Italians are known for creating a rich, flavorful cuisine that contains everyday, healthy and tasty ingredients. While spaghetti, lasagna and pizza are examples of traditional Italian food, modern twists on Italian recipes include vegetarian pasta dishes, creamy desserts and spectacular new wines.
Italian Cooking: Keeping it Simple
Italian food and Italian recipes vary by region and class, but simplicity is a key element in Italian cooking. To master the fine art of Italian cooking, start with simple dishes that serve as basic meals that can be augmented with meats, vegetables, pastas and rice.To begin with a simple dish, create a tasty marinara sauce, for example, that can be used with different meats and served over any type of pasta. A good, simple marina recipe calls for fresh cloves of garlic, olive oil, rich tomatoes, oregano, basil, salt and pepper.A basic vegetable stock is another simple dish that can be used as the base for other meals. A good vegetable stock includes potatoes, onions, leeks, carrots, turnips, celery and cherry tomatoes.
Ingredients for Italian Recipes
Every good cook relies on a handful of essential ingredients for their Italian recipes, including a variety of cheeses, cured meats, rice and grains, pastas, herbs and spices and miscellaneous staples (vegetables, sauces, truffles, porcini, espresso and vinegar). Try some of these taste sensations in your Italian food recipes.
Italian dishes often include one or more of at least a dozen tasty cheeses. Some of the more popular varieties include Asiago, Gorgonzola, Mozzarella, Ricotta, Fontina, Provolone, Mascarpone and Taleggio.Asiago, a cheese made from cows milk, can be either young or aged and is used for stuffing pasta and pies, grated on top of dishes or eaten solo with a glass of red wine. Fontina is a rich tasting, full fat cheese that can be served as a flavorful snack or melted in Italian cooking. Provolone is made from either cow or buffalo milk and is used for cooking and grating. In the United States, slices of Provolone are frequently used in sandwiches.
Cured meats including Bresaola, Coppa, Mortadella, Pancetta, Salami, Speck, Prosciutto and Prosciutto Cotto are often used in Italian dishes.Bresaola, for example, is a lean, paper-thin cured meat that is usually doused with olive oil. The beef is deep red in color and has a smoky flavor.Made from pork, Pancetta resembles American bacon. It is an essential ingredient in Italian cooking and is often used in pasta sauces, soups and stews.Speck is a type of cured ham, although leaner than traditional ham. After being brined in garlic, black pepper, juniper berries and bay leaves, cold smoked and aged, Speck is sliced paper thin and draped over fruit or sliced into thick chunks and added to pasta dishes, salads or risottos.
Rice and Grains
In addition to using pasta, many people use rice and grains including Arborio, Carnaroli, Farro, Polenta and Vialone in their Italian recipes.
When most of us think of pasta, we imagine lasagna, spaghetti, linguini, ravioli and fettuccini. Interestingly, however, hundreds of additional varieties have captured the attention of cooks and food lovers around the world. Some of these varieties of pasta include cavatelli, farfalloni, fusilli, pansotti, penne, rigatoni, tagliolini and tortelloni.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices are key ingredients in Italian cooking. Popular selections include basil, bay leaves, chives, dill, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, saffron, sage, tarragon and thyme. Chives can be used in spreads, herb butters, dips and salads. Rosemary can be used to season meats and marinades or to accentuate vegetables in Italian recipes. Subtle uses of mint grace poultry dishes, grilled fish and sauted vegetables.
How to Pick the Right Pasta
Picking the right pasta is not as difficult as it might seem. First, consider whether a store-bought pasta will suffice or if you prefer the lighter, fresher taste of homemade pasta. Store-bought pastas come in many varieties, either dried or chilled and in traditional form, whole wheat or whole grain. Homemade pasta often has a lighter flavor and absorbs sauces better, especially sauces made with butter or cream.Choose a pasta that matches your dish in shape and flavor. Consider what thickness and texture you want. Looking for something light? Consider angel hair pasta. Need a thick, rich noodle? Try fettucine or bow tie pasta.
Cook Like an Italian
If you”re eager to cook like an Italian, remember the key ingredients you need to master the basics of Italian recipes. To help you remember them, envision the red, white and green stripes of the Italian flag. Red represents the rich tomatoes used in Italian food; the white represents garlic and the multitude of cheeses; and green represents the many herbs and spices used. Next, focus on freshness. To make a rich Italian meal or dessert, use the freshest ingredients. Lastly, be creative. Italian recipes can easily accommodate different tastes, so experiment with your favorite sauces, spices and cheeses.
Regional Influences of Italian Foods
The country of Italy is divided into three primary areas for the purpose of differentiating cuisine: Northern Italy, Central Italy and Southern Italy.In Northern Italy, hardy and plentiful foods contain large portions of meat including lamb, veal and fresh game. Mushrooms, truffles, polenta and risotto are often used in dishes from Northern Italy. Traditional dishes from this area include Costolette alla Milanese and Osso Bucco. In the northwest corner of Italy, the region of Piemonte is recognized for its variety of meats, its superb wines, truffles and chocolate and nuts.In Central Italy, food is lighter and richer, containing less meat and focusing more on vegetables and cheeses. In Southern Italy, Italian foods have a unique style and the area is known for its light, colorful vivid dishes.The island of Sicily, located at the southern tip of Italy, is best known for its capers, pastas and seafood (anchovies, swordfish and tuna). On the southeastern side of Italy in the region known as the “heel” of Italy, Puglia is known for its olives, sheep and lamb, sun-dried vegetables and pasta. It”s also known for its simple dishes including the Calzone, a stuffed pizza-type sandwich.