Italian Pantry Basics
If I could walk into Nonna Saporito’s pantry or Nonna Galasso’s fruit cellar today, I would find the genius behind their everyday cooking, which was based on having key staple ingredients available at all times. My pantry is a lot like theirs, albeit with a few more indulgent ingredients like aceto balsamico tradizionale (artisan-made traditional balsamic vinegar) and dried porcini mushrooms, but in general, what they cooked with, I cook with today and so should you if you want to re-create the flavors of Italian cooking. The list below will get you started but is by no means a complete list; you can always add other ingredients that you use frequently.
Anchovies. Anchovies packed in olive oil and anchovy paste can make a pound of pasta sing as well as provide a depth of added flavor to vegetables and sauces.
Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano. These short-grain, starchy northern Italy rice varieties are necessary for making creamy risottos, rice balls (arancine), and other traditional Italian dishes.
Beans. Keep either canned or dried cannellini, fava, chickpea, and lupini beans in your pantry; these are essential in soups and for antipasti and salads.
Capers. Usually packed in salt or brine, capers are the unopened flower buds of a plant that grows in the Mediterranean; they add pungency to sauces for fish, meat, and vegetables.
Cornmeal. You will need good-quality stone-ground cornmeal for making polenta and for use in breads, cookies, and cakes. Regular yellow or white cornmeal is fine, too, but does not have the same texture as the stone-ground.
Dried fruits. Figs, dates, raisins, and candied fruit peels such as orange and lemon are frequently used in baking. Dried citron is also a favorite in many Italian confections such as Neapolitan rice pie.
Flour. Keep several kinds on hand like all-purpose, unbleached flour for making fresh pasta, and bread, pastry, cake, caputo, and semolina flour. If you use a lot of flour, keep it in the refrigerator to prevent it from attracting bugs.
Garlic. Use only fresh, heavy, tight-papered heads and keep them in a cool, dark, airy place. Do not buy prepared jarred garlic; the flavor is nothing like fresh and will kill the taste of what you are preparing.
Grains. Use barley, farro, and wheat berries for soups, stews, and casseroles as well as fillers for vegetables.
Herbs. Dried oregano is the only herb I use in its dried state because of its more pronounced flavor. Other herbs that I always use fresh include flat-leaf parsley, basil, thyme, mint, marjoram, rosemary, and sage.
Lentils. These tiny lens-shaped dried legumes are used in Italian soups, served as an accompaniment to sausage, and are served on their own.
Marinated vegetables. Jarred and marinated vegetables such as olives in brine, red sweet bell peppers, and artichoke hearts all add interest to antipasti and can be used in main dishes and salads.
Mushrooms. Wild, dried porcini are used for sauces, in soups and stews, and with braised meats and polenta. When reconstituted they have a meaty texture and woodsy flavor.
Nuts. Almonds, pine nuts, hazelnuts, and walnuts are the nuts most frequently used in Italian baked goods, stuffings, and breads. Like flour, once they are opened, store them in the refrigerator.
Olive oil. The cornerstone of Italian cooking, olive oil is used for everything from light sautéeing to mixing into salads to drizzling over meats, vegetables, and fish. There are many regional types. They range from thick green to pale gold in color, and from spicy and dense to fruity and light in flavor. Be sure to read the labels; extra virgin means the first, cold pressing and less than 1 percent oleic acid. Store olive oil in a cool, dark place. Don’t keep it longer than a year, after which it may become rancid.
Onions. Common yellow onions, as well as red onions and small onions called cippoline, are essential to most Italian cooking. Store them like garlic.
Pasta. Dried pastas made from semolina, a hard wheat durum flour, range in types from small cuts for soup like ditalini or orzo to short cuts like rigatoni and penne to longer cuts like spaghetti and pappardelle.
Sardines. Small canned fish packed in olive oil are used to make sauces or as a flavor base for many dishes.
Tomato paste. Add to soups, stews, and sauces. Hot red pepper paste is great when you want to add a little heat to a dish.
Tomatoes. Stock canned plum San Marzano tomatoes for making sauces or adding to stews and soups.
Tuna. Use good-quality tuna packed in olive oil for tossing with pasta or as part of an antipasto.
