Crisp almond macaroons from Lombardy that have a pronounced bitter almond flavor. Serve them after a meal with coffee or crush them for use in desserts.
Although it is hard to convince anyone unfortunate enough to have only eaten dried out, salty anchovies on a pizza, good-quality anchovies add marvelous subtle flavor to many Italian dishes. These flavorful little fish are sold either packed in oil or in salt. Do not substitute anchovy paste, and avoid anchovies packed with capers.
Oil-packed anchovies filleted and ready to use are widely available in small tins or glass jars. Jarred anchovies are preferable, so that you can see that they are firm and plump and not crumbled because they are too old. Leftover anchovies can be refrigerated, topped off with additional oil in a small jar. Keeping leftovers covered in oil is important, as the anchovies dry out and lose flavor when exposed to air.
Salt-packed anchovies are not as widely available, and they do require cleaning. Their flavor is very good, though, and they are firm and plump. They come in large cans, and you can sometimes buy them by weight in Italian markets. Most often, though, you will need to buy the whole can.
To clean salted anchovies, rinse them well under cool water. Slit them open and separate the two fillets. Scrape off the skin and rinse out the bones and innards. The prepared fillets can be used in salads, stuffings, pasta, or marinated with garlic, parsley, oil, and vinegar as an antipasto.
Also available in many specialty markets are white anchovy fillets packed in vinegar. These have a delicate flavor and texture and are best rinsed and added to salads or eaten as the Italians do on slices of buttered bread.
Leftover bread has many uses in the Italian kitchen, and one of the most important is bread crumbs. They should be made from day-old Italian or French bread. Cut them into chunks and grind them in a food processor or blender until fine. Spread the crumbs in a baking pan and bake, stirring occasionally, until lightly toasted, about 10 minutes.
Let cool completely and store in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container. Never substitute canned, ready-flavored bread crumbs.
These little green berries are actually the unopened flowers of a plant that grows wild around the Mediterranean. Some of the best capers come from the island of Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily. Fresh capers have a delicate flavor and a short season. They are rarely seen in stores in this country.
Most capers are imported preserved in salt or vinegar. Soak salted capers in warm water for several minutes. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry before using. Vinegared capers need just a quick rinse to remove some of the vinegar. Large capers are more flavorful and less costly than tiny capers. Capers add a tangy flavor to sauces, salads, and pastas.
In parts of central and southern Italy, fresh and dried chiles are used for seasoning. Any variety of chile can be used. Italians use both the seeds and flesh of the chile, often passing the whole chiles around the table to be sliced as a garnish onto soup or pasta.
In the absence of fresh chiles, substitute tiny red dried chiles, which you can crush for extra spice or leave whole and remove before serving if you prefer less. Dried chiles sold in jars as crushed red pepper can also be used.
Keep in mind that the chiles, whether fresh or dried, are meant as an accent and should not overwhelm the flavors of the dish. They are used primarily in quick cooking dishes or as a garnish.
Fresh garlic is an important flavoring in many Italian dishes, but not every dish should contain garlic. When it comes to garlic, more is not necessarily better. Except for a few dishes, Italian cooks use garlic in moderation.
Fresh garlic can be white, pink, or purple, depending on the variety. Look for cloves that are plump and free of mold. As garlic ages, the skin becomes yellowish, dry, and papery and the flavor intensifies. Store garlic in a cool, dry place.
Garlic should always be freshly prepared for a recipe. Do not use harsh dried garlic flakes or granules, or stale-tasting jarred garlic, either whole or prechopped.
To prepare garlic for cooking, break off as many cloves as you will need for the recipe. Lay the cloves on a cutting board and lay a large chef's knife on its side over the garlic. Smack the knife with the heel of your hand to crack open the skin. If you are chopping or slicing the garlic, cut off the stem end of the clove, which can be hard. The green shoot inside the garlic is fine to use. I do not remove it.
For maximum garlic flavor, chop it very fine. For a more subtle flavor, slice the garlic cloves. For just a hint of garlic, leave the cloves whole (or crush them slightly with the side of the knife) for cooking, then remove them from the pot before serving.
Garlic should be cooked until it is a light gold or deep gold, depending on the intensity of the flavor you want. Never allow garlic to turn dark brown, as the flavor becomes bitter.
Various types of cheeses are used for grating in Italy, depending on the region and the dish. These cheeses are collectively known as grana, meaning "grainy." The three most popular varieties are Parmigiano- Reggiano, Grana Padano, and Pecorino Romano.
Though many cheeses are called "Parmesan," Parmigiano-Reggiano is the name of the genuine article, an aged cow's milk cheese made exclusively in Italy around the cities of Parma and Reggio Emilia. Genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano is rich and nutty and perfect for eating as an hors d'oeuvre or snack as well as grating on soups and pasta.
Always buy whole chunks of Parmigiano- Reggiano, never grated pieces, so that you can be sure of what you are buying. Also, grated cheese dries out quickly and loses its flavor. The rind of the cheese has the name impressed into it so that it is easily recognizable. The cheese should be a creamy golden color and the rind slightly darker.
Grana Padano is also made from cow's milk. The flavor is slightly milder than Parmigiano and the color is lighter. Otherwise it can be used in similar ways.
Pecorino Romano is the preferred grating cheese of southern Italy. Pecora is Italian for "sheep," and this cheese is made from sheep's milk. Pecorino Romano is very white in color and has no discernible rind. It is sharper and saltier than Parmigiano and is particularly good with vegetables, lamb, and pasta dressed with vegetables or southern Italian ragùs.
Other cheeses that are used for grating are ricotta salata (aged salted ricotta), Asiago, and caciocavallo. Sicilians have a caramel-colored, smoked pressed ricotta that is very distinctive, though I have never seen it sold in the United States.
Cheese should always be grated at the last moment. A hand-cranked mill known as a Mouli grater does an excellent job, as does an old-fashioned box grater. Rasp-type graters are good, though they grate the cheese a little too fine for my taste. Large quantities of cheese can be ground in a food processor with a steel blade, but the texture is more like little pellets than grated cheese.
Note that Italians sprinkle grated cheese on foods sparingly. They rarely use it in dishes made with fish or seafood, where it might mask the delicate flavor, though there are exceptions.
PARSLEY is the essential herb in Italian cooking. It is used in every region of Italy in a wide range of dishes, from fish to meatballs, stews, sauces, and vegetables. The preferred variety has dark green flat leaves and is sometimes sold here as Italian parsley. Its fresh color and taste lifts the flavor of dishes that it is added to without overwhelming them.
Parsley should always be fresh. Dried parsley has little flavor, and what flavor it has is unpleasant. Fortunately, parsley keeps very well in the refrigerator. Look for a very fresh bunch with no yellow or wilted leaves. Trim 3/4-inch from the base of the stems and insert the bunch in a jar with a couple of inches of warm water. Invert a plastic bag over the leaves and place the jar in the refrigerator. Change the water in the jar every day or two and the parsley should last at least a week.
BASIL is another staple herb in Italian cooking. Like parsley, it should only be used in its fresh state and not dried. Fresh basil is widely available in supermarkets all year round, and it is easy to grow in most areas in a pot on a window sill. Basil is a very tender plant and does not keep as long as parsley or herbs with woody stems like rosemary and sage. I wrap fresh basil in paper towels, place them in a plastic bag and store them in the refrigerator. They last for two to three days. If you have a large bunch to use up, puree it with olive oil and store it in the freezer in small containers, or toss the leaves in a salad. As a last resort, I rinse and pat dry the basil leaves, wrap them in plastic, and store them in the freezer. When I need a few fresh leaves for a sauce, I toss them in still frozen. The leaves blacken and become limp, but they are good in a pinch, adding close to fresh flavor to cooked dishes. I usually prefer to add basil at the end of the cooking time to better capture its fresh essence, but I sometimes add it as the food is cooking for another level of flavor.
ROSEMARY and SAGE are important herbs for cooking roasts, game, stews, and beans. Sage leaves and melted sweet butter make one of the quickest and best sauces for fresh pasta. Both herbs are best when fresh, and they keep well in the refrigerator if kept in a container that allows air to circulate around the leaves so that they do not get wet and moldy. Both also freeze well tightly wrapped. Dried rosemary and sage are good for backups, though once the jar is open, their flavor is good for only six months.
OREGANO and MARJORAM have a similar flavor and appearance, though you are more likely to find oregano used in southern Italy and marjoram in the north, especially in Liguria. Oregano is the stronger of the two, useful for tomato sauces and with fish. It is almost always used in its dried state. Marjoram is less assertive than oregano, with a floral and slightly lemony flavor. Fresh marjoram is preferable, though not so easy to find, unless you grow it yourself. Use marjoram for fish and seafood, vegetables, pasta stuffing, and sauces.
THYME, TARRAGON, and MINT are also used in Italian cooking, mostly in regional recipes.
Olive trees grow in Italy as far north as Liguria and the Veneto all the way south through Sicily. Not so long ago, it was easy to divide Italian kitchens into the butter-using north and olive oil south, but today cooks all over Italy use olive oil both for reasons of health and good flavor.
Olive oils are classified by the way they are processed and the amount of oleic acid they contain. Oil extracted without the use of solvents and with less than 1 percent oleic acid is the best quality and is classified as "extra virgin." The flavor of the oil will vary according to where the olives were grown, the types of olives used, and their quality and ripeness. Some oils have fruity flavors, while others are more vegetal or herbal. To find one that you like, buy small bottles of a few brands and sample them before you commit to a larger container. Olive oil should be used within a year of the time it was produced. The flavor fades as it ages, so look for brands marked with the year they were produced.
