Make It Italian: The Taste and Technique of Italian Home Cookingby Nancy Verde Barr
To cook simply the Italian way means to know your ingredients and how to cook with them. It is a birthright, Nancy Barr claims, that is passed down through generations of Italian families. She learned by watching how her grandmother, Nonna, prepared meals and it is this hands-on experience that she translates in the pages of this book -- "a primer of techniques and… See more details below
To cook simply the Italian way means to know your ingredients and how to cook with them. It is a birthright, Nancy Barr claims, that is passed down through generations of Italian families. She learned by watching how her grandmother, Nonna, prepared meals and it is this hands-on experience that she translates in the pages of this book -- "a primer of techniques and taste that will become your Nonna in the kitchen."
Most importantly, she features in careful detail a Primary recipe that demonstrates an essential technique: for example, Spaghetti and Marinara Sauce followed by countless variations like Bucatini with Amatrice (a pork flavored sauce), Perciatelli with Eggplant Sauce, Ziti with Sausages and Peppers, and finally a chart detailing proportions so you can create your own pasta dishes. A Primary recipe for saut éing Veal Scallopine with Lemon and Parsley is followed by variations using pork, chicken, and turkey, plus rolled, stuffed, and breaded versions. She takes the fear out of fish cookery by making us understand how to treat each different species. And vegetables, the pride of the Italian table, get their due by cooking them the way that is right for each variety.
The recipes are simple but the lessons learned are invaluable. Once you have absorbed the techniques offered here, you will have inherited the gift of Italian cooking and any dish you create -- or try from other books -- will have the genuine flavor of this timeless cuisine.
- Knopf Publishing Group
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- 7.62(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.41(d)
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Flavors That Say "Italian"
Years ago, I read a recipe for "Italian Spaghetti Sauce" that used canned tomato soup as the base. Like many American children, I had eaten my share of that reconstituted staple, so I could imagine the look and taste of the finished sauce. It would be sort of pinky red and oddly "tomatoey," but its flavor would not remotely resemble Italian tomato sauce.
Whether dishes are classic Italian, or Italian-American, or even Italian-inspired innovations, they share some unmistakable characteristics that make them Italian. No matter how widely the foods of the twenty regions of Italy may vary-not only from each other, but from Italian-American food-they share certain characteristics that just say "Italian."
For a finished dish to taste Italian, it must have Italian beginnings. If you stock your kitchen with some basic ingredients, you will not only produce Italian food, you'll do it quickly.
Keep in mind the Italian expression "What you put in there you will find" (Quello che si mette, si trova), meaning that the ingredients you add to a dish will be tasted, so they must be good. In this case, they should taste Italian.
Stocking an Italian Pantry
When I think back on it, my grandmother's pantry wasn't a single room. It rambled throughout the house. A large alcove, just off the kitchen, held colorful cans, jars, and bottles of foods she had preserved or purchased. Hanging strings of sausages and netted cheeses swung from basement beams above bottles of my grandfather's homemade wine. On Sundays, Nonna's bed might be covered with a clean sheet dotted with homemade ravioli. Tucked into bedroom and hallclosets were baskets and sewing boxes filled with sweet biscotti and wandi. With a few purchases from the pushcart outside her door, the makings of a meal were always close at hand.
Such pantries are not merely romantic memories of bygone days. My own kitchen holds most of the same staples that Nonna had on hand and I have spent many a happy hour exploring the larders of contemporary Italian friends. Ceramic jars of green and black olives, tins of salted anchovies, tiny tomatoes strung up to dry, and salamis left to cure-their food storerooms are marvels of texture, color, and taste.
Following are some of the items that I think you should have on hand -- though not necessarily all over the house -- and suggestions for choosing and using them.
Cooking fat not only coats the pan but serves as a flavor carrier, so the fat you choose will influence the flavor of the entire dish. Typical Italian choices, alone or in combination, are olive oil, seed oil, butter, and pork. In most cases you can substitute one for the other and create remarkably different dishes with otherwise identical ingredients.
When I use olive oil, I want to taste olive, so I use only extra-virgin olive oil. Many affordable, very fine-tasting brands are available in American markets or specialty stores, and through the Internet. Depending on where and how it was produced, the oil may be fruity, peppery, full-bodied, or mild. Which one you choose should depend on your taste, but I suggest you avoid any that taste overly unctuous. I think such oils make a dish heavy and unappealing.
All regions of Italy except for Piedmont produce some olive oil.
