The Italian chef chats to Lauren Taylor about cost-cutting recipes
and how to never throw anything away again.
Gennaro Contaldo puts a bowl of penne in front of me. “Eat! Enjoy it!” he says. It’s 10am, but you don’t turn down pasta at a famed Italian chef’s house – no matter what time it is.
He made it from bits and pieces he found in his kitchen yesterday: Parmesan rind, carrot, a chunk of guanciale (cured meat), a jar of chickpeas, one shallot, celery, a single potato, some romaine lettuce – cooked down for 45 minutes with stock and served with a scoop of starchy pasta water and a glug of olive oil from the enormous vat sitting on his outdoor kitchen worktop. Very simple, very tasty.
The 74-year-old – known affectionately as Jamie Oliver’s ‘London dad’ (he taught him everything he knows about Italian cooking) says he throws “nothing” away, adding it doesn’t just annoy him when people waste food, “It really upsets me”.
And not only for environmental reasons. In a cost-of-living crisis, throwing any food away is literally money in the bin. Knowing what you can do with leftovers is the key to cutting your food bill, Contaldo believes.
“If [people] knew how to cook, they would save at least half – at least! I really, really press everyone to learn how to cook because once you’ve learned how to cook, you can go around and use whatever you find in the house.”
ABOVE (Left) Gennaro’s Cucina: Hearty Money-Saving Meals From An Italian Kitchen by Gennaro Contaldo; (right) Gennaro Contaldo in his outdoor kitchen | David Loftus/PA
Classic, Italian cooking, at its very heart, is cost-effective. The basis of many of the most famous dishes is known as ‘cucina povera’ – literally translating to ‘poor kitchen’ or ‘poor cooking’ – “Because there was not much, whatever you had you cooked in many different ways and nothing used to be thrown away.” This is reflected in his latest cookbook, Gennaro’s Cucina, which focuses on hearty, money-saving meals.
For Contaldo, cucina povera is “proper Italian cooking: few ingredients, maximum flavour”. And in that vein, “It’s not ‘poor’, actually it means rich in a way”.
If you’re trying to save money in the current climate, Italian food makes perfect sense. Pasta is the ideal vessel for odds and ends languishing in your fridge. “If you go to a restaurant to buy fresh tomato pasta, it costs £11 or £12. From the market one bowl [of tomatoes] is £1 because they’re off the vine and they’re very good,” he says.
“People spend so much money on takeaway when you can actually do it yourself. Tomatoes, I can do in five minutes, I do a beautiful sauce. Cook them with a little bit of olive oil, a crush of garlic, a little bit of chilli, a little bit of water, boil the pasta at the same time, throw in the starch – if you’ve got some breadcrumbs, throw them on top.”
In the Contaldo household in Walthamstow, east London, where bunches of tomatoes hang from hooks around his kitchen/diner (“They become very sweet and last at least a month”), a meal will last several days. People chuck away leftovers far too soon, he says.
“If you do roast chicken, do you know how much stuff you have left? Remove a bit of meat, chop it up and do some kind of ravioli, boil it, then serve it with the same gravy as you had for roast chicken.
“Then, when you think you can’t do anymore – get that chicken, celery, carrots, carcass, put it in water, boil it, you get lovely chicken stock.”
Beans, lentils, chickpeas and bread all play an important part in this way of cooking too. From passatelli in brodo (breadcrumb and Parmesan pasta) to acquasale (bread salad) and even padding out beef meatballs – or mondeghili – with stale bread to make the mixture stretch.
“And I hate expiry dates, just smell it, look at it – there’s nothing wrong with it except when it’s rotting. Even if you’ve got some milk left, when it goes sour you’ve got lovely ricotta.”
He won’t touch out of season fruit and veg flown thousands of miles to give us year-long supermarket produce. “Cherries are everywhere at the moment – when I see them in a shop, I won’t even taste it,” he says.
Contaldo, who moved to the UK in his early 20s, grew up in the village of Minori on the Amalfi coast – “The sea was my swimming pool and the mountains were my back garden” – and fondly remembers artichoke season in January to mid-spring.
“Everybody uses them, we enjoyed making it in many different ways. And then when the season is finished… Something else comes to the market. We remember those beautiful days when we sat altogether [eating artichoke] but when it’s finished, we leave it, we forget about it, we wait for the next season – and look forward to it.”
Contaldo’s family’s business was selling linen, but food was intertwined with all aspects of life. “We had to go around up the hills and mountains to collect money, because not everyone paid you. Many times, instead of taking money, you take a live chicken, a goat, salami, cheese, fruit, in exchange,” he remembers, laughing.
