Food and history, history and food…what a perfect pairing! What conveys us back in time quicker than the memory of food? What transports our minds to a place like the thought of a meal enjoyed on a trip? Cooking Italian food over the past year has kept my beloved Italy alive in my mind…and my stomach. It has been a solace more times than I can count.
My favorite dish in the entire word as a child was spaghetti with tomato sauce. Truth be told—my tastes haven’t changed much. I still love a plate of spaghetti…although now I’ve grown fond of bucatini al amatriciana (a thick long pasta with a tomato sauce with chunks of porky guanciale and pecorino-Romano cheese).
My love of Italian food came before I ever set foot on my beloved Italy. Now that I’ve had authentic Italian food my adoration for it has only intensified. In this blog, I’m going to guide you through the tools I use to recreate authentic Italian dishes as best I can while stateside.
Holy Grail Cookbooks
I don’t know if all historians love cookbooks, but I surely do. Cookbooks can be an important evidentiary tool for historians to learn about a culture. Food tells us a lot about a people—their wealth, lifestyle, religious beliefs, and more. A recipe in its richness or frugality can tell us about the region’s economic status. My heartbeat quickens when I spy a vintage cookbook in an old bookstore. If it has been annotated by its previous owners, then it is even more of a treasure. I love pouring over the dog-eared pages and reading the story within the recipe.
For cooking Italian food, there are really only two cookbooks one needs to master authentic Italian cuisine. If you can only get one, buy Marcella’s book. It’s less expensive and less overwhelming, plus she writes like a dream. I can’t do justice to the prose of her recipes; her writing is pure elegance. Both of these books are culinary bibles and will cover everything you need to know about Italian cooking from appetizers to dessert.
The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
The Silver Spoon (Il Cucchiaio d’Argento) by the magazine Domus
Chefs I Enjoy
Usually seen on their cooking shows, although Anne Burrell mainly entertains with cooking competitions (bring back Secrets of a Restaurant Chef!) and I’m not sure of the status of Extra Virgin, the cooking show of Debi Mazar and her Italian-born hubby chef Gabriele Corcos which often took place at their Tuscan home, these chefs offer up loads of great recipes. You may want to look through some of their cookbooks and see if some of them match your tastes.
Lidia Bastianich—born in Italy (now the area is Croatia), owns several Italian restaurants, host of popular PBS show of her name, author of many cookbooks, and involved in many areas of the food world.
Anne Burrell—studied at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Asti in the Piedmont Region of Italy, host of many cooking shows, and author of my favorite book by her Cook Like a Rock Star.
Giada de Laurentiis—born in Italy, she is an American chef with numerous television shows, cookbooks, and a food empire under her belt. Her family is quite famous in Italy, but Giada grew up mainly in the States. She knows how to adapt Italian food for the US market and availability.
Debi Mazar and Gabriele Corcos—Mazar is an American actress. Corcos in an Italian cook. The married couple appeared on the tv show Extra Virgin, which took place in the US and in Italy. They are also the authors of two cookbooks.
Most Italian dishes have very few ingredients—in fact, a lot of the recipes in the above mentioned Holy Grail cookbooks only have around five. Having top quality products then is essential to making the most delicious food. I keep the following staples on hand in my pantry so I can concoct an Italian dish whenever the mood strikes.
Dried Pasta: long (bucatini, spaghetti, fettucine, linguine, tagliatelle), short (campanelle, orechiette, lasagna, cavatappi, casarecce, rigatoni), and flat sheets (lasagne). There are lots of other shapes! Italians match specific shapes of pasta to specific sauces. By reading recipes by authentic Italian cooks, you can get a feeling for what the pairings are. There are several decent pasta brands that are widely available on American grocery store shelves; Barilla is probably the most widely available, DeCecco is also widely available and is better in my opinion. If you can find Di Martino, Delverde, or Garofalo, I prefer them.
Double-zero flour, all-purpose flour, semolina flour—make sure you have all three types of flour for making homemade pastas and pizza crusts.
Arborio/Carnaroli rice—I prefer Carnaroli rice for making risotto, but Arborio is easier to find. One or the other is a basic ingredient for making creamy risotto. At Italian grocery stores, you might also find Vialone and other short-grained rice with high starch contents—it is the starchiness of the rice that makes these types of rice perfect for this first course.
Polenta—I always keep a good, quick-cooking polenta (ground cornmeal) on hand.
Cannellini beans—jars of these are essential pantry ingredients for pastas, soups, and other Italian dishes. Italian stores have a wide variety, but I like Cirio if I can find them and Cento as a back-up if I cannot.
Tomatoes—besides pasta this item takes up the most space in my pantry. Honestly, I have very little processed food in my house other than canned tomatoes and pasta. I keep several types of tomatoes on hand: whole plum tomatoes (pelati), crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, pomodorini (little whole tomatoes), passata (thick tomato sauce), San Marzano (make sure they’re authentic—they only come from Italy—since a lot are now called San Marzano “style”), tomato paste (tube and can). I find most fresh tomatoes…unless they are in season…quite tasteless. A good brand of tomatoes that has been canned at the peak of the season, however, are at the height of flavor. Yummy! Some brands I like are: Colavita, San Merican, La Valle, Nina, Cento, and Pomi.
Castelvetrano olives/capers—I keep both on hand for making certain dishes which call for their briny goodness.
Extra virgin olive oil—make sure it’s extra virgin and kept in a dark bottle or tin. Also, look for where it’s made; I prefer those from Italy or Greece.
Vinegars—at minimum, I have on hand balsamic, red wine, white wine, and cider.
Spices/herbs/aromatics: red pepper flakes, oregano, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, basil (fresh), parsley (fresh), garlic, shallots, red onions, white onions, yellow onions, and carrots.
Butter, eggs, lemons, bacon or pancetta—these things are just always needed.
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (often Pecorino-Romano)—Parmigiano-Reggiano is the king of cheeses, but Pecorino-Romano is a staple in Roman pasta dishes like Amatriciana, Gricia, Cacio e Pepe, and Carbonara.
Wine (always red and white on hand)—you always need wine on hand, even if you’re not one to drink it. It adds depth and richness to stews and somehow lightness and freshness to other sauces. It’s essential. It’s also good to drink. I suggest a Chianti for the red and a bottle from Frascati or Orvieto for the white.
I hope you enjoyed my primer on how to cook good Italian food. I like to think that over my many years of cooking in Italy on our travels (we generally stay in apartments) and making Italian food here, as well as cooking for the two Italian boys who lived with us and became our sons, that I’ve learned a thing or two about Italian cuisine. I’ve certainly come a long way from the early days and I’m sure I will learn much more before my days are done, but I look forward to the challenge. If you have a good recipe, please share in the comments.
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