Vinegars. Use white, red wine, and commercially made balsamic vinegars for salads, deglazing pans, and boosting flavor. Traditional balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico tradizionale) is made in Modena and aged in wooden barrels. It is very concentrated and should be used as a condiment, never in cooking. It is usually drizzled over Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese slivers or served over fresh strawberries and figs. Its flavor is intense, its color dark, and its consistency that of syrup.
Yeast. For pizza and bread, include Fleischmann’s pizza crust yeast, active dry yeast, and rapid rise yeast in your pantry. Yeast should be stored in the refrigerator.
WHERE’S MY CHEESE?
Let’s face it: artisan-made imported Italian cheeses are expensive. But the good thing is that you only need a little bit to enjoy on its own or make the dish you are preparing truly sing. What I want to stress to you is that imitation cheese has no place in any of the recipes in this book. And there are many imitations out there, so beware! My best advice is to always buy Italian cheeses cut from the wheel. That is your guarantee that you are getting an authentic product because the markings on the rinds will identify them. If you buy grated cheese, or cheese with no markings, you might be paying top dollar for imitation cheese.
There are many regional Italian cheeses available, but the two most popular aged cheeses found in American kitchens are Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino. There are also fresh cheeses like mozzarella and ricotta that are used frequently in many of the recipes in this book. You will find more detailed descriptions of pecorino cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Here are some others that I like to use, but by no means are these all of them! The last time I checked there were well over four hundred types of Italian cheese. Thirty-nine of those cheeses have been given DOP status according to the 2010 GAIN (Global Agricultural Information Network) report. Some of the cheeses listed here have been granted DOP status by the European Union. DOP means Denominazione Origine Protetta and indicates food products with particular characteristics that are made in a particular geographic location with specific ingredients and time-tested methods. The EU guarantees their authenticity against competing imitations sold as Italian products. Not every cheese receives this designation.
Asiago. A straw-yellow color, asiago is a semihard cow’s milk cheese from the Veneto region. It has a dark glossy blackish coating and is similar to Swiss cheese with many tiny holes. It has a nutty flavor. There are two types: Pressato, which is fresh and mild in flavor with a whitish color, and mature Asiago d’Allevo, which is yellow and has a grainy texture. This is a great table cheese as well as when used in cooking. This cheese is called mezzano at six months of aging, vecchio at one year, and stravecchio after two years.
Burrata. A type of mozzarella made in Puglia that is filled with cream and bits of mozzarella that is very soft and delicate. It is best eaten on its own with some crusty bread.
Fontina. A semisoft white cow’s milk cheese with a brownish rind from the Val d’Aosta in northern Italy. It is a great melting cheese. One of its classic uses is for fonduta (Italian fondue). It is also a great cheese for making a creamy sauce.
Gorgonzola dolce. A cow’s milk cheese from Lombardy, Gorgonzola dolce is a blue cheese with a sharp taste that makes it a wonderful eating cheese but also good in fillings and sauces. There is also a drier, crumblier version called Gorgonzola piccante or forte.
Montasio. A cow’s milk cheese from Friuli, Montasio is available fresh, semi-aged, and aged. It is made from two milkings and is partially skimmed. It was originally made by monks. When fresh it is soft and delicate tasting. As it ages it becomes sharper in taste. A great cheese to accompany fruit, especially pears.
Mozzarella di bufala. From the region of Campania, mozzarella di bufala is made from buffalo milk, while fior di late is made from cow’s milk. Both these cheeses belong to the pasta filata family of cheeses. Pasta filata is a term that means “spun paste” because the curds are stretched by hand and formed into a soft, fresh cheese that is very perishable and best eaten as the Italians say “da giornata” (the day it is made).