I use extra-virgin olive oil for most cooking and for salad dressings and usually have more than one variety open at a time so that I can match it to the flavor of the dish I am preparing. At one time, the standard advice was not to cook with extra-virgin olive oil, because its flavor was compromised by heating. But I find that extra-virgin olive oil enhances most foods, whether cooked or uncooked, and contributes authentic Italian flavor.
Olive oil should be kept in a dark container in a cool place. If you buy it in a large container, transfer it to a small jar or can to minimize exposure to oxygen, which will eventually cause the oil to turn rancid.
It is not necessary to refrigerate olive oil, unless you have a large quantity that you will not be able to use in a short amount of time. Chilled, the oil will become cloudy and semi-solid. It will liquefy and turn clear again after a few minutes at room temperature.
This is a bottled product that is made up simply of finely chopped olives and olive oil. It is convenient for sauces or as a spread for crostini. There are both black and green versions, and some can be rather strong. Olive paste keeps well for a long time in the refrigerator if covered with a layer of olive oil.
Both black and green cured olives are eaten in Italy, and they are frequently used in cooking. Green Sicilian olives are cracked before curing and are often flavored with garlic, fennel, or chile. Black olives are either brine- or oil-cured. Gaeta olives are brownish black, round, and meaty. Wrinkled, glossy black oil-cured olives have a chocolaty, bitter flavor. Ligurian olives are small and black. Large green or black Cerignola olives come from Puglia and are rather bland.
It is not always easy to tell where olives originate, so just be sure to use a flavorful olive. Olives should be whole (assuming they are not the type that are cracked open in processing), firm, and meaty, without discolorations. Store them in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
An easy way to pit olives is to place them on a flat surface, lay the side of a large knife blade on top facing away from you, and smack the blade with the heel of your hand. The olives will break open and the pits can be removed.
This is the cured but not smoked Italian version of bacon. The meat comes from the belly, or pancia, of the pig it is cured with salt and spices, rolled up pinwheel fashion, and wrapped in a casing. Sliced pancetta can be eaten as is or used to wrap small birds or other foods to keep them moist as they cook. Chopped pancetta is used to flavor soups, sauces, stews, and many other dishes. Sliced pancetta freezes well and in fact is easier to chop when it is partially frozen.
There is nothing quite like the flavor of vineripened fresh tomatoes at the height of the summer, but since their season is short, we must rely on canned tomatoes for stews and sauces much of the year. Good canned tomatoes are far better than out-of-season fresh for cooking. Italians use canned tomatoes all the time. Try several brands of plum or pear-shaped tomatoes. Avoid those that are packed in thick, sweetened puree or that are hard and greenish, indicating that they are underripe.
At one time the designation San Marzano was an indication that the tomatoes were of high quality and grown and packed in the small town of that name near Naples. The laws have been changed, and this is no longer a reliable indicator.
When I want a fresh tomato flavor and texture outside of the summer season, I often use grape or cherry tomatoes, which can be quite good even in the dead of winter.
Tomato paste is useful for bolstering tomato flavors in sauces, soups, and stews. I use the kind sold in tubes like toothpaste. Not only does it have a sweet and less metallic flavor than do some canned tomato pastes, it is also easy to use in small amounts and then recapped and stored.
Red and white wine vinegars and balsamic vinegar are the varieties typically used in Italy. Though very popular, balsamic vinegar should not be used as an all-purpose substitute for wine vinegar, since it is quite sweet.
The finest-quality balsamico, made in Modena, is labelled "tradizionale" and comes in a unique round bottle with a square base. It bears a sticker that certifies it as genuine, aged balsamico made in the traditional way. The production involves many years of aging in various types of wood barrels. Costly and rare, fine balsamico is meant to be used as a condiment. A drop or two may be dribbled on cheese or grilled meat. It lifts the flavor of berries and is so thick and luscious it can even be drizzled on ice cream.
Less aged, and less costly, balsamic vinegar does exist. Find a store in your area that will let you sample some before you buy it.
Supermarket balsamic ranges from harsh and artificial-tasting to perfectly acceptable for salads, marinades, and everyday use. One brand I like is Lucini, which is widely available.
WINE FOR COOKING
Wine is frequently used for cooking in the Italian kitchen. I have often read that one should use the same wine she or he will serve with the meal to cook with, but I do not necessarily agree. Fine wines are too delicate to pour into the pot. An ordinary table wine is ideal for most cooking purposes. Look for a wine that will not overwhelm the other ingredients and that you find enjoyable to drink. Avoid cooking with wine that has pronounced oak or fruit flavors. Try to use an Italian wine for the most authentic flavor.
Bottles labeled "cooking wine" should never be used, as these are poor-quality wines adulterated with sugar and salt to make them salable in food stores.
From "1,000 Italian Recipes." Copyright 2004 by Michele Scicolone. Used with permission of the publisher, Wiley Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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