How to Cook Like an Italian (Even If You Aren’t One)
As our population diversifies, ethnic cuisines are becoming ever more popular. If you live in a medium to large city, you probably have restaurants specializing in French or German fare right around the corner. Chinese restaurants are everywhere and Japanese, Thai and other Asian eateries are carving footholds in places where Mexican and other Hispanic restaurants have long been established. Indian food is on the upswing and Greek, Lebanese, Polish, Creole and a host of other cultural cuisines dot the culinary landscape from coast to coast. But it is almost impossible to visit any American village, town, or city and not encounter an Italian restaurant of one sort or another. Maybe it’s a four-star ristorante or maybe it’s a mom and pop pizza place; nothing beats Italian cuisine for sheer ubiquity.
On the home front, Italian cooking far surpasses any other. How many average American families do you know of that have “sauerbraten night” or “coq au vin night” on a regular basis? Ahhh, but “spaghetti night” or “pizza night” are almost required by law.
But there is so much more to Italian cooking than pizza and spaghetti. And you don’t have to go to a fancy Italian restaurant to find it. The beauty of Italian cuisine lies in its simplicity and versatility. You can be – Latvian (or insert any ethnicity you prefer) – and still be a better than average Italian cook. I suppose it helps to be Italian. After all, most of the great and famous Italian chefs have names that contain “de,” “di,” or “la,” and end in “a,” “e,” “i,” or “o,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t be an Italian cook if your name is “Smith.” Culinarily speaking, blood is not thicker than tomato sauce – (don’t dwell on that particular metaphor for too long) -- and genetics are not as important as skills and techniques.
That said, let’s explore a few of the “secrets” of good Italian cooking.
Secret number one; freshness. Once upon a time, truly fresh ingredients in the kitchen were more a matter of luck than design. In medieval times, food was heavily spiced for two reasons; one so that the founder of the feast could really impress his guests with his conspicuous wealth and two, so that his guests wouldn’t know how rotten the food they were eating really was. It took the Renaissance – and an Italian cook – to drag the culinary world out of the dark ages of disguising bad food into the light of freshness.
Maestro Martino was the personal cook to the bishop of Aquileia in the early part of the 15th century. He wrote a book called “Liber de arte coquinaria” (On the art of cooking) that, in a later, slightly edited form, went on to essentially become the world’s first bestselling cookbook. In it, Maestro Martino placed strong emphasis on the use of simple, fresh, widely available ingredients. He also advocated bringing out the natural flavors of foods through better cooking techniques. No more roasting or boiling meats for hours and then covering up the results with heavily seasoned sauces and such. His fresh approach to cooking remains the basis of Italian cuisine to this day.
Celebrity chef Mario Batali is fond of saying that Italians feel it is their birthright to have only the freshest ingredients possible at their disposal. This slight exaggeration is not far off the mark. Good Italian cooks go to market daily and choose the best produce, picked at the peak of its freshness. And they shop around. It’s not uncommon for an Italian cook to travel across town to find perfect tomatoes.
I have brought home some real nightmares from the produce department of my neighborhood grocery store. Especially when I took advantage of “bargains.” You know, 25 pounds of potatoes for two dollars, buy one – get one free. There’s a reason they do that, people, and it’s not because they really care about your family budget. The last time I took advantage of a BOGO deal on spuds, I wound up going back to the store at 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning as my guests were rising and expecting breakfast and tracking down the produce manager to show him the peeled and cut – and basically rotten – potatoes I had purchased the previous day. He replaced them with a higher quality – and more expensive – product and I never went back there for produce.
Avoid substandard product like the plague. Learn to distinguish what is unacceptable – and don’t accept it. You’ll do much better for yourself – and your family or guests -- shopping at fruit stands and farmers markets, as well as at local butchers and fishmongers. You know, the way we used to before everything got so “convenient?” The possible exception might be higher end grocers like Whole Foods and Fresh Market, who frequently buy their produce locally. I’ve never had bad experiences with those establishments and, contrary to popular myth, you don’t have to have a line of credit at the bank to shop there. I certainly don’t! I recently purchased some bacon at a Whole Foods store while visiting friends in North Carolina. There were two choices in the fresh meat department; one was labeled “national” and the other said “local.” I inquired as to the difference and was told that the “local” product was 100 percent North Carolina produced while the other came from a national supplier. I opted for the “local” bacon. After using it, I only wished that I had bought 50 pounds more! Easily the best bacon I had ever purchased outside of a butcher shop. And it was 20 cents a pound cheaper than the Oscar Meyer bacon in my refrigerator back home.
