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.
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Bouquet Garni

Bouquet Garni ~ a French herbal mixture. It consists of a collection of herbs, gathered together and tied into a bundle or sachet in cheesecloth, or directly tied together when using fresh herbs. It is used to enhance the flavor of stews, broths or stocks. There are two versions – a dried version and a fresh version.

Fresh Version:Bouquet_garni_p1150476_extracted
1. Gather together fresh herbs, making sure they have long stems.
For a traditional bouquet garni, the herbs should consist of 3 sprigs of parsley, 2 sprigs of thyme and 1 bay leaf. (2 sprigs of fresh rosemary is optional)
2. Tie the bunch together with kitchen twine and leave a tail that you can use to haul the bunch in and out of your pot.

Dried Version:
1. Gather together dried herbs.bouquet garni
Mix together 1 tablespoon parsley, 1 teaspoon thyme and 1 bay leaf. (1 teaspoon of rosemary is optional.)
2. Wrap in a cheesecloth and tie with kitchen twine, again leaving some length for hauling in
out of the pot.

 

How to use a bouquet garni:
These can be used in making soups, stocks and sauces. Place the bouquet in the liquid at the beginning of cooking and leave in until right before serving. Some classic French dishes that these are used in include:

• French onion soup
• Brown Windsor soup
• Pot au feu
• Poule au pot
• Carbonnade flamande
• Lapin chasseur
• Blanquette de veau
• Ossobuco
• Bouillabaisse
• Court-bouillon
• Boeuf bourguignon
• Cassoulet

Remember: there is no generic recipe for bouquet garni, but most recipes include parsley, thyme and bay leaf. Depending on the recipe, the bouquet garni may also include basil, burnet, chervil, rosemary, peppercorns, savory and tarragon. Vegetables such as carrot, celery (leaves and stems) celeriac, leek, onion and parsley root are sometimes included in the bouquet. You can feel free to use whatever you’d like to infuse flavor in your soup, stock or sauce depending on your taste– feel free to improvise!

Ellen’s Silken Tofu Chocolate Pie

This recipe is taken from one of Alton Brown‘s recipes.  Very easy and so delicious!  Another great way to introduce tofu into your diet and save on some calories!

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups chocolate chips (I use 60% cocoa – bittersweet)
  • 1/3 cup coffee liqueur (optional – it’s just as good without it)
  • 1 block silken tofu (this is also sold as “Soft” tofu)
  • 1 tablespoon honey (more or less to taste)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 – 9″ pie crust (chocolate, graham, cream cheese [baked] – they’re all good 🙂

Melt chocolate and liqueur in a double boiler, add vanilla, honey and salt.

double boiler

Combine sauce with the tofu in a blender and liquify until smooth. Pour into pie crust.

Chill for 2 hours or until set.

rich creamy chocolate pie

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

Provence Potato Gratin

Thanks to Cooking.com for the following recipe!

Provence Potato Gratin

Contributed By: Jeanne
Active Time:  1 Hour
Total Time:  2 Hours
A lovely side potato dish to accompany Daube du Bouef or other beef dish. Add a Caprese Salad, a green vegetable of choice and a rich red wine for an elegant dinner.

INGREDIENTS

Yukon Gold, Red or White Potatoes, amount depending upon number of servings you want.
Creme Fraiche (made with 2 cups heavy cream, 2 cups sour cream)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
DIRECTIONS

Make Creme Fraiche several days ahead in a crockery bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 24 to 36 hours to thicken. When it reaches desired thickness, refrigerate until ready to use.
Peel and slice potatoes. Layer in buttered shallow casserole dish – potatoes, creme fraiche, lightly salt and pepper on each layer. Bake, uncovered in 350 degree oven for approximately 2 hours or until tender.

Split Pea (w/Ham) Soup

      This recipe calls for ham/ham stock, but it can easily be made into a vegetarian dish by using vegetable stock.  If you prefer the vegetarian version, just disregard any steps that mention the ham.  I like to make the meaty-version whenever I have leftover ham at Christmastime. 

