One of the memories I will cherish most about my first years in Italy is the shock-treatment my palate underwent: the flavors were so real… and so intense. Time and time again I would ask people for recipes of incredible dishes they had shared with me, and they would give me just a short list of ingredients and simple instructions. I couldn’t believe it. Really?! “There must be some secret ingredient or trick they’re not telling me” I thought to myself. And then came the big revelations: the importance of fruit & vegetables being in season, and if you have quality ingredients, you should use as few as possible so you actually taste the flavor of each ingredient. In fact I’ve learned that Italians are often wary of dishes with more than one herb, or lots of ingredients: they think that the ingredients must be of poor quality if you are “hiding” their flavor by mixing them up.
But there is one big exception. Battuto. The secret ingredient to most slow-cooked dishes in Tuscany. Think of it as a natural flavor-enhancer and “magic bouillon” that gives depth to each dish. No ragù, braised or stewed meats can be made without “battuto”.
Now there are many variations to the theme (and it can depend on what you have in the pantry or garden), but the general list of ingredients is: carrot, celery, onion, garlic and an herb or two. The herbs are usually rosemary, parsley or sage (the sacred triad of Tuscan herbs) but could also be marjoram, thyme or oregano. Chop them into pieces, pulse in a food processor, then saute in olive oil until translucent, and then add meat (ground beef, chicken thighs, pork loin, rabbit, tripe, wild boar… just about anything), cook on low heat for a long while and the dish is made! The longer you let it simmer, the more that “battuto” will just meld with the meat juices to create a super flavorful sauce.
You can even make a vegetarian ragù by simply adding tomato puree to the “battuto” after it’s been sauteed in olive oil and let it simmer 10 minutes or so.
For a rich “battuto”, you can add a few tablespoons of minced pancetta or sausage to the pan while sauteing it.
But wait, what does that strange name “battuto” mean?
It comes from the Italian verb battere, which means to beat or to bash (or prostitute oneself, but that is most definitely not the meaning we’re talking about here). So “battuto” literally means beaten. Today we use a food processor, but until 20 or 30 years ago they weren’t to be found in every Italian kitchen, and before the food processor they used a mezzaluna. To finely chop or mince things, they would use this half-moon shaped knife that would be rocked back and forth and would literally “beat” the herbs and vegetables.
So there you go… the secret to Tuscan cooking. “Battuto” baby!
INGREDIENTS FOR BATTUTO
- 1 carrot
- 1 stalk of celery (preferably with leaves)
- 1 onion (preferably red)
- 1 clove of garlic
- choose an herb or two: 2 sprigs of parsley, or 2 tbs fresh or dried rosemary, or 3 sage leaves.