Monday, April 20, 2009


Published in the Star Phoenix, 20 April 2009.

The buzz word these days seems to be “frugal” and the kitchen is a good place to start. In Italy, they have a phrase to describe good, old-fashioned frugal cuisine — cucina povera (coo-chee’-na poe-ver’-a). It means food of the poor.

However, cucina povera is in no way inferior fare. It relies on the best, freshest, local ingredients, prepared with the care and flare of an imaginative cook. It’s a good concept to contemplate as we head into another growing season in Saskatchewan. Very soon, we’ll have an abundance of fresh local ingredients, from the tender rhubarb of spring to fall’s plump golden squash.

I first heard about cucina povera from Jennifer Willems, the innovative chef at the New Ground CafĂ© in Birch Hills, near Prince Albert. Jennifer’s blackboard menu changes every day (and sometimes more than once a day) depending on the local ingredients that arrive at her kitchen door. Her dedication to local flavours earned an invitation to Terra Madre in Italy, a symposium dedicated to preserving sustainable agriculture and the flavours of regional food around the world. She discovered cucina povera in small family-run restaurants in Italian towns.

“Simplicity is the rule. The tiniest kitchens could turn out the most amazing food with just five ingredients,” she says. “The things that I’m committed to were just natural there.”

What is cucina povera Saskatchewan-style? It could be different things to different people, depending on their cooking traditions and connections to locally-produced foods from lentils to apples to wild rice. For me, it’s a ham bone and lentil stew, or a mushroom and herb frittata, or a pasta sauce of fresh tender vegetables, or a pear tart made with fruit I picked myself.

Learning to cook with Saskatchewan ingredients is an interesting and satisfying exercise. Just ask the seven women with whom I attended a Saskatchewan Bounty cooking class last week in Saskatoon, at the kitchen of Wild Serendipity Foods.
The menu included pork loin rubbed in herbs, served with a wild blueberry sauce, northern whitefish in a lemon-dill sauce, wild rice pilaf with dried berries and a rustic rhubarb & sour cherry tart. I came home with some terrific new recipes for Saskatchewan ingredients and a burning anticipation for the first rhubarb of spring. This picture shows the rustic rhubarb & cherry tart we made in cooking class; this recipe is the version I make at home. Very cucina povera!

Rhubarb & Berry Galette
Use a mix of fresh or frozen berries such as: raspberries, strawberries, saskatoons, blueberries, sour cherries. You can also include apple in the mix.
5 cups of fruit, of which 1 cup is rhubarb, cut in small slices
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
Dash of salt
A bit of butter
Pastry for one-crust pie

Heat oven to 375F. Dice the larger fruit, such as the apple or strawberries. Combine the fruit and rhubarb in a bowl. Sprinkle on the flour, sugar and salt. Gently mix.

Place the pasty into a pie plate. Choose a pie plate that allows the pastry to hang about 1 inch (2.5 cm) over the edge. Scoop in the fruit mixture. Fold the loose edges of the pastry toward the centre, so it forms an open circle around the fruit. Dot the fruit here and there with a little pat of butter.

If you wish, brush the pastry with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 375F for about 40 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling bubbly. Allow the pie to cool before slicing.