  • Soak about a pound of dried split-peas overnight in a large bowl of water.green split peas
  • The next day, take your ham and place it in a large pot.  Fill the pot with water (making sure to cover the ham) and cook, covered, over low heat for a few hours– until the meat is falling off of the bone.
  • Strain the liquid from the pot and set aside.
  • Put the meat aside to cool– you will be cutting it up and adding it to the soup at a later point.
  • Next, strain off the liquid from the beans that have soaked overnight.
  • Place the beans in your pot and add the ham stock that you have just made.
  • Add a bay leaf and a bit of pepper, and then cook the peas over medium heat for about an hour.
  • You’ll notice that, as the peas cook, there will be foam that forms on top of the liquid.  Simply skim this off as it forms.  Eventually, the foam will stop forming.
  • As the peas are cooking, mince a few cloves of garlic (about 3-4), and dice up some white onion (about 2 cups) and carrots (about 1 cup).  You can also cut up some potatoes to add to your soup if you’d prefer a more stew-like soup.
  • Once the peas are soft, remove the bay leaf.  Using an immersion blender, blend the soup until the consistency is smooth.
  • Add about a teaspoon of dried oregano (or 1 Tablespoon of fresh oregano if you have it) and the other vegetables, and cook, covered, over low heat until the carrots and potatoes are soften.
  • While the soup continues cooking, turn your focus back to the ham.  Remove all bones and dice up the meat into bite-size chunks.
  • After the vegetables have softened, add the diced ham back into the soup and turn off heat.  After the soup has cooled enough for you to taste it, you’ll want to taste to make sure that it doesn’t need any additional salt.  The ham (or vegetable stock) will often be salty enough to flavor your soup.
  • (If needed) Salt and Pepper to taste.

ham split pea spoup

Thai Curry Sauce

There are a great many varieties of curry.  This is a recipe for how to make a yellow-curry sauce that is a kind of Thai Curry.  It is a versatile sauce that you can use with a variety of meats, vegetables and tofu.

  • Start by making a blond roux (or basic white sauce)
  • To this, add about 2 Tablespoons of Curry Powder

* Curry Powder comes in a few different varieties: green, red and yellow.  What I am using is yellow curry powder that is made up, generally, of tumeric, coriander, fenugreek, cumin, red pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, cloves, cardamon, fennel, nutmeg, laurel, allspice and garlic.  If you don’t like the flavor of any of these ingredients, you can always make your own curry powder out of any of the ingredients I just listed.

  • Add 1 can of coconut milk (be sure that it is coconut milk and not coconut juice– big difference!)
  • After the sauce is homogenous, add the juice of one lime. (Taste the lime first to make sure it isn’t bitter.)
  • Salt to taste and top with freshly chopped cilantro and/or thai basil.

 

Goat Cheese Alfredo Sauce

  • Over med-high heat, melt 2 Tablespoons of Butter in a large sauce pan
  • Once the butter is melted, add 1/2 Cup of chopped Onion
  • After the onions have cooked until they’re soft, add 3-4 cloves of minced Garlic
  • After only a minute or so, add 2 Cups of Milk
  • Stirring constantly so that the milk does not scorch, cook until the milk is good and hot.
  • Add a 4oz package of Goat Cheese and stir constantly until the cheese is fully incorporated.
  • Salt and Pepper to taste.

* You’ll want to wait and salt at the end because the goat cheese itself will be rather salty.  To this sauce, you can add sautéed mushrooms, fresh chopped parsley and even some cooked white (or navy) beans to add variety and depth of flavor.  Serve over pasta or use for a baked casserole.  It’s a rather versatile sauce!

How to make a basic Cheese Sauce

Making a simple cheese sauce may seem a little daunting at first (Wouldn’t be so much easier to just use a packet or a hunk of Velveeta?), but it’s worth the time (and money) to learn how to make your own.  Once you’ve learned how to do it, you won’t ever want to go back!

  • Start by sautéing a half a cup of finely diced onion in about 4 Tablespoons of Butter on med-high heat in a large pot or deep skillet.
  • Once the onions are soft, stir in about one Tablespoon of Dijon Mustard, and add a dash of freshly grated nutmeg.
  • If you’d like the flavor, you can add a couple of cloves of minced garlic at this point, making sure to not cook the garlic very long.  You’re only really heating it up– it will burn quickly
  • To this mixture, add 4 Tablespoons of All-Purpose Flour (You’re making a basic White Sauce at this point).
  • Once the sauce becomes cooked and is blond in color, add 3 Cups of of milk.
  • Stirring constantly, cook the sauce down until it thickens a bit.
  • Once the sauce has thickened, take the sauce off the heat.
  • Then, stir in about 8oz of grated cheese (I prefer to use Sharp Cheddar)– make sure that you have taken the sauce off the heat before you add the cheese.  Otherwise, the cheese will break.

Now that your sauce is ready, you can pour it over pasta, vegetables or make a casserole with it.  Done!

chees sauce-1IMG_0751

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