Pecorino. A name given to cheese made from sheep’s milk, Pecorino comes from the word pecora for sheep. It has been produced for centuries as is evidenced by a reference to it by Lucio Columella, an important writer on Roman agriculture, who wrote the fifteenth century treatise De Re Rustica:
The milk is usually curdled with lamb or kid rennet, though one can use wild thistle blossoms, càrtame, or fig sap. The milk bucket, when it is filled, must be kept warm, though it mustn’t be set by the fire, as some would, nor must it be set too far from it, and as soon as the curds form they must be transferred to baskets or molds: Indeed, it’s essential that the whey be drained off and separated from the solid matter immediately. It is for this reason that the farmers don’t wait for the whey to drain away a drop at a time, but put a weight on the cheese as soon as it has firmed up, thus driving out the rest of the whey. When the cheese is removed from the baskets or molds, it must be placed in a cool dark place lest it spoil, on perfectly clean boards, covered with salt to draw out its acidic fluids.
There are many types of this cheese; some are aged longer than others, some are flavored with peppercorns, hot red pepper, black truffles, or other ingredients. Sheep’s milk used to make the cheese is mixed with rennet to help coagulate it and form the famous curds, which are pressed into cylindrical shapes and salted.
Pecorino cheese is made between November and late June. It is available as fresh (fresco), semihard (semi-staginato), and hard (staginato). The longer the cheese ages the saltier and harder it will become. When young it is an excellent table cheese and as it ages it makes an excellent grating cheese.
Depending on where the cheese is made in Italy it will have a place of origin attached to it, such as pecorino Romano (often called Locatelli) from the Lazio region. There are characteristic differences in the regional varieties of this cheese, including breed of sheep, grasses they feed on, and method of production.
Pecorino Romano. This cheese is straw-white in color, quite salty, and hard, and is mainly a grating cheese as opposed to being a table cheese. It was the cheese that most Italian immigrants used.
Pecorino Sardo. This cheese is made exclusively from a breed of sheep raised on inland mountainsides where they feed on certain herbs.
Pecorino Toscano. Milder than Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Toscano is used primarily as a table cheese. The wonderful town of Pienza is famous for its production of pecorino cheese and produces many flavored varieties including those studded with flecks of black truffles and those whose rinds have been coated with wine must.
Provolone. This cow’s milk cheese is made in the southern and northern regions of Italy. The curds are made from a morning and an evening milking and are kneaded until they are firm and shaped into cylindrical form. Pale yellow in color when young, the cheese darkens with age and becomes sharper in taste. Provolone is also a pasta filata–type cheese.
Ricotta. The name ricotta means recooked, and the cheese is made by reheating the whey that is drained off from the curds during the cheese-making process. As the cheese forms it is scooped into plastic baskets and allowed to drain. It is used as a filling for everything from pasta to tarts.
Scamorza. This cheese is a drier type of cow’s milk mozzarella that is often smoked (scamorza affumicata). It is often formed into animal shapes.
If I could be offered only one cheese in a lifetime, it would have to be Parmigiano-Reggiano, or what Americans call “parmesan.” The creation of this cheese is the pride of the region of Emilia Romagna; it is the king of the table. Making this exquisite cow’s milk cheese by hand goes back more than eight centuries and the process has not changed much in all that time, and to witness the actual “birth” of this region’s most famous product is a rare experience. Each time that I have been privileged to do so, I am in awe of the elements of nature and man working in harmony to create such a unique artisan product.
So it was with great excitement early one morning that I found myself an invited guest to one of the six-hundred cheese houses (casefici) in the region to learn about the process. My destination was Baganzolino, a half hour’s drive from my hotel in Soragna.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is made every day from raw cow’s milk from both an evening and a morning milking. Strict rules surround its production. Only the provinces of Reggio Emilia, Parma, Modena, Bologna (west of the Reno River), and Mantua (east of the Po River) are authorized to make the cheese. Cows must be fed only chemical-free grasses that come from these designated areas. The quality of the raw ingredients along with ideal soil and climatic conditions are the conduits for making Parmigiano-Reggiano. But there is also another element that cannot be overlooked, the ability of human hands to turn these raw materials into this superior cheese.
