“Add a bit more oil,” my mum says looking over my shoulder as I am frying courgettes in a pan. “And leave them in for a little longer.”
“How much is a bit?” I ask. “A spoon? Two?”
“A bit is a bit,” she replies, trying her best not to take over. “Do it until it looks right.”
Welcome to cooking 101 with an Italian mother, where measurements don’t exist and “doing it until it looks right” is the baseline for whatever dish you’re attempting to make (in my case, Neapolitan-style zucchine alla scapece).
The “no-recipe recipe”, as I like to call it, is a classic of Italian kitchens everywhere, all the more so if nonne and mamme are involved. It’s the “method” by which just about anything–pasta, side dishes, secondi–has been made for generations and the way so many of us have first learned to cook. To me, the ‘no-recipe recipe’ is Italian home cooking.
Looking back at the history of the boot-shaped country–especially that of our most rural regions–it makes sense. Through the late 19th (Italy was unified in 1861) and early 20th century, literacy rates were quite low in agrarian Italy, reaching only 12% in Basilicata, for example, at the turn of the century. Until 1911, when elementary school became centralised and compulsory, literacy in the South continued to be about 50% of that in the North. Unable to read or write, women–because it was always women–would learn about food not through books and notes, but through passed-down verbal and visual knowledge of flavours and ingredients, taste and smells.
Often having to work with only a few items from their pantry (it’s called cucina povera for a reason), older generations turned cooking into an improvisational affair to tweak and riff-off depending on what was available. In this make-do approach, “by eye, not by rule” became their watchword–the most natural form of cooking.
Through the decades–and countless sessions in the kitchen–it has continued to be so.
“Look and feel” was what my grandma swore by whenever she cooked, regardless of the meal. Believing her instincts would never fail her, she even used the no-recipe recipe to bake, making her famous ciambelline al vino (wine cookies) with no scales, cookbooks or measuring cups in sight. When I once tried to write her recipe down, I had to stand next to her through every step, because she had no clue about grams or any other form of measurement. Observing was the only way.
My mum is very much the same: from frittata to caponata to polpette, she’s constantly going off script, adding and tinkering, stirring or leaving to set until “it looks done”. The best part of it: she (and my nonna too) never gets it wrong.
Which is why, as I have been reacquainting myself with Italian cuisine after two decades abroad, I have been trying to make the no-recipe recipe my own guiding light into the kitchen. And I think everyone else should too: in today’s prescriptive, recipe-obsessed food culture, the no-recipe recipe fosters a freeing, intuitive attitude towards cooking–and makes it fun.
“You learn through watching, listening and doing,” my mum tells me as she delivers the last set of her freewheeling instructions for the zucchine alla scapece. “It’s about understanding the technique and then making it your own.”
In other words: a recipe is a guide, not a strict set of steps to abide by.
Beyond the food itself though, there’s another aspect of the Italian no-recipe recipe that, I think, makes it special. Having to learn in person, next to my mum, means I get to spend more time with her and her with me. I can see that she likes that a lot, as do I. And I bet my grandma did as well. In sharing fast and loose directions near the stove, the act of cooking becomes a collective moment rather than a solitary task–a way to show off one’s skills and to hand down an oral history that isn’t just food-related, but personal too.
“I used to eat these with scrambled eggs when I got home from school,” my mum tells me as we plate the courgettes. “Though I cooked the eggs in secret, when your grandma wasn’t around, as I wasn’t supposed to have them as an afternoon snack. I made them with jammy tomatoes and melted mozzarella on top. Want me to teach you?”
And so we get started on another no-recipe recipe while she chats about her childhood.
I take mental notes, both of the food and her stories, so that one day I can pass them onto someone else. In that, the no-recipe recipe beats any cookbook I’ll ever lay my hands on.
Zucchine alla Scapece (as taught by my mum)
- Garlic cloves. Two at least.
- Sunflower oil
- Olive oil
- Courgettes, sliced into rounds – “As many as you want, because the dish lasts a long time!” Start with four.
- Fry the courgettes in sunflower oil until they look golden. Transfer them onto a plate and wipe any excess oil with a kitchen towel.
- In a glass container, add olive oil, garlic and vinegar and a pinch of salt. You can do half olive oil and half vinegar–it’s up to what you think is best. Stir well.
- Throw the courgettes into the glass container and mix with the emulsion you’ve just made. Done.
Eggs with Jammy Tomatoes and Mozzarella (as taught by my mum)
- Fresh tomatoes, sliced however you like
- Mozzarella, sliced
- Olive oil
- Place the tomatoes in a pan with some olive oil, and let them cook till they get jammy.
- Add the sliced mozzarella.
- When the mozzarella is almost all melted, add the eggs and scramble them.
- Season with a bit of salt, and when the eggs look cooked–it will take seconds!–take off the heat.
- Eat with bread, straight off the pan.