My preferences are for those from Apulia, Tuscany, and Umbria. Italian olive oils are graded according to the amount of oleic acid they contain and whether or not heat or solvents were used in the processing.
Storage: Store the oil away from the heat and the light. If you have a large can, transfer some of it to a smaller oil decanter or a clean, dark wine bottle for easier handling. You can buy cork-bottomed stoppers with pouring spouts at kitchen-supply stores or even liquor stores, which are helpful in controlling the flow. Olive oil will keep for at least a year if stored properly.
EXTRA-VIRGINE: "EXTRA-VIRGIN," OR, AS LISTED ON TRENDY RESTAURANT MENUS, EVO
These oils are the result of the first cold pressing of the olives; no heat or chemicals are involved in the process. Hence, they have the richest olive flavor. They can be filtered or unfiltered, so don't be dismayed by a cloudy appearance. By Italian law, the acid can be no more than 1 percent.
Occasionally you may buy or receive as a gift a truly extraordinary and costly bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. Don't use it for cooking. The flavor will break down and be lost. Just use a splash on top of the finished dish. I know many Italians, Tuscans especially, who have large ready supplies of best-quality olive oils and use them for everything-even deep-frying. I have never felt that extravagant.
VIRGINE: "VIRGIN" OR SOPRAFFINO (FINE)
Like extra-virgin olive oils, virgin olive oils are processed without heat or chemicals. The difference is that their acidity can range from 11*2 to 4 percent.
OLIO DI OLIVE: PURE OLIVE OIL
Pure olive oils are made from the second or third pressing of olives and are usually treated with heat, to encourage flow, and with chemicals, to reduce acidity. Sometimes a bit of extra-virgin oil is added to the beleaguered lot to improve its flavor.
OLIO AL PEPERONCINO
Hot-pepper oil is olive oil that has been steeped with hot peppers. The Italians from Apulia call it "holy oil" (olio santo), because in ancient times this red-tinged oil was used to anoint those who deserved such accolades. It is used primarily to finish dishes, added at the last minute to a hot plate of pasta or bowl of soup or drizzled on pizza. Many Italian-American restaurants put a shaker bottle of red-pepper flakes on the table for the same purpose, but I think the oil is better, because its flavor is more evenly dispersed. It is available in Italian markets and specialty-food stores, but you can make your own. A week before you plan on using it, steep 1*2 to 1 teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes in 2 cups of extra-virgin olive oil. As the Apulians say, it will add "a tear or two" to your dish.
Storage: Store as for other oils.
OLIO DI SEMI
When you do not want the flavor of olive oil in the dish, use a neutral vegetable oil such as sunflower, canola, or corn. Some Italian chefs working in America mix two parts corn oil with one part sunflower oil to approximate the taste of Italian seed oil.
Storage: Store the oil away from heat and light. As with any oil, smell it before using. You never know how long it may have sat in a delivery truck or on a market shelf, and oils will go rancid after a while. The rancidity is obvious to the nose.
All my recipes that call for butter mean unsalted butter, which is all I use for cooking. If butter is used to cook foods over a high heat such as in frying and sautÃ©ing, it should be mixed with a small amount of olive or vegetable oil to prevent it from burning.
Storage: If you do not use unsalted butter often, keep it in the freezer, since the absence of salt shortens its shelf life.
Italians often use pork, both cured and fresh, for cooking fat. There are a number of choices.
Pancetta is cured pork belly. Since this is the same cut of meat as bacon, many cookbooks translate pancetta to mean "Italian bacon," an unfortunate reference, since bacon is smoked and pancetta is dry-cured. Their flavors are decidedly different. If you can't find pancetta, an acceptable substitute is fatty prosciutto or prosciutto ends.
Some Italian recipes do call for smoked pork belly, pancetta affumicata, which is similar to our bacon but does not contain the sweeteners used in the American product. If you are substituting bacon for smoked pancetta, try to find one that is not sweetened, or tame the sweetness by blanching it for about 1 minute in boiling water before frying it.
If you live in an area with a large Italian population, you may find pancetta in two forms-rolled and flat; the two are interchangeable.
Storage: Pancetta will keep 3 weeks in the refrigerator wrapped well in plastic, and at least 3 months in the freezer. I chop pancetta into small pieces before freezing, so I can remove small amounts if that is all I need.
Prosciutto is Italian ham, the cured leg of the pig. Usually prosciutto is sliced to order at meat or deli counters, and there will be a meaty bone or end pieces left. If you are in an Italian market, these pieces may well be on the counter for the taking; if not, ask if they have any you can buy. Remove the meat from the bone and chop it up, with the fat, into 1*4-inch pieces.
