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This book is about how I cook Italian food at home. It's about how I shop, how I organize myself in the kitchen, and what kind of tools and equipment I like to use. The food in this book is inspired by what I grew up eating at home and learned to cook once I left home because I missed the food I was used to. It's also inspired by dishes I have eaten in homes and restaurants while traveling in Italy. Although it may seem odd to find recipes for home cooking in restaurants, eating in restaurants in Italy is often like eating in someone's home. In fact, one of the best compliments a restaurant can receive is that its food is as good as homemade. Some of the best food I've had has been in simple family-run trattorias.
The dishes I brought back from Italy are those with simple, genuine flavors that highlight the ingredients used. Like Burrida -- pan-roasted fish with garlic, rosemary, and red wine vinegar -- a dish that fishermen on Friuli's coast once made with fresh, but damaged fish they could not sell. Or the Ligurian seafood salad with pistachios that a customer taught to her favorite restaurant. And the almost magical restorative powers of the artichoke and potato soup our Sardinian friend Rita welcomed us with when we arrived at her inn late one night totally exhausted. This is the kind of food that characterizes Italian cooking best. It's food whose flavors are direct and genuine, unburdened by overly complex preparations and long ingredient lists. Italian food does not hem and haw; it asserts itself proudly. If it were a painting, it would not be made of varying shades of beige but of the vibrant colors one sees on the houses in so many Italian towns.
Italian food is also incredibly varied and speaks clearly of the region from which it comes, much like its inhabitants' accent. Northern Italy's wealth is expressed in its food, for example, with its use of butter, cream, veal, and white truffles. As you move farther south the land becomes more mountainous and you'll see more dependence on olive oil and sheep and goats rather than cattle and dairy products. Although the south's ingredients may not be as rich, its flavors unquestionably are.
No matter where you are in Italy, meals have a certain rhythm. Instead of an appetizer and main course, a typical Italian meal consists of a first and second course that are equal in portion size. The first course (il primo) is more than an appetizer and is a pasta, risotto, or soup. The second course (il secondo) is a smaller portion than a main course and is a meat or fish dish, usually accompanied by a vegetable. A special-occasion meal might begin with an antipasto and include a cheese course followed by dessert. A less formal everyday meal might end with fresh fruit, served as is, or perhaps sliced and marinated.
Each time I returned home to Sarasota, Florida, I sifted through all those notes I took and began the task of re-creating the dishes I enjoyed most. Reading my notes I considered how to produce the flavors I remembered with the ingredients I had available from our local supermarket and a few specialty food shops. The process of getting from an idea and taste memory to finished recipe goes something like this: I cook a dish, taking meticulous notes of everything I do, and then my family eats it. We decide if it needs some changes, if it's worth pursuing, or if it's perfect the way it is. If changes are necessary, I retest until we're happy. It is a slow process, with many rejects, but the dishes that made the final cut are the ones that gave us the most pleasure and were the best suited to being cooked an ocean away from their origin.
Some of the recipes here are the result of inspirations that came about at the market or simply staring into the refrigerator wondering what I was going to make for dinner. But they are all dishes that use an Italian approach. Using different ingredients than one finds in Italy does not make a dish less Italian. Tomatoes, after all, were not indigenous to Italy and started being used only after they were brought back from the New World. Yet now we think of tomatoes as being intrinsic to Italian food.
So what is it that makes a dish Italian? Learning a particular cuisine is a little like learning its language. You must learn its syntax and idiomatic expressions before you are able to express yourself fully. You could think of Italian cooking as using some basic building blocks that can be put together in a variety of ways. To begin with you must decide whether the dish will be made with olive oil or butter. Pretty much anything you cook will begin with one or the other. Which one you use will depend on the flavors of the subsequent building blocks. Butter is used when the overall flavors of the dish are delicate and mild. Onions will almost always follow but rarely garlic, because the flavor of butter and garlic is not idiomatic to the Italian palate. Veal is happiest with butter and rarely seen with olive oil, but you'll almost always use olive oil with more boldly flavored meats such as lamb. Garlic and onions are equally well suited to olive oil, and there are certain vegetables, such as eggplant and artichokes, that taste more Italian when they are cooked with olive oil rather than butter. Fish is almost exclusively prepared with olive oil. In part, it is flavor combinations like these that make a dish Italian. In French cuisine, for example, the pairing of butter and fish is very common. What also makes a dish Italian is that sauces enhance the flavor of what they are saucing and never obfuscate it. Last, but certainly not least, Italian cooking is about using what's fresh and locally available whenever possible.
Cooking without eating is a pointless exercise, and Italians love to cook because they love to eat. Because we love to eat we like to take our time doing it, and it's important to do it together with our families. Family mealtimes are sacred in Italy. In America, today's harried lifestyle and busy schedules leave little time for the table. The need to make time to eat together as a family is more important than ever. It allows for conversation and strengthens the family bond. Cooking for one's family is an act of love and nurturing. The food we prepare for our family and the memories connected with it are an important legacy we pass on to the next generation. After all, some of our most powerful childhood memories are connected to food.
Cooking at home on a regular basis need not be a difficult task. With some planning and organization it takes little time. The majority of the recipes in this book take less than an hour to make and many can be prepared in little more than thirty minutes. The key to working quickly and easily in the kitchen is to work efficiently. Over the years I have refined my recipe writing style, giving step-by-step instructions in the sequence that is most efficient. For example, all the ingredients need not be chopped, diced, and peeled before you start cooking: While onions saute, tomatoes can be peeled. While greens are boiled, garlic can be chopped. While the chicken browns, the vegetables that go with it can be peeled and cut. Some dishes that require longer cooking times but only occasional supervision can be done while you do other things around the house. Many of these dishes will keep well for several days and are ideal for those days when reheating something is all there is time for.
If you are one of those people who shops for food daily that's wonderful, but if you plan your meals for a whole week, this book is for you too. The chapter on how to stock an Italian pantry tells you what to have on hand so you can always whip up a great meal at a moment's notice. You'll learn about the key ingredients of Italian cooking and what to look for when buying them. A chapter on equipping the Italian kitchen describes what pots and pans, knives, and utensils to have on hand and how to use them. I've also included a chapter that describes the basics of Italian cooking techniques, such as sauteing, braising, and pan roasting.
I hope all this will help make cooking great Italian food at home easier and that you will enjoy sharing the food in this book with your family as much as I have with mine. Buon appetito!
Text copyright 2005 by Hazan Enterprises
Excerpted from How to Cook Italian by Giuliano Hazan Copyright © 2005 by Giuliano Hazan. Excerpted by permission.
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Stocking the italian pantry
Appetizers and Buffet Items
Pasta and Pasta Sauces
Rice and Risotto
Fish and Seafood
Vegetables and Side Dishes