A final thought on freshness; shop often. I know it’s a pain. It’s just so much easier to pick everything up once a week and then expect that the lettuce and tomatoes that had already languished in the grocer’s bins for goodness knows how long will still be nice and fresh a week or so later when you finally get around to using them. Now, I’m not necessarily advocating going to the store every day. What I like to do is “stock up” on non-perishable items once a week, but visit the meat and produce areas two or three times during the week to get the freshest stuff available. One of the side benefits of shopping locally and often is that your greengrocer, butcher, fishmonger or whatever will get to know you and what your likes and dislikes are. And you’ll get better service. I needed a couple of pounds of ground pork one day and I went to the store that sold me the rotten potatoes. (Hey! It’s close by.) They didn’t have any ground pork on display and when I asked for some, the meat man said, “I ain’t got nothin’ I can grind up right now.” O-k-a-a-y. Another reason I won’t be going back.
The next thing that sets Italian cooking apart from other cuisines is its versatility. Going back to Mario for a minute, another thing he’s fond of reminding people is that there is no such thing as “Italian cooking.” What exactly does that mean? Well, the answer is twofold.
Understand that Italy, as a unified nation, is younger than the United States by almost a hundred years. Prior to the Risorgimento, which resulted in a unified Italy in the 1860s, the Italian peninsula was a collection of independent regions, each of which had its own political and cultural distinctions. These distinctions extended to the kitchens. Each region had its own cuisine based upon what was grown or produced in that region. Even within the regions themselves there was a great degree of culinary diversity among the towns and villages, sometimes filtering down to the neighborhood levels. Unification among the political leaders did not translate to the cooks, who remain as strongly diverse today as they were in Garabaldi’s time.
In short, what we call “Italian cuisine” is actually an amalgamation of twenty regional cuisines. Whereas one region may utilize olive oil as the fat of choice in its cooking, another region will rely on butter. Pasta rules in the south, but rice is king in the north. We can’t even be certain what to call some dishes. Even though standard Italian as we know it today is based on the Tuscan dialect, particularly as spoken in and around Florence, each region retains its own flavor in speech as well as in cooking. The same dish can have different names depending upon where it’s prepared.
This diversity, however, also contributes to the next aspect of Italian cooking; Italian cooks are very adaptive. Unlike some other cuisines, recipes, or ricette, are guidelines in the preparation of a dish rather than hard and fast rules. Italian cooks base their creations on what’s fresh and what’s available, not necessarily on the dictates of a recipe. For example, let’s say an Italian cook wants to make halibut for supper, but when he gets to the fishmonger’s, the halibut doesn’t look so good. But the flounder, a similar type of fish, looks great. So flounder it is. When it comes to pasta, my wife is not big on fettuccine, so all my fettuccine recipes contain linguine instead. The recipe calls for Parmigiano-Reggiano, but all you’ve got on hand is grana padano, non problema! Go with what you’ve got.
Another secret to Italian cooking is the layering of flavors. An Italian cook is like a culinary architect. He or she builds their dishes from the ground up. A good tomato sauce, for example, is made up of layers of flavor. You start by heating a good olive oil. Then you add the onions. When the onions have contributed their flavor, you add the garlic. When the garlic has infused, you add carrots and celery. Then come the tomato products. Then come the dried spices and, finally, the fresh herbs. Layer upon layer of flavor. You can’t achieve that by gathering up a bunch of ingredients and throwing them all into a pot at the same time. Even though you can vary the ingredients in a recipe, don’t try to vary the technique. If a recipe says to simmer on low heat for an hour, don’t try to speed up the process by turning the heat to high for fifteen minutes. You won’t get the same result.
