Thursday, September 15, 2011

Italian Cooking Basics - What I Learned from David Rocco

When we moved to Malta we learned a lot about Italian cooking ingredients and methods. With fresh ingredients readily available and inexpensive (the price of fresh parmesan cheese in Malta is a quarter of what it is in Canada) Mike and I worked our way through David Rocco's Dolce Vita cookbook this year.

Dolce Vita is my food bible. It has changed the way I cook, period. And thanks to David Rocco, my Italian-Canadian food guru, we now have many Italian dishes under my belt that have become part of our go-to meal repetoire.

The best things I have learned from David Rocco, besides how to make good meatballs, are about ingredients. I have since added several foods to our fridge and pantry that are here to stay, and have discovered flavour combinations that I can't believe I had lived twenty years without tasting. If you are at all interested in Tuscan-style Italian cooking, try adding these to your palette:

Arugula.   Spicy and rich, it's my new favourite green. It's the king of greens. How does iceberg lettuce even consider itself a green compared to arugula?

Fresh parmesan cheese.   I will never buy parmesan cheese in a can again. Real parmesan cheese keeps forever in the fridge and takes every pasta dish, meatball and salad to another level of tastiness. Use a vegetable peeler to shave it onto a salad to avoid awkward slicing and grating. And if you are feeling super indulgent, grate it into a non-stick pan and make parmesan chips. Yes, chips made of cheese. Yum. If parmesan is too expensive, grana padano is a good alternative.

Pear and fresh parmesan cheese.   The grainy fruit and sharp cheese taste is the best flavour combination ever. Put them on a bed of argula, add salt, lemon juice, and olive oil and you have my new favourite salad.

Bresaola.   A smoky and sweet cured beef. Wrap it around a mixture of ricotta cheese and arugula to make a fun finger food. Or, use it as a bed for a cured meat carpaccio salad with arugula, lemon juice, salt and parmesan cheese on top.

Raisins and pinenuts.   Add them to meatballs or beef rolls and they give a lovely sweet and textured flavour to the dish. (Recipe below)

Olive oil.   A no-brainer, I didn't need David Rocco to tell me how good olive oil is. But he did teach me to use it often and liberally. And to pour it on things you think are weird. Skin and dice an orange, a little onion, some cantaloupe, and add olive oil and salt and you have a wonderfully complex tasting salad.

Mozzarella Bufola.   It's the queen of mozzarellas, rich and creamy tasting. Perfect for caprese salads and completely different from the hard white block of mozzarella you use on your pizza.  

I've also learned some cooking methods from David Rocco that have proved to be quite useful. Like, did you know that stirring pasta into a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds eliminates the need to use olive oil to deter pasta from sticking? If you like the taste of olive oil on your pasta pour a little on after draining and rinsing. And take a good deep whiff of the smell - there is nothing like the smell of olive oil on steamy pasta.

Except maybe the smell of simmering red wine. That's another thing David Rocco has taught me - to cook with wine. Cooking with wine in Canada is tear-inducing, since a bottle sets you back $10. But with decent cooking wine at less than 1 per liter I no longer bat an eye at tossing a couple of cups into my spaghetti sauce. I have even boiled pasta in wine - it's called drunken spaghetti (pictured) and this dish also introduced me to the wonders of another ingredient, anchovies!

Finally, the Italian phrase quanto basta (QB) is Rocco's greatest piece of cooking wisdom that I have picked up. Quanto basta translates into something like as much as you need/like or to taste. Rocco's recipes are very flexible in that there are many ingredients you can leave out or adjust to your taste - and that's the way good Italian cooking should be. Plus using ingredients quanto basta teaches you to smell and taste and monitor what you are cooking instead of blindly following recipes.

If you're interested in David Rocco he also has an good cooking/travel & lifestyle show on the Food network in Canada (FLN in Malta) called David Rocco's Dolce Vita. He is also filming a new show, David Rocco's Amalfi Getaway in Italy this summer.

Here is our favourite recipe from David Rocco for meatballs and tomatoe sauce. Try making it with the pine nuts and raisins at least once - we have convinced many skeptics that this is the way meatballs should taste.

adapted from David Rocco's Dolce Vita
serves 6-8 people

cooking time: 1 hour 15 minutes
prep time: 15 minutes

1 lb (500 g) minced/ground beef
1 lb (500 g) minced/ground pork
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
1/2 cup pine nuts (optional)
2-3 slices of bread with crusts removed (preferably Sicilian or Maltese bread, but any Italian style bread will do)
1 cup finely grated fresh parmesan cheese
1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped (optional)
4 basil leaves, or QB
extra virgin olive oil, for browning QB
salt & pepper, QB

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup red wine
4 cups (1 L) tomato puree OR 4 cups whole canned plum tomatos, crushed by hand
salt & pepper, freshly ground QB

Step 1: Soak the crustless bread in milk. Set aside in a bowl.

Step 2: In a large mixing bowl combine the minced beef, pork, pine nuts, raisins, eggs and fresh parmesan. The eggs and parmesan are essential to bind everything together.

Step 3: Remove the bread from the bowl with your hands, squeezing it to remove most of the milk. As Rocco says, some recipes call for bread crumbs as a binder but they tend to make meatballs too dense, so bread soaked in milk is the best alternative. Break the milk soaked bread into little pieces and add to the minced meat mixture.

Step 4: Add chopped parsley, basil, salt and pepper (QB) to the minced meat mixture. Roll up your sleves and mix everything together really well by hand. Combine the ingredients as evenly as possible.

Step 5: Roll into balls the size of golf balls. Too large and they will take too long to cook.

Step 6: If you are frying the meatballs instead of cooking them in a sauce (faster, but not as tasty) flatten the balls slightly by pressing them with your hand. This well allow them to fry more evenly. To fry, heat olive oil in a pan and cook the meatballs until they are brown on each side. They can be served immediately or with a little bit of tomato sauce poured over them, or they can be put into a simmering sauce for a few minutes before serving.

Step 7: The tastier method is to cook the meatballs straight in the sauce. For me, there is no other way to cook meatballs now except in the sauce; the fats released from the meats make the sauce taste superb. To get the sauce started heat olive oil in a pan and add the onions, cooking them until they are soft and slightly brown. Add the red wine and let it cook for a minute or so until the alcohol burns off. Remember to take a good whiff while the wine is simmering - it's the most delicious smell.

Step 8: For the tomato base I use the whole plum tomatos crushed by band because it gives a more rustic texture to the sauce. You could also use tomato puree for a more uniformly textured sauce. Add the tomatos once the alcohol has simmered off of the wine. Season with salt & pepper

Step 9: Once the sauce comes to a boil lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and carefully add the uncooked meatballs.

Step 10: Allow the sauce to simmer for about an hour. Serve with pasta, or on its own, and enjoy.

This really is our favourite meatball recipe ever.  My only suggestion to improve this recipe is to monitor the amount of liquid in your tomato sauce - some people like more or less sauce with their meatballs. I'm a more kind of girl, so I tend to add an extra can or two of whole plum tomatos, crushed by hand, into the sauce.

buon appetito.
- Jess 


  1. The meatballs look delicious! I always crave italian food =)

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  2. god... all this just sounds amazing and delicious!

    btw, happy blog-annivesary! :)

    would love to have you as a follower...
    have a wonderful weekend!

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  3. Ooo that meatball recipe sounds pretty much perfect! I want to try that once it gets a little cooler around here! Just bookmarked this page :)

  4. I couldn't agree more! I have been cooking my way through David's book for a year now and I just love all the recipes and lessons. I met David recently and he is really nice in person.



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