Poor Man's Food – La Cucina Povera

Tuesday night is Masterchef & it finds most families home, eyes glued to the TV; last night contestants were set the task of cooking a pig, or rather, all the cuts of meat on a pig. Each contestant created a dish from his/her choice of cut – the winner from the last challenge got first pick & so it went down the line until Lungile chose the pig tails. It hardly seemed fair but she stuck to her roots & it became one of the top two! Served with steamed bread & chakalaka, it was African cucina povera at its best.

The term cucina povera (as opposed to cucina alto-borghese) was coined during the 15th & 16th  century when rice was planted as the answer to mass hunger; soon the poor were eating risotto while the rich were feasting on the fat of the land. In the last 30 years the term itself has become de rigueur again and often, mistakenly, used in conjunction with the slow food movement. Apart from the fact the process of cooking the cheaper cuts of meat is slow, the two terms have nothing to do with one another. Cucina povera is not limited to Italy & this kind of food can be found all over the world – just bear in mind that it’s always regional – it’s homegrown food & is always accompanied by local wines and usually consists of a single dish to be shared by everyone at the table & can be accompanied by home baked bread and bottle of local wine. In Milano, in the north of Italy it would have been rice, in Veneto it would have been polenta, in the south it would have spaghetti & tomato sauce, in Ireland it would have been potatoes and so on. Isn’t it odd how often restaurants offer cucina povera on the menu but then give their customers risotto with ingredients that are imported, at great expense, from another continent.  Hardly cucina povera.


My children grew up with frittata and I still make it every time I have left over pasta because the warmed up stuff is vile. It’s so simple that it doesn’t need a formal recipe but I’ll tell you how: heat up a non stick pan (oven proof if you don’t feel like flipping it) with about a tablespoon of olive oil. Pop all your left over pasta into bowl, add a dash of extra virgin olive oil & mix well, then put it into the pan. As soon as the pasta is hot, break in about 3 dollops of fresh ricotta & season the lot with salt & freshly ground black pepper; whisk 6 large eggs for each 500g pasta with salt & pepper and pour the whisked eggs on top of the pasta & mix (I always flatten the pasta a little here), cooking for around 5 minutes so that the bottom is firm & golden brown; to cook the top  of the frittata, slide it under a medium hot grill and pull up a chair because you don’t want it to burn; it needs to be golden brown on top & the egg must be cooked; remove the pan, flip the frittata onto a wire rack & sprinkle generously with Parmigiano-Reggiano – it can be eaten hot or cold. It can also be made with potatoes, rice or left over veggies.


Pork shanks were left for the poor at one time and this recipe from the Philippines is a great way to use them; adobo, in the Philippines, is a cooking process and it’s quite different to the Spanish & Latin American adobo; when the Spaniards invaded the Philippines at the end of the 16th century, they saw that locals cooked their meat in vinegar & called the process adobo due because it reminded them of the Spanish adobo. Be that as it may, in the Philippines, adobo is a very particular form of cooking that’s nothing like the Spanish marinade & there are loads of variations on the theme. Nobody uses pork shanks in my neck of the woods so it may be necessary to ask your butcher but they’re delicious – a whole shank, loads of crunchy bread to mop up the sauce and a glass of wine is sheer bliss.


  • 12 x 7,5 cm thick pork shanks
  • 45 ml grape seed oil
  • 1 fat leeks, finely chopped
  • 12 small shallots, peeled but left whole
  • 1 whole head of garlic, peel the cloves but leave whole
  • 2 tbsp grated fresh ginger
  • 2 whole lemongrass, finely sliced
  • 500 ml chicken stock
  • 250 ml malt vinegar
  • 250 ml soy sauce
  • 250 ml coconut milk
  • 3 – 4 hot chillies, chopped (if you have a sensitive palate, remove the seeds)
  • 1 generous tablespoon sticky brown sugar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (take care because you the soy sauce is salty & the chillies are quite hot)
  • Garnish
  • 3 green onions, finely chopped


  • Preheat oven to 180.
  • Season the meat lightly with salt and pepper & then in a heavy oven proof dish or Dutch oven, sear the meat in the grape seed oil until golden brown, add all the veggies & stir fry for about 3 minutes until the kitchen is fragrant.
  • Put everything in the oven dish, stir to combine, cover and put in the oven for about 3 hours until the meat is super tender.
  • Garnish with the green onions & serve with loads of bread & wine.