Once the milk is obtained, it is heated in huge copper cauldrons that look like inverted gigantic church bells. Whey from the previous morning’s milking is added along with calf’s rennet. This coagulates the milk in about twelve to eighteen minutes and forms the cheese curds. A huge wire whisk is used to break up the curds into pea-size pieces. These tiny pieces are allowed to set, and as they do they form a solid mass, which is brought up from the base of the cauldron with a large wooden paddle. The curds are cut in half to make two cheeses known as “gemelli” (twins). They are placed in round wooden molds. A stamped plate with pin dots spelling Parmigiano-Reggiano, and indicating which cheese house made it, and the month and year of production, is placed between the cheese and the mold. This will leave an impression of the words on the rind as it ages, and gives the maker and the buyer an historical record of the cheese’s beginning and authenticity. After three days of being in the molds, the cheese is added to a salt brine where it is turned often and aged for twenty-four days. Next comes the aging process, which takes place in the maturing room where the large wheels are stacked on wooden shelves. Wheels age for an average of two years, during which time cheese testers using special hammers tap the entire surface of the cheese to make sure that it makes a uniform sound, or as the cheesemaker puts it, the cheese must make its own fine music, and if it does not, it is rejected. Testers also look for uniform color, pleasant smell, and no gaping holes in the interior. As the cheese ages, amino acids begin to form, which crystalize into tiny white dots visible when the cheese is cut open. These grainy bits give Parmigiano-Reggiano its unique texture. Only when the governing body, the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, gives its approval that the cheese has passed all the criteria, the wheels are stamped with the oval seal that signifies that it is worthy to take its place in the world marketplace.
Watching the grand opening of a wheel being cut is almost a spiritual experience. Anticipation builds and silence falls as my eyes are riveted on the cheese tester, who uses a special almond knife to score the eighty-five pound wheels across their diameter and down both sides. The wheel is turned over and the line is completed on the other side. Then a half-inch deep cut is made along the cutting line all around the wheel with a hooked rind cutter. Next a pointed spatula knife is inserted into the center of the top line. Almond-shaped knives are positioned diagonally into opposite corners of the wheel as the cheese tester grasps them and pushes one forward and the other backward to pry the wheel open. After watching this tedious process, I have infinitely more respect for buying a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano already cut into wedges in my local supermarket. When the interior texture is revealed, it is rough with peaks and valleys like the surface of jagged stone mountains, and its sunny yellow color and aroma fill one’s senses.
Tasting its delicate flavor right in the cheese house was an unforgettable experience, and for those accustomed to purchasing those boxes of what can only be deemed artificial “parmesan” from the supermarket shelves, this comes as true enlightenment.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is a near perfect food, low in fat and sodium, high in calcium, and full of vitamins and other minerals. No wonder it was chosen as the cheese to send into space with Russian cosmonauts. Luckily we need not go that far since it is available in supermarkets and specialty food stores.
ODE TO OLIVE OIL
“His Holiness would like the olive oil sent to the Vatican.” So goes the traditional papal request for extra-virgin olive oil from Umbria. For centuries even popes recognized and appreciated the superiority of the olive oil from trees in this region and paid farmers to plant them on the middle hills, and in the chalky soil of the Umbrian countryside. To this day, Umbrian olive oil still graces the table in the Vatican, and is considered some of the best in Italy. But even before popes recognized its worth, it was held in high regard in biblical times, and its branches became a symbol of peace for the world. The ancient Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans understood olive oil’s worthiness for culinary purposes, but its use also extended to oil for their lamps, for rubbing on the body, and for sale as a profitable trading product.
Yet in the American kitchen, the role of olive oil is misunderstood; confusion reigns as to whether to cook with extra-virgin, virgin, or pomace! Should one cook with extra-virgin olive oil or reserve it solely for dressing salads? Can it be used to deep fry foods? Which is the best one to buy? Where should I store it?
I have been cooking with low-acidity extra-virgin olive oil for years and I know what I like: fruity olive oil for salads, and peppery olive oil for sautéing. Selecting olive oil is a lot like selecting a bottle of wine; it can be a daunting task, but if you know what you like, the job becomes easier, and just as there are hundreds of wines to choose from, so, too, the dilemma exists in the multiple choices for olive oil.
