had looked so small to begin with.

We can relate to Cucina Povera.  We live on a small business income - my hard working husband supporting the six of us.  Although we are so grateful that his work has stayed steady - there still can be gaps of several weeks when we have to make things stretch.  This week was one of them.  As I looked over the cabinets and fridge - I had to prioritize the bills that are due this week - and make some smart decisions about how to make what we have on hand  last until that next check comes.  I usually take lots of deep breaths and quietly pray for creativity.  This time, the lesson fit too well into our studies not to discuss it with the girls.

I order bulk items from a co-op (which allows me to get them at near wholesale price) so I usually have a good stash of wheat/kamut (for grinding into flour), a good selection of beans, dried corn and rice.   Then we have our large garden, which is nearly done at this time in November.  But we still are harvesting some items.  

It was fun to talk openly with the girls about it.  'OK ladies.  Let's get creative.  We get to use 'Cucina Povera' this week and figure out how to make some great meals with what we have.  Want to help me think? What do we still have in the garden to pick?  "Swiss chard!"  "Beets & carrots!" "Radishes, kale, collards".  These cuties lit up as they helped me decide if we should do cooked beets, or slice them raw for a salad.  We talked about the fact that although we don't have any meat on hand, we DO have a lovely full bag of bones and scraps for making soup stock.  We put those in a pot to simmer, and enjoyed the wonderful smell that it brought to the house.  

We did purchase a bag of potatoes, simmered onion and garlic and picked herbs from the garden to sautee in some fresh bacon grease we'd saved.  Nothing 'povera' about those aromas.  A lovely potato & carrot soup emerged from our home that night.  Some of the beet tops were chopped and added at the end.  We smeared toasted bread (baked the day before) with a home made fennel pesto (from the recent trimmings of our fennel bush that would soon freeze) - put the crusty bread in the bottom of each bowl -and ladled the warm goodness on top (an idea that Gennaro & Antonio had inspired). We had a raw beet, radish, carrot & kale salad that had marinated in some vinegar while the soup cooked.  Of course, I thought about how good that soup would have been with some lovely sausage floating in between the potatoes, or how nice some Parmigiano Reggiano would be melting on top....

But that meal was delicious.

 The girls slurped down every bite and went back for more, and husband said it was his favorite meal in weeks.  It sure DID get me in touch with the exact things that my Italian ancestors must have done.  Saving scraps, bits of fat, meat and things can stretch and give incredible flavor to humble food like potatoes and stale bread.  

It was interesting to hear some questions that the girls asked that day - "Mom, are we poor?"  They ask these kind of questions at different times.  Sometimes it's "Are we rich?"  My answer is usually the same.  

"We are both.  And we are neither.  We can feel either way, depending on who we compare ourselves to."  This is where our discussion floats to Haiti, The Philippines, Mexico or other places I've visited - and feeds my longing to take them to these places.  My favorite way to look at it is that "we have exactly what we need."  

Although I'm just learning the word for it, Cucina Povera to me, is a good friend.  It has been with me for years.  It challenges me to think above my struggle and dig deep with creativity.  To stop comparing my life to the friend who never sweats when she has to buy groceries, but instead, remember my great-grandparents who were rewarded (as I am) with the deep satisfaction of making something really, really good out of 'nothing'. 

Freezer Scrap Soup Stock!

Having a world traveler or two in your life is essential.  We have one of those. Ours is Will.  Having cycled through Southeast Asia, Africa and parts of Europe, his travel experiences have given him a wealth of stories as well as incredible resourcefulness.

He tells a story of being in Africa.  He always had a small crowd of onlookers as he prepared his meals and set up camp.  One day, after packing up his things to go, he saw some children pick up some of the papery garlic skins he had discarded.  They took them up to their mouths and sucked on them to savor whatever flavor they could draw out.  "This struck me", he said. "That there is still so much flavor to be found in food scraps we so often toss out".

I love a good story behind an idea.  This idea is what I call 'Freezer Scrap Soup Stock'.  My name for it might not be appealing, but the idea is simple and brilliant.  Ever since Will shared the idea - I try not to let those bits of flavor leave my kitchen without drawing out as much goodness as possible.

Here's the scoop: Grab a plastic bag (a used produce bag works fine) the next time you are chopping vegetables.

Make friends with it.  It will live in your freezer for awhile.


Start pulling out your freezer bag whenever you chop veggies. Collect all of the scraps (normally headed for the compost bin or chicken yard) and keep them in your freezer bag.  You will be amazed at how quickly the bag will fill up. That half of onion that was a bit brown (but not moldy), the rubbery carrot that sat in the fridge too long - the parsley in the fridge that is a little old... throw them ALL in!


(Don't worry if they start to get a bit icy in there - it will all melt off).


Once your bag fills up, just dump all of the contents into a large stock pot, add salt & pepper and maybe a bay leaf if you're so inclined... (not necessary if you've got lots of herb stems already in the bag) and let it simmer for several hours. If you are a crock pot type of person - throw it in there.


After a few hours, your collection of almost-tossed-out veggies will have let go of their flavor and given you a beautiful thing:  stock.  (since it's seasoned it is technically broth).