Almost everyone kept chickens, pigs or cattle and sold their produce. “We were always talking about food: ‘What are you eating?’, ‘My mum cooked this’. ‘My mum is better than yours’.”
He learned to cook himself because, simply, everyone did. “Inside my house papa wanted to cook, grandfather wanted to cook, my grandma would cook, my mama would cook, my sister was taught by my grandma.
“There was no information, not many people wrote recipes down – I, myself, have a recipe book here,” he says, tapping his head.
“The Italians are very proud of whatever they’re making, they express themselves through food. You see them at the table, ‘Try this’, ‘Try that’, they love feeding you.”
Gennaro’s Cucina: Hearty Money-Saving Meals From An Italian Kitchen by Gennaro Contaldo is published by Pavilion Books, priced £25. Photography by David Loftus. Available now.
Words by Lauren Taylor, PA
- 1 x 1.4kg pumpkin (you need approx. 1kg prepped weight)
- 3–4 eggs plain flour, for dusting Abundant vegetable oil, for deep-frying 2 balls of mozzarella cheese (each about 125g), drained and roughly chopped 75g grated Parmesan cheese For the tomato sauce:
- 2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 3 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
- 6 basil leaves
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- First make the tomato sauce. Heat the olive in a saucepan, add the onion and fry over a medium heat for about five minutes, then add the tomatoes, basil leaves and some salt to taste. Leave to simmer over a gentle heat for about 25 minutes until thickened.
- In the meantime, peel the pumpkin, cut it in half, then into quarters, remove the seeds and then cut into slices about five-millimetres thick. Lightly beat the eggs in a shallow dish with a little salt and pepper. Dust the pumpkin slices with flour, shaking off the excess, then dip into the beaten egg.
- Heat plenty of vegetable oil in a deep frying pan until hot, then add the pumpkin slices (you may need to do this in batches, depending on the size of your pan) and deep-
fry for a couple of minutes on each side. Remove using a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180°C fan/200°C/gas mark 6. Line an ovenproof dish with a little of the tomato sauce, then place some pumpkin slices over the top, sprinkle with a little black pepper, dot around some mozzarella, sprinkle over some grated Parmesan and top with some more tomato sauce. Continue making layers like these until you have finished all the ingredients, ending with a final sprinkling of mozzarella and grated Parmesan.
- Cover with foil and bake in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake for a further 15 minutes until the cheese has melted and has taken on a golden brown colour. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
Breadcrumb and Parmesan pasta
- 100g stale breadcrumbs
- 100g grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra to serve
- 2 eggs
- 2 pinches of grated nutmeg
- Zest of ½ lemon
- Plain flour, for dusting
- 1L chicken stock
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Combine all the ingredients (except the flour for dusting and the chicken stock), including a little salt, in a bowl and mix well until you obtain a dough-like consistency. Form into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest at room temperature for at least one hour.
- Remove the clingfilm, then take about a quarter of the dough and press it through a potato ricer with large holes, cutting it off with a small sharp knife when it is about five to six centimetres in length. You may get varying lengths and that’s fine. Place them on a lightly floured board, taking care not to break them. Repeat with the rest of the dough, a quarter at a time.
- In the meantime, bring the chicken stock to the boil in a large saucepan, then drop in all the passatelli and cook until they rise up to the surface. Remove from the heat and divide the mixture between four individual bowls. Serve with a little black pepper and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan.
Split broad bean mash with greens
- 400g dried split broad beans, soaked overnight in plenty of cold water
- 4 bay leaves
- 5 garlic cloves, lightly crushed & left whole
- 4tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 600g dandelion or puntarelle (gross weight)
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Drain and rinse the soaked broad beans. Place them in a saucepan, cover with plenty of fresh cold water, add the bay leaves and three garlic cloves, then bring to the boil and cook, partially covered, over a medium heat for about 45 minutes, until the beans are cooked through and tender.
- Remove from the heat, discard the bay leaves and garlic, then blend the beans until smooth using a handheld stick blender. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
- Remove the leaves from the dandelion (and the heart if using puntarelle) and save the roots to make a salad. Take the leaves and blanch them in a pan of boiling water for a couple of minutes until tender. Drain well.
- Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan, add the remaining two garlic cloves and sweat for a minute. Add the greens and stir-fry over a medium-to-high heat for two to three minutes, then season with salt and pepper.
- Heat through the blended beans mixture, remove the whole garlic gloves and then serve with the greens, drizzled with a little olive oil.