I have a confession to make. Unless I’m baking or recipe-testing for this blog, I don’t always take out my kitchen scales to check how much an ingredient weighs. And I don’t think I am alone in this approach either. Many Italian-language recipes feature informal measuring units such as manciate (‘handfuls’), bicchieri (‘drinking glasses’) pugni (‘fistfuls’), ciuffi (‘clumps’) and pizzichi (‘pinches’). Some older recipe compendiums may not feature any approximate indications at all, like Giuseppe Chioni’s remarkable prison-camp penned Arte culinaria. Many Italian cooks simply assume that their observers or readers will have the taste and instincts necessary to gauge the right quantity or quanto basta, meaning ‘how much is enough’ or ‘to taste’.
Bagnet verd (the Piedmontese name for salsa verde or ‘green sauce’) is easily made according to the q.b. philosophy. This herbaceous sauce, which has a recorded history going back to the Middle Ages, lends itself perfectly to ditching grams and putting whatever herbs, alliums, thickener and acidic liquid you have on hand (or fancy) in it. In The Medieval Kitchen, Reddon, Sabban and Serventi provide us a recipe from the period which includes soaked stale bread, parsley, sage, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, powdered ginger, garlic and vinegar. Then there’s Bartolomeo Scappi, ‘secret’ cook to popes and author of the seminal Renaissance cookbook Opera with a distinctly less spicier version. He prepared his with parsley, spinach tips, sorrel, burnet, rocket, mint, pepper, sugar, vinegar and the optional pesto-like touch of crushed almonds or hazelnuts. In the 19th century, Giovanni Vialardi and Pellegrino Artusi did away with any remaining hint of sweetness and went for meatier umami by adding crushed boiled egg yolks, capers and anchovies to their bagnetti. Artusi, interestingly enough, suggests using capsicums in the absence of capers. Beppe Lodi and Giovanni Goria, authors of two classic 20th century Piedmontese recipe books, gave this zesty preparation even more piquancy by including a spagnolino, their amusing word (it literally means ‘little Spanish thing’) for a dried red chilli pepper, in their interpretations too.
My version is a compromise between TP’s tastes, my tastes and whatever we have available in season and at home. Sorry purists, but TP and I are not crazy about raw garlic (unless it’s fresh) so it’s been removed in favour of a spring onion. This should be chopped finely and left to soak in vinegar for at least an hour. TP has also had a rather strange phobia of boiled eggs since he was a child so I tend to opt for a large slice of leftover bread (of which we have plenty and I am loathe to waste!) soaked in vinegar as a thickener instead. When it’s in season, I also can’t resist adding a heaped fistful of basil leaves to two already generous bunches of parsley. I use salt-packed capers and anchovies so I find that there is no need for salt ‘to taste’ either. To reduce all these ingredients to small pieces, I prefer the coarser finish of chopping them with a mezzaluna, that wonderful two-handled crescent-shaped knife my mother-in-law and other Italian home cooks swear by. I won’t balk at the quicker more homogenised result of a food processor though when pressed for time. At any rate, the ‘recipe’ below is not prescriptive at all, merely a set of guidelines. Basically, don’t be afraid to adjust quantities, add/omit ingredients and vary the preparation method to your tastes and means. That’s what quanto basta is all about!
In Piedmont, bagnet verd is one of the seven sauces that traditionally accompanies the seven cuts of boiled meat, the seven boiled ‘garnishes’ (mostly offal and extremities) and the three side dishes all comprising the Gran bollito misto. A less ambitious but no less traditional alternative to this component-rich ‘boiled dinner’ is to prepare some lingua lessa or boiled tongue to go with your zesty bagnetto. Offal not your thing? Then use it give some plain grilled fish, meat or chicken some zing. Looking for a vegetarian option? Simply remove the anchovies from the ‘non-recipe’ below and dress some oven-roasted capsicums or boiled potatoes with it instead. Love cheese? Use it as a topping on some soft cheese rounds, like the Piedmontese often do with their tomini. Its peppery flavour also works well on a simple slice of bread and, surprisingly enough, pizza.
Ingredients (makes enough to fill a small jam jar)
- 1 medium to large-sized spring onion, finely chopped and macerated in vinegar for 1 hour
- 1 large slice of stale country bread, soaked in vinegar for 1 hour
- White or red wine vinegar, q.b.
- 4 salt-packed anchovies, soaked and rinsed in water
- 2 large fistfuls of salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed in water
- Two large bunches of parsley, washed and dried
- 1 large handful of basil leaves, washed and dried
- Olive oil, q.b.
Drain chopped spring onion and bread of any excess vinegar in a colander. Chop soaked bread into fine pieces. Add onion and chopped bread to a bowl. Drain capers and anchovy fillets on plate lined with paper towels. Split the anchovies into two and pull out their spines. Chop anchovy fillets and capers very finely with a good knife or mezzaluna. Add to bowl with the chopped onion and bread. Remove thicker stems from the parsley and chop very finely along with the basil leaves. Add to bowl and mix ingredients until well-combined. Add olive oil in a slow steady stream and stir continuously until you have a dense sauce.