Classic Ingredients of Italian Cuisine

italia

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.

Italian Spices

  • 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).

Italian Herbs


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.

No-Boil Mac ‘n Cheese

     This mac ‘n cheese is mostly a recipe that I got from my dad, and it’s (in my opinion) the BEST!  You can eat it simply as-is or add beans and vegetables to the mix to up the nutrition factor.  I have made it with garbanzo beans and edamame (fresh whole soy beans), but you could also try carrots, peas, green beans… whatever you’d like.  As a refresher (or, if you’ve never made a cheese sauce before), you may want to read over: Basic Cheese Sauce

  • In about 3 Tablespoons of Butter, sautée 1/2 Cup of diced White Onion
  • To the onion, add a table spoon of Dijon Mustard, a dash of freshly grated Nutmeg and a pinch of Salt and Pepper
  • Once the onion is soft, add 1-2 cloves of minced Garlic; heat for about a minute
  • To the mixture, add about 3 Tablespoons of All-purpose Flour; whisk constantly until the flour is cooked (see: Basic White Sauce for tips)
  • After the sauce is a toasted blond color, add about 3 cups of Whole Milk
  • Whisk constantly over high heat until the sauce comes to a boil.
  • Once the sauce boils, take it off the heat and then stir in about 8oz of shredded or crumbled cheese (I prefer a mixture of sharp cheddar and mozzarella).  Whisk until the cheese is all melted and the sauce is smooth.
  • In baking dish, place 16oz of uncooked Macaroni pasta, and pour the cheese sauce over the pasta so that the pasta is completely submerged– if you need to add more milk to raise the level of the sauce so that the pasta is completely covered, do so.
  • Top with more shredded cheese if you desire a cheesy crust!
  • Cover the dish and bake at 375° for about 30 minutes.
  • After 30 minutes, increase the temperature to 400° and bake for another 10-15 minutes.  *You can add bread crumbs on top at this point if you’d like.
  • You’ll know it’s ready when the cheese on top starts to bubble and brown.  Yum!

mac 'n cheese

How to make a Basic White Sauce

This kind of sauce is the basis for a lot of sauces, so once you know how to make a basic white sauce (or roux) you can then add to it to take your meal in any number of directions.

  • Start with putting a metal skillet on med-high heat
  • Add some sort of fat to the skillet: you can use butter, oil or any kind of fat you’d like– preferably not a fat with a low smoke point (like olive oil) as it will burn too easily.
  • Once the butter (or other chosen fat) is melted and runny, at an equal amount of all-purpose flour to the pan and begin whisking together.
  • You’ll notice the smell of the flour cooking, and you will want to whisk continuously until the flour smells “cooked”.  (It will smell less like dough and more like toasted bread.)

* Once the sauce is “cooked” and looks blond in color, you now have a simple white sauce.  To this, you can add a little nutmeg and salt if you’re going to just use it as a basic white sauce.  However, if you want to continue cooking the sauce until it’s darker, you can do so– just be prepared that the darker your sauce (or roux) gets, the thinner the sauce will be.

Here is an excellent example of what a white sauce (or blond roux) should look like:

blond roux