"Almost without fail, every dish my mother and grandmother makes starts off with a battuto."
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As is sad-but-true of so many die-hard French enthusiasts in the culinary world, the chef who got me through the international portion of school seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about Italian cooks. His favorite argument was that so many Italians, particularly the old-school grandmotherly types, keep their ingredients a secret. "No, no. I didn't use any salt," he'd mock them. "No butter either," he'd say. "Then the moment you you're your back to the stove, they're adding handfuls of the stuff at a time!"
Having an Italian grandmother myself, I laughed. It's partially true. But isn't the guessing game part of the reason why a meal from our grandmothers, or a chef in a good restaurant, is so much more fun to eat? Just how they infused so much flavor into a dish gets our imaginations going and makes our palates work a little harder. That is the magic of battuto.
Although you hardly hear the word anymore—it's even hard to find in classic Italian cookbooks—battuto is basically an Italian (and much more fun to say) term for finely chopped aromatics (apparently, the words translates as "beaten"). Usually it's a combo of onions, celery, carrots, garlic and parsley cooked in fat such as lard or, more recently, butter or olive oil, and it can sometimes includes a meat like pancetta, bacon or prosciutto. But almost always it's the first element of a dish to hit the pan, and the one that makes you close your eyes and hum after taking the first bite later on.