Freeze this lovely liquid into smaller containers - and you can guarantee you'll have a super flavorful soup or sauce when you use it.


Collect any: onion & garlic bitscarrot endscelery topszucchini ends, swiss chard stemsstems from fresh herbs ...  in your freezer bag!  I typically avoid scraps from the cabbage family (not a big fan of that flavor in my stock) though you could try it to see if you like it.

Items to avoid: NEVER use any green parts from vegetables in the nightshade family (tomato, pepper, potato) as these plant parts contain toxic elements.  This means - avoid the stems or leaves of bell peppers, tomatoes as well as potatoes with any sprouts on them or green color.  Never use any vegetable with black mold or any old/rotten meat. 

I also save and freeze meat bones from our meals (roasted chicken, pork chop bones, etc.) to add flavor to the stock.  You would be amazed, however - that just the veggie scraps alone - plus salt - give a wonderful result.

Your compost (or chickens) won't mind that you pulled some of the flavor out of the veggies first.  After I've drained my stock - I toss the cooked veg into the compost!

A parting note from our wise friend Will:

"waste is a relatively new concept..."

Trash to treasure. Our reclaimed wood adventures...

Something I dearly love about my hubby is that he loves old stuff. When we met, the only vehicle he owned was his rusted out, old '67 International pickup. I loved it.  I remember admiring his small corner collection of old records, scouting a vintage Hawaiiana print on his wall, admired an old tablecloth of his grandmother's on the table at his place.   My momma used to work in antiques and was forever finding treasures, which my whole life I've been surrounded with.

Jeremiah and I both love one-of-a-kind items with a story to tell.  One of our favorite dates is walking through thrift stores together, antique malls, hitting up a garage sale or a good flea market... in fact - he will even tell me "slow down! We're going to miss something.." if my meandering pace is too swift and makes him feel rushed.  This year - two highlights of our anniversary date were collecting driftwood at our favorite lake, and going to the recycle yard to collect discarded fence paneling.

...which brings me to THIS post!

A couple of years ago - I fell in love with vegetable gardening - and Jeremiah got behind my dream of growing as much produce as possible on our (less than) 1/5 of an acre lot.  We start seeds in the basement under grow lights every winter, now - and since last February - I get to transfer them to my very own greenhouse in the early spring!


One of the most exciting parts of watching him build this greenhouse - was seeing the way that the materials for the project came together.  We are often not in the position to just go right out and purchase a lot of the things we desire - (even if they will eventually save us money).

We dream.

Clip from magazines.

Sit on the floor at the bookstore with a stack of home and garden books and say "ooh" a lot.

But little by little - as we wait and watch and trust... I can see how God loves to blow our socks off by providing even more creative ways to give us little pieces of our dreams.  Small and big gifts that speak love to my heart.

This greenhouse came together so beautifully - as the skills that he has acquired through years of struggle and hard work - worked their magic alongside traded windows from a dear neighbor, reclaimed doors, hardware, collected bricks and yes... some new material from the big box stores.  I absolutely love the way it turned out.... but my FAVORITE part is the inside walls.  We used wood from discarded cedar fence paneling.

feb mar 2012 199Because a greenhouse needs optimum light for plants to grow, we decided it was best to whitewash the wonderful old distressed wood.

It was such a fun project and made us start to think... what ELSE can we use this (free) wonderful recycled lumber for??DSC_0013

Jump ahead one year.  Our family of 6 is busting the seams of our little 1100 square foot house.  We decide to try and 'finish' one section of our attic ... just to make a fun extra play room for the girls.  We found an old window we loved at our local recycled building supply store.  That went in last summer.  Getting the floor in was SO exciting!  We threw a rug up there and some white lights - and the girls would go up and play games and peek out the window into the backyard.


Once the walls were framed in, we could start to picture how the room would feel.   We were excited to find that recycled denim insulation was actually a bit cheaper than the horrible-to-install fiberglass type, so we used this for the walls.   As the room began to take shape - we could tell that this attic was the next perfect place for our reclaimed wood.


We paneled both ends of the room with the cedar fence panels (just like the greenhouse).

Don't you love how I say 'we'... when I clearly mean 'he'?

After searching online, we saw a great idea  - to put small shelves into the wall's paneling - so we (he) put those in on the window (west) wall.


Once both walls were paneled, we used an idea we'd found in a book where they used trim to cover the seams of the drywall in an old cabin.  This creates a seamed/paneled look while avoiding the time consuming step of tape, mud & texturing the walls.  We had extra floor space to the south, so we were also able to add a long storage space with doors to store sleeping bags, toys and such...DSC_0085







The room turned out to be so cute - we finally decided to make it into a bedroom.  It has added so much room to our home - and our two littlest girls can walk around upright for now - so it works for them!

Here are a few pictures of the room as it is now... beds and all!  Ruby and Gia feel like the luckiest girls around, with their special attic bedroom!





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This little boxed wall around the entrance helps make the entrance spot safer, but the girls all know that it's still a place to be very cautious!  Babies/toddlers are not safe without constant supervision up here.

So this is how we got creative and made a small house a little bigger.  Sometimes when you've got a bunch of kids, you've just got to put them up in the attic!