Everything is dependent on your palate and whether or not you like fruity, dense, spicy, mild, or peppery as a flavor characteristic. The best way to determine this is to sample different types of olive oils from various regions of Italy. Generally speaking, the further south one travels in Italy, the fruitier, denser, and greener the oil will be, and as one travels north the oil is lighter in color, less dense, and milder. By definition, and by Italian law, extra-virgin olive oil must not contain more that one-percent acidity; the oil must come from the first pressing of the olives, and no heat can be used to extract the oil. Only then is an olive oil characterized as extra-virgin. Other grades have higher amounts of acidity and may come from multiple pressings. In the case of pomace, which is the pulp that remains after several pressings of the olives, any remaining oil is extracted with the use of solvents. This oil is refined and blended with a small percentage of virgin olive oil (higher acidity), and sold at much cheaper prices, but in my estimation, you get what you pay for.
My suggestion is for you to try several extra-virgin olive oils from different regions of Italy. To really taste test olive oil correctly, take a sip and roll it around in your mouth. Do not swallow yet! Taste it at the tip of your tongue, the roof of your mouth, the center of the tongue, and the back of the tongue. Now swallow it for a throat “finish.” The different areas of the mouth will produce a variety of tastes, like nutty, peppery, heavy, intense, light, sweet, earthy, grassy, and buttery. If you follow this technique, you will come to appreciate the many properties of olive oil. Find them in Italian grocery stores and on the Internet.
Last, a word about storing olive oil; it is best to keep it in a cool, dark place, not in the refrigerator where temperature extremes can affect its flavor, and only buy enough to use up in a short period of time. Olive oil is best used within a year of its purchase, otherwise it could become rancid. Following these guidelines will ensure that you will be using and enjoying olive oil according to Italian tradition.
However, there are other good oils to try from the Italian pantry shelf, including the following:
Walnut oil. Especially popular in the Piedmont and Val d’Aosta regions of Italy where olive trees do not grow, walnut oil is a polyunsaturated fat and a good source of omega-3. It has a high smoke point of 400°F so it is good for frying or baking.
Peanut oil. A monounsaturated fat with a medium smoke point of 350°F, use this flavorful oil for light sautéing.
Sunflower oil. A polyunsaturated fat with a low-saturated fat level, this oil has a high smoke point of 460°F, making it good for high-heat cooking, like sautéing and frying.
Canola oil. Pressed from canola seeds, it is monounsaturated, low in acidity, and good for deep frying.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT SALT
There seems to be so much confusion about which salt is best for specific cooking needs. First let’s be clear about what salt is: a mineral that contains compounds of chlorine and sodium. Salt comes from either the evaporation of briny seawater or from mining underground salt deposits formed eons ago.
Our most common form of salt is called table salt, the one that my mother and grandmothers reached for. Today we have so many choices of salts from flavored salts to pretzel salt and salt for margaritas. On the other hand, we are told to hold the salt and limit our intake to a mere teaspoon a day. That would be hard to do for most people! Too much salt can have adverse effects on our health, like high blood pressure.
There is no question that adding salt to a dish brightens its flavor. How much salt to add is really a personal choice. If you feel the recipes are too skimpy on salt, you can always add more. The salt suggestion is only a guide. When you come right down to it, salt is salt, no matter what clever marketing messages Madison Avenue has thrown at us.
Here are some that I use in the recipes in this book.
Iodized table salt. Comes from underground mines and contains anticaking agents, it has a fine grain texture and is combined with iodine, which is necessary for thyroid health. Use this salt in all recipes unless indicated otherwise.
Kosher salt. An additive-free coarse-grained salt, it takes its name from the practice of salting kosher meats. It has a flaky texture, is less dense than table salt, and dissolves quicker. If a recipe calls for table salt use roughly two times the amount of Kosher salt because as the salt crystals increase in size so does the amount of space between the grains. So a tablespoon of fine sea salt will contain more salt by weight than a tablespoon of coarse salt because of the size difference of the grains.
Fine sea salt. Derived from the natural evaporation of seawater, it has a finer, powdery grind than coarse salt. Both fine and coarse sea salt contain trace minerals, including iron, calcium, and zinc. A tablespoon of fine sea salt will contain more salt by weight than a tablespoon of coarse salt because of the size difference of the grains.
Coarse sea salt. A larger, crystallized version of fine sea salt, it is used to grind over meats, fish, breads, and some baked goods to give them a polished gourmet look. A teaspoon of table salt equals one and a half teaspoons of coarse salt.
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Ann Esposito