Most people think of tomatoes and bread when discussing the basics of Italian food. But did you know that tomatoes were not a staple in Italy until they were introduced into Europe in the 16th century? Before the introduction of tomatoes it was common to see Italian cooks using flatbread, olive oil, garlic, fish, game meat, cheeses, and seasonal fruits and vegetables in their cooking. Now tomatoes, cheese, and pasta create the base for most Italian dishes. Even Italian desserts commonly use creams and cheeses to create rich textures and flavors.
Cheeses and Herbs
Cheese is a vital ingredient in Italian cooking. Some of the common cheeses include asiago, gorgonzola, mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino, provolone, and ricotta. Many of these cheeses are dry and used to shave over pasta dishes or sprinkle into a cheese mixture. Cheese mixtures are often flavored with popular herbs such as parsley, oregano, and basil. Italians also frequently use capers and bay leaves.
- CORIANDER [coriandolo] Crushed coriander seeds are used in various meat dishes, particularly lamb and pork.
- GINGER [zenzero] This spice is rarely used in Italian cooking, except in the region of Apulia and Basilicata in southern Italy, where it is very popular.
- NUTMEG [Noce moscata] The Italians are fond of this spice, both in sweet and savory dishes. Ground nutmeg has none of the fresh flavor and aroma of the freshly grated kind, therefore whole nutmegs should be bought and grated directly into the dish at the time of cooking. Nutmeg is a common ingredient in ravioli and dishes which contain spinach or cheese.
- PEPPER [pepe] Black peppercorns should always be used. Grind them fresh at the time of cooking or serving; never use ready-ground pepper.
- SAFFRON [zafferano] This is used mostly in risotto and in fish soups and stews. Saffron is very expensive and therefore used sparingly. Saffron threads are probably the easiest and most economical way of using saffron: they should be steeped in a little warm water until the color and aroma are extracted; the water should then be strained and added to the dish.
- SALT [sale] Sea salt is used throughout Italy. Coarse sea salt rather than table or cooking salt is the type to use.
- VANILLA [vaniglia] Vanilla is a popular flavoring in sweet dishes, and vanilla sugar sold in sachets is frequently used with ordinary sugar to give flavor to cakes and pastries. The Italians use vanilla pods (beans) rather then essence (extract).
Fresh herbs are normally used in Italian cooking. If not using fresh herbs, they should be stored in the freezer or hung up to dry in a cool, airy place away from damp. Once dry, they should be stored in airtight containers.
- Basil (basilico) There are numerous varieties of this spicy, aromatic herb, but sweet basil and bush basil are the most common. It is used mostly in dishes that contain tomatoes, and in salads, soups and on pizzas. Freshly chopped basil should be used whenever possible, as dried basil makes a poor substitute. If buying dried basil, however, always choose the sweet kind; its flavor is much less pungent than other varieties.
- Bay Leaves (lauro) Bay leaves are used as a flavoring for casseroles, soups and sometimes roasts.
- Borage (borragine) Borage has a flavor not unlike cucumber. It grows all over Italy, and is used both as a flavoring and as a vegetable. Ravioli is stuffed with borage in Genoa. Borage leaves are also served like spinach or dipped in batter and deep-fried as fritters.
- Fennel (finocchio) Fennel is used in three ways in Italian cooking. The bulb, known as Florence fennel or finocchio, is used whole, sliced or quartered as a vegetable, and either braised or baked au gratin. It is also chopped raw in salads. Fennel seeds are a common flavoring in spiced sausages and other cooked meats, Finocchiona salame being the best known of these.
- Juniper (ginepro) The berries of the juniper bush are used in pork and game dishes and in marinades. If they are to be included in a dish such as a stuffing they should always be crushed first. Use juniper berries sparingly as their flavor can be bitter if used in too large a quantity.
- Marjoram, Sweet (maggiorana) This herb is sometimes used in soups, stews, vegetable and fish dishes. If necessary it can act as a substitute for oregano.
- Oregano (origano) This is also known as wild marjoram. It is an essential ingredient in many Italian dishes, including pizzas, sauces and casseroles, but its flavor differs slightly from one region to another.
- Parsley (prezzemolo) Italian parsley is the flat-leaved variety as opposed to the curly “moss” variety common in Britain and the United States. Flat-leaved parsley can usually be found at continental stores, where it is often called “continental parsley”. Its flavor is far more pungent than curly parsley, and for this reason it is generally used as a flavoring in Italian dishes rather than as a simple garnish. For Italian recipes where parsley is specified, try to obtain the flat-leaved variety; other parsley can be used as a substitute, but the flavor of the finished dish will not be quite the same.
- Rosemary (rosemarino) The Italians are very fond of flavoring lamb and suckling pig with rosemary. It is also used liberally in soups and stews. However it is wise to treat this herb with a little caution, since its distinctive flavor can easily overpower ingredients with more subtle flavors.
- Sage (salvia) Sage is commonly used in liver and veal dishes.