There is very little waste in an Italian kitchen. Wars, floods, famines, and periods of abject poverty have endowed the Italian people with an unparalleled sense of frugality. Nothing goes to waste; everything gets used until there are no practical uses left. And then they might even try some impractical ones. This is especially true in the kitchen. Let’s say you’ve grated that expensive hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano right down to the rind. Do you just throw away the rind? No! You use it to flavor a soup. There are dozens of uses for stale bread, from breadcrumbs to croutons to a bread salad called panzanella. After you cut up a chicken, the carcass goes into a stock pot. Today’s leftover potatoes become part of tomorrow’s main course. After you start thinking like that, you’ll be surprised by how creative you can be.
The final “secret” to successful Italian cooking is having a good basic supply of quality ingredients on hand. (That’s probably not the “final” secret, but I’ve got to stop somewhere.) Notice, I said “quality.” This goes back to the same belief as for freshness. A good Italian cook never skimps on quality. Italian cooks, although frugal, are never pennywise and pound foolish. That quarter that you save buying third rate, bottom shelf, store brand canned tomatoes instead of the San Marzano tomatoes on the higher shelf will come back to bite you in the finished product. Same is true of olive oil and, believe it or not, not all dried pasta is created equal. If you find that you really can’t afford the top dollar stuff, at least settle on a good compromise. There’s a reason that cheap stuff is cheap.
Here are a few things that should be in every Italian pantry. Most of these items will keep for a long time and because they are used in so many different Italian recipes, they will probably never go to waste.
Dried pasta – spaghetti, linguine, elbow macaroni, conchiglie (shells). Go wild. There are dozens to choose from. You know what you like.
Olive oil – you’ll also find a dozen olive oils on you grocer’s shelf, but you only need to be concerned with two of them; extra-virgin and pure. Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first cold pressing of the olives and is the best quality. It’s also the most expensive. Use it for salads, for drizzling on a plate of pasta, risotto or vegetables, or as a final touch of seasoning. Pure olive oil is made from the second or third pressing of the olives, a procedure which employs heat or chemicals. Pure grade oil does not have the quality or flavor of extra-virgin. It’s a little cheaper and is used mostly for cooking and frying. Forget about “light” olive oil. It’s a flavorless concoction made primarily for Americans who think that the “light” label makes it healthier. Some stores – like Whole Foods – have “olive oil bars” where you can test and taste the flavor of the oil before you buy it.
Onions, Carrots, Celery, and Garlic – these are the ingredients for a soffrito, a base from which many Italian dishes are made. The French call it mirepoix, but who cares what they call it? Obviously, you’ll want fresh, crispy carrots and celery and you should use fresh garlic rather than the dried or jarred stuff. Buy heads that are firm and store them in a cool, dry place. Depending on size, a fresh head of garlic usually contains 10 to 14 cloves and will keep for two or three weeks. Green sprouts? Throw it out. Same applies to onions, which should also be firm and sprout-free. Red or yellow onions are best for most Italian dishes.
Rice – used in most northern Italian dishes. Common long grain rice won’t usually cut it. (And, omigod, don’t use Minute Rice!) Arborio rice is a short grain rice used in risotto and other rice dishes. It’s fairly easy to find in most supermarkets. If you come across its cousins, vialone nano and carnaroli, give them a try, too.
Polenta – basically, Italian cornmeal. “Real” polenta is long-cooking and labor intensive, so you might stock up on instant polenta, a perfectly acceptable substitute in most cases. Polenta is served in a variety of ways: soft and topped with a little olive oil, cheese or sauce, fried, grilled and baked with sauce and cheese.
Vinegar – if you come across a true balsamico tradizionale, prepare to give up your right arm for it. Most of the stuff that’s sold as balsamic vinegar in the U.S. is sweetened wine vinegar. It’s adequate for most purposes, so keep some on hand along with, maybe, a bottle of red wine vinegar for salads and cooked dishes.
Wine – speaking of wine, think Billy Joel here; “bottle of red, bottle of white.” And don’t buy the two dollar “cooking wine” variety. Use stuff you’d actually drink.
Canned tomatoes – gotta have ‘em! Use fresh if they’re really, undeniably good, but, by and large, canned are consistently better and constantly available. Whole canned plum tomatoes are an Italian staple. You can slice ‘em, dice ‘em, crush ‘em, or puree ‘em – you just can’t be without ‘em. And if you can find some that are labeled “San Marzano,” buy them up. They are a variety grown around Naples and make the best sauce you’ll ever put in your mouth.