If you cannot find end pieces, buy slices, but not the most expensive brands, such as prosciutto di Parma and San Danielle. They are sublime for eating but too costly for cooking. There are good domestic brands, but beware of something called prosciutini, which is overly seasoned and far from the real thing.
Storage: Refrigerate for 4 or 5 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Sausage (salsiccia) is the most convenient way to use fresh pork as a flavoring for other dishes. Good Italian sausage is made from ground or chopped pork butt and has no filler mixed in. The best Italian sausage is said to be made al punto del coltello-i.e., with the point of a knife. In other words, it should not be homogeneous but have a coarse texture, as though it had been hand-chopped, which we all used to do long ago around Nonna's table. Italian sausage is usually flavored with fennel seed and may be made either "sweet" or "hot." "Hot" sausage has bits of red-pepper flakes; sweet does not. I buy only "sweet" sausage, and add hot pepper to the recipe if I want it.
"Crumble" seems to be the standard recipe term for handling sausage when the cook is supposed to break it up. But, unlike the cookie, which will indeed crumble, sausage crushed in one's hands just becomes mashed sausage. The goal is to break it into pieces of whatever size you choose. First slit the casing down the side, slip it off, and discard it. Then, even in a hot pan, if you work very fast, you can actually put the entire skinned sausage in the pan and quickly break it up with the tip of a wooden spoon or the back of a fork. I usually break it into large pieces as I drop it into the pan and then continue to poke it with my spoon until I like the size. The trick is to get the meat broken into the size you want before it browns, at which point it is difficult to split any further, so start it in a pan over medium to medium-low heat.
Storage: Fresh sausage will keep in the refrigerator for 3 days, and in the freezer for about 3 months. I wrap two pieces per package for freezing.
Olive oil and/or pancetta have largely replaced lard, strutto, which was once a mainstay of southern-Italian cooking. Strutto is refined, pure pork fat. Lardo is lean, streaky pork fat much like our salt pork, which, if you use it as a substitute, should be blanched briefly (that is, immersed in boiling water for 2 minutes or so) to remove the excess salt. Lard is quite flavorful, so you may choose to substitute it in recipes that call for pancetta or prosciutto. You will need less of it, and may have to drain excess fat from the pan before proceeding with the recipe.
Storage: Unless you use it daily, cut lard into small pieces and freeze. Frozen, it will keep for 3 or 4 months.
A great majority of recipes start by cooking aromatic vegetables such as onions, garlic, carrots, shallots, celery, hot pepper, and herbs in the chosen fat. The combinations can be simple or close to opulent. The cooking of southern Italy, for example, is sometimes referred to as "aglio, olio, prezzemolo" (garlic, oil, and parsley), because every dish seems to begin with the cooking of this threesome. In other regions, many dishes begin with a generous assortment of aromatic vegetables sautÃ©ed in butter. Both preparations are unmistakably Italian.
Your choices of cooking fat and aromatics form the flavor base of your recipe. The success of your finished dish depends on how you handle these primary ingredients. Throughout this book, I refer to this step as "The Start." The Italian word is soffritto (underfried), indicating that the ingredients are to be cooked at a lower temperature and to a lesser degree than frying requires. (Those of you with a southern-Italian heritage, especially from the areas around Naples, may be confused, since you will remember soffritto as a dense, rich stew of animal innards. This is different.)
The first step in preparing the soffritto is the actual chopping of the ingredients, and my recipes indicate whether the aromatics should be coarsely chopped, meaning somewhat irregular pieces 1/2 to 3/4 inch; or diced into even 1/4-inch pieces; or finely minced, as small as you can manage without turning them into mush. Remember, the smaller the chop, the more pronounced its flavor would be.
Battuto is the Italian term used to indicate that the aromatic beginnings are all very finely chopped-that is, minced. The word means "beaten," to indicate that the items are so small they seem to have been pummeled. Italians usually accomplish this with the aid of a mezzaluna, a two-handled moon-shaped knife. It is the perfect tool for the task. To use it, first coarsely cut all the vegetables, herbs, pancetta, etc., that are called for, then pile them all together and begin the rhythmic, rocking motion of the mezzaluna, which will mince them together. A large chef's knife will also do the trick, but use a food processor with caution, since it can turn the ingredients to paste.
With the ingredients chopped, you are ready to prepare a proper soffritto. Put the vegetables in the pan when the oil is still warming. Warm, rather than hot, is crucial for certain aromatics such as onions and garlic whose natural, