Italian Culinary Traditions


spagetti_c2It's true that Italians have a passion for life, and one of life's great pleasures is good food. Take, for example, Italy's renowned food markets; the fresh local fruits, vegetables, and seafood one finds make it clear that Italian food is really all about using the freshest ingredients available and bringing out their flavors. It's a cuisine that one does not tire of easily, because it runs the gamut from rich and complex to light and simple.

By Giuliano Hazan with wine notes by Karen MacNeil-Fife

Italy is made up of 20 different regions, each with its own culinary traditions. And though the country is relatively small, the difference in the food from one region to the next is extraordinary.

The cuisine in northern Italy, for example, tends to rely more on dairy products such as butter, cream, and cow's milk cheeses because the land is flatter and better suited to raising cattle. It's also one of the more affluent parts of the country, which makes for richer food with more expensive ingredients. Northern Italy produces creamy, rich cheeses such as mascarpone and Gorgonzola from Lombardy, fontina from Valle d'Aosta, and Taleggio from the Veneto. The region of Emilia-Romagna, whose capital is Bologna, is known for its homemade egg pasta and what is considered by many to be the kind of Italian cheeses. Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's also the region famous for prosciutto di Parma, as well as countless other exquisite sausages and cured meats.

In central Italy, the food becomes heartier with the wonderful bean soups of Tuscany and the savory roasted meats of Umbria and Abruzzi, where lamb, wild boar, and game can be more prevalent than pork, beef, and veal.

In southern Italy, there's more reliance on olive oil than butter, and the cheeses used are more likely to be made from sheep's milk. The further south one goes, the less affluent the population is; hence you'll find fewer fancy ingredients, a more sparing use of meat, and a greater reliance on local, seasonal foods. Sicilian and Sardinian cooking are not heavy, as is often thought. They are delicate, fragrant cuisines that emphasize the flavors of the fresh ingredients and seafood with which they are blessed.

Course by course

Italian cooking is healthful, and so is the Italian way of eating. A typical meal consists of several courses, none of which dominated the meal, so that portion sizes need not be as large. The first course (primo piatto) is usually a soup, pasta, or risotto. The second course (secondo piatto) is a meat, fish, or chicken dish that's accompanied by a vegetable and followed by a salad. The meal often ends with fruit rather than a dessert (although occasionally Italians do like to indulge in something sweet).

Few cuisines have the breadth and influence of Italy's so it was no small chore to select the following recipes. They both represent the different courses of a typical meal and exemplify the essential qualities of Italian food.

Basic techniques

COOKING PASTA: Pasta should be cooked in a generous amount of boiling water. It is not necessary to add oil to prevent it from sticking. Simply follow these rules: Use at least four quarts of water for one pound of pasta, stir as soon as the pasta goes in and periodically while it is cooking, and make sure the water is always at a rolling boil. Drain the pasta when it's al dente (firm and chewy but not crunchy), and never rinse it. Toss with the sauce right away to prevent it from sticking, and allow it to absorb as much flavor from the sauce as possible.

PAN ROASTING: Until not too long ago, many Italian kitchens did not have ovens, so most cooking is done over the stove. Meats are more often pan-roasted than oven-roasted. Most recipes that involve roasting follow a basic technique: Meat is first browned in either olive oil or butter, and a cooking liquid (usually a dry white or red wine) is added to the pan. Once the alcohol has evaporated and the tasty brown bits have been loosened from the bottom of the pan, the heat is lowered, and the meat cooks with a cover slightly ajar until it is very tender.

DRESSING AN ITALIAN SALAD: According to an Italian proverb, it takes four people to dress a salad well: a wise person for the salt, a generous person for the extra-virgin olive oil, a stingy person for the red wine vinegar, and a patient person to toss it all together. (Sometimes the proverb calls for a wealthy person adding balsamic vinegar.)

SAUTÉING: The purpose of sautéing is to intensify and draw out flavor. Unlike most recipes that tell you to heat the oil until hot, with Italian cooking you want the onions and garlic, for example, to cook very slowly. Not only does this minimizes the chances of burning the garlic, but you'll also get a richer flavor with a slower, more patient approach.

The Italian pantry

High-quality ingredients are essential to Italian cooking - the better your olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese, the better these simple dishes will be.

OLIVE OIL: One of the essential ingredients of Italian cooking, olive oil is used not simply as a cooking oil but for the flavor it adds to a dish. For this reason, it's important to use only extra-virgin olive oil - it has the most flavor.

TOMATOES: When fresh, ripe tomatoes are not available, use good canned tomatoes (unless the recipe specifically calls for fresh). Choose whole, peeled tomatoes rather than chopped or crushed. Use imported Italian San Marzano tomatoes if you can find them; they're the best.

GARLIC: Use garlic judiciously so it's not an overwhelming presence.

PASTA: Use pasta imported from Italy. Premium brands of artisanal production will have a satisfying texture and the subtle flavor of semolina flour. For egg pasta, avoid the "fresh" pasta sold in refrigerated cases. Either use homemade or buy the dried noodles packaged in nests.

RICE: Arborio is the most common rice used in making risotto, but other varieties - such as Carnaroli or Vialone Nano - which are just now becoming available in America, are perhaps even better. One characteristic they all share is a translucent, starchy exterior that melts away in cooking to give risotto its distinctive creamy consistency.

DRIED PORCINI MUSHROOMS: Look for packages that have large slices of whole mushrooms. They add a wonderful rich flavor to risottos, pasta sauces, and stews, and can infuse cultivated white mushrooms with their robust flavor.

PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO: Only cheese that is produced in a limited area surrounding Parma according to strict guidelines may be sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's a cheese of incomparable flavor, texture, and richness that make it not only an excellent grating cheese but also one of the world's great table cheeses.


0 #1 Stan 2009-07-14 20:40 Everyone should know this! Italian food rules! Quote

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