Sun-dried tomatoes – also used in a lot of Italian dishes. The jarred variety, packed in oil, are the best.
Tomato paste – made from ripened tomatoes with the skins and seeds removed, tomato paste is the “paste” that holds many sauces together. It imparts a richness and depth of flavor not found in other products. Canned paste is okay, but I prefer mine in a tube. I can use only as much as I need and it keeps forever in the fridge.
Store-bought jarred pasta sauce – I make my own when I can; when I can’t, there’s always a jar of traditional Ragu or Prego or something in my pantry. I always buy the plain stuff and add my own “extras” when a quick meal is in order.
Cheese – again, dozens to choose from. Parmesan is probably the most recognized. Try to stay away from the grated stuff in the can. Fresh-grated is best. Romano is another cheese to keep around. Same rules apply. Obviously, imported Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano are at the top of the cheese food chain, but they can be a little hard to find and a bit pricey. But, oh, are they worth it! Maybe keep the cheaper domestic stuff for everyday use and get a small quantity of the “good stuff” for those really special dishes. Mozzarella, ricotta, and mascarpone are also essentials, but they have relatively short shelf lives and are best purchased fresh as you need them.
Mushrooms – big favorites in everything from sauces to pizza topping. Fresh whole mushrooms are great, dried porcini mushrooms are a great alternative.
Canned and dried beans and lentils -- use them in soups, pastas, vegetable and meat dishes, antipasti and salads.
Olives--Italian and Greek black olives are best for cooking. For green olives, use large Sicilian olives. For best flavor, look for imported olives in jars or in the deli section and skip the domestic canned variety.
Capers – they come salted or packed in vinegar (brined). Salted capers have the purest flavor, but the brined and bottled ones are more common. Before using, rinse them under cold water to remove some of the salt (salt-packed must be rinsed very well). Refrigerate both; brined have a much longer shelf life.
Canned anchovies, sardines and tuna – great for adding flavor to a lot of dishes or sometimes as the main ingredient. If you can find it, imported tuna packed in olive oil has the best flavor. The best quality anchovies are those that are packed in salt; they must be rinsed very well before using, and may need to be deboned. If salt-packed are not available, look for oil-packed anchovies packaged in glass jars.
A few spices and herbs to keep on hand include:
Kosher or sea salt – used for everything from incorporating as an ingredient to salting pasta water. Keep the table salt for use at the table.
Black Peppercorns – freshly grated black pepper is far superior to the canned ground stuff.
Red pepper flakes -- used for hot and spicy dishes like arribiata and picatta. In small amounts they liven up a dish without packing too much heat.
Dried Thyme, Oregano, Sage, Marjoram, Rosemary – mix them together and you have Italian seasoning. Of course, fresh is best, but not always available or practical. Buy the dried leaves when possible, not the ground herbs.
Nutmeg – buy it whole and grate it yourself when you need it. It has a powerful flavor, so a little goes a long way.
Saffron – an essential ingredient in risotto Milanese, and, by the way, the world’s most expensive spice. The powdered version imparts the most flavor, but you can finely chop the strands as well. A little goes a long way. Let me say that again, “A little goes a long way!” Turmeric, sometimes known as Indian Saffron, is a widely used alternative to the more expensive real thing.
Finally, breadcrumbs and chicken broth or stock are also handy to keep around your Italian kitchen. Hoity-toities will turn their noses up at packaged breadcrumbs and canned stocks or broths, but there’s really nothing wrong with them. I keep both Italian and plain breadcrumbs on hand as well as a supply of panko, a larger, coarser Japanese crumb that does well in many Italian dishes. And I usually stay stocked up not only on chicken broth, but beef and vegetable broths, too.
So, Mr. or Mrs. Smith, with the above knowledge in mind, arm yourself with a couple of good Italian cookbooks, watch a couple of good Italian cooking shows, visit a couple of good Italian restaurants, and maybe take a couple of good Italian cooking classes, and you’ll be cooking like an Italian cook before you know it.
Buon appetito e felice cucinare!