When it comes to cucina povera, the first thing I think about is Minestrone which is a really thick soup made with veggies & occasionally contains pasta or rice; there aren’t any rules about making minestrone except that it should contain beans and I’m inclined to prefer Roman beans for a really good soup. The dish itself is older than Rome & was eaten by the tribes long before Rome was even a twinkle in the eyes of Romulus & Remus. In those days it would have consisted mainly of a type of spelt porridge to which any available vegetables would have been added; then during the 2nd century BC when Rome had conquered Italy, a huge variety of new ingredients poured into the city as tradesmen came to make the proverbial buck or two. The largely vegetarian Roman diet changed and a large variety of different meats were introduced and so meat stocks for soup became par for the course. The Greeks introduced bread & by 171 BC the first commercial bakery opened in the city of Rome. Spelt was relegated to the poor. In Apicius’s ‘De Re Coquinaria’ he describes something called polus which dates back to 30 AD & was made of  farro, chickpeas, fava beans, onions, garlic, lard & greens – that’s quite similar to the minestrone we know and love today. Of course Apicius didn’t leave it there & fancied it up a good bit by adding wine & cooked brains.  Centuries later when tomatoes were introduced to the Italians, tomatoes were added and today minestrone without tomatoes is unthinkable – to me, anyway.



  • 410 g tin cannellini beans, drained & rinsed
  • 410 g tin of Roman beans, drained & rinsed
  • 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 large red onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 potato, peeled & roughly chopped
  • 400 g zucchini, roughly chopped
  • 1 head of celery, coarsely chopped, setting aside the leaves
  • 1 very big bunch basil, coarsely chopped
  • Handful parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1kg Swiss chard, leaves shredded and stalks roughly chopped
  • 500g ripe Italian plum tomatoes, peeled & seeded, roughly chopped
  • 700ml boiling homemade chicken stock
  • Generous amount of freshly grated Parmesan
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste


  • Heat some olive oil in a large heavy based saucepan and stir fry the onions, the carrots and the celery until soft and translucent – do it slowly for a super taste.
  • Add the garlic, the chard stalks & half of the parsley, stirring constantly so that it doesn’t stick; now stir in the tomatoes & cook until you’ve lost the excess liquid; now add the rest of the veggies (with the exception of the Swiss chard) & the stock, season to taste and simmer for about 30 – 40 minutes.
  • Now quickly blanch the chard so that it stays green & stir it into the soup along with the basil.
  • Check & correct the seasoning but take care not to over season – it’s easy to do this with a hot soup.
  • Serve hot with Parmesan and extra virgin olive oil on the side for drizzling; make sure there’s loads of crispy bread.



  • 1.5kg beef brisket joint
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 onions, thinly sliced
  • 3 fresh bay leaves
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 1 tbsp molasses sugar
  • 3 allspice
  • 30 ml thick oyster sauce
  • 350ml stout


  • Season the brisket joint generously with the salt & freshly ground black pepper & sprinkle with the molasses sugar.
  • Layer the sliced onions, the spices & the bay leaves on the bottom of your cooker & top it with the meat, pouring the stout & oyster sauce over everything; put on the lid & cook on low for around 8 – 10 hours.
  • Remove the meat from the slow cooker & place on a serving dish; pour the remaining cooking liquid into a pot to simmer until reduced by two thirds; it must thick & syrupy.
  • Carve the brisket into slices & pour this thick, syrupy sauce over the brisket; serve with mash.

* This was the food cooked in the kitchens of the landed gentry & wealthy merchants of Italy, also known as cucina nobili; they ate for pure enjoyment & it demonstrates the evolvement of food; the fusion of the cultures and food of foreign invaders who lived in the various regions in Italy (the French in Piedmonte, the Lorraines in Tuscany, the Bourbons in Napoli and Sicily and the Austrians in Lombardia & the Veneto). Today this cooking has pretty much died out because food the world over is evolving at such a pace that it’s not relevant anymore.


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