"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.
Almost without fail, every dish my mother and grandmother makes starts off with a battuto, though until hearing the word in school, I never realized it. There is no measuring or perfect dicing—sometimes a mezzaluna is used, but usually just a sharp knife—and usually it starts with double the amount of onions to every other ingredient. There seem to be no rules on this: You can find your own path to the combination you like.
How to Make Battuto
First just heat the oil or butter in a heavy-bottomed pan. When it's warmed, toss in the onions and saute them over medium heat until they've softened and browned in places. I like to add the garlic now, too, as it's sweeter when soft and cooked for longer times. Just make sure not to give it too much color. Then add the rest of the veggies and, lastly, a combination of herbs you like, and let it cook slowly into the desired consistency.
Just how mushy you go can depend on what you're using the battuto for. When cooked long and slow, and used to start a soup, stew, pasta sauce or braising liquid, the mixture can cook until the vegetables practically disappear, just leaving behind a ton of flavor and a thickened texture.
If using to accompany a vegetable side like cauliflower or peas, spoon onto a sandwich (browned sausages would be out of this world here), or fill an omelette or frittata, softened but not melted could be the way to go.
And if you're simply adding battuto to a roasting pan with meat or fish, al dente or even raw should be sufficient. Keep in mind that battuto cooks down significantly once the vegetables release their water, so overestimate when first adding to the pan. To get it good and melted could take between 30 minutes to an hour, so it may take some planning. When you hear the "Mmm, what's in this?" from your dinner guests, you'll be glad you did.
What you answer, now that's up to you.
About the author: "Sue Veed" is an editor at a Manhattan-based food magazine and a current culinary student who's trying to learn it all so she can cook it all. She'll take us along for the ride as she makes the journey from home cook to professional. Among things she may never master: looking natural in a chef's hat, and acting demure whenever a pork product hits the table.