Seven years ago, when I was a student at a university in Bologna, Italy, I received one of the most valuable cooking lessons of my life.
I was at a friend’s place when her grandmother, Hermana, rose to start the pasta. She put the water on to boil in a large pot. Next, Hermana heated a glug of olive oil, green-gold and unfiltered, in a wide-bottomed pan. Then, she gripped the handle of the box grater with a fist and rested the metal body on her forearm. Using the large holes, she sequentially grated a sticky clove of garlic, a peeled onion and two ripe tomatoes straight into the warming oil. The contents sputtered, spit and gently collapsed into one another. When it all broke down into a jammy tomato sauce, she finished the sauce with a walnut-size spoonful of butter and fresh basil, torn with her hands.
Hermana never touched a knife or a cutting board. This was, to me, a mike drop.
One of Bologna’s nicknames is “La Grassa,” the Fat One, the breadbasket of Italy. It’s home to mortadella, tigelle, modern gelato, lasagna Bolognese, tortellini in brodo and velvety tangles of tagliatelle al ragu, among other widely known dishes.
The 25 miles of medieval porticoes, columned and covered sidewalks looping serpentine through the city, are a lasting relic of Bologna’s tendency to match timelessness with millennia of postwar shrewdness and metamorphosis.
Hermana’s box grater epitomizes both the Italian virtue of resourcefulness and the attuned care for a day’s in-between moments. It speaks of tools that endure and the persistence to make them last. It hints at a resilience shared openly in trickier moments — a pandemic causes households to quarantine, so locals open their windows and sing to the neighbors’ balconies.
What originated in my head as a way to avoid extra dishes became a useful reminder: Good cooking doesn’t require reinventing the wheel, though resourceful cooking can show the wheel’s deeper, more intricate chambers. The magic lies not only in repurposing a tool most often reserved for shredding cheese, but also in manipulating ingredients into coarse ribbons that melt, slump and cling to pasta the way a good sauce should.
Grating an ingredient also affects its flavor and aroma, a lesson I later absorbed in cooking school and on the line in restaurants, always recalling Hermana. Slicing an onion means breaking up its cell structures, releasing enzymes that precede the reaction we experience as smell and flavor.
The finer you cut an onion — or a butternut squash or a ripe tomato — the more taste and flavor compounds are released. Smell and flavor intensify.
My recipes — fresh tomato sauce with chewy gemelli and linguine with butternut squash aglio e olio — gesture to the idea that high levels of skill and flavor can be built from few tools and low effort. The sauces mingle the iconic Bolognese hues of orange, beige and red, evoking Hermana and reminding me that the most valuable kitchen tools aren’t fancy gadgets but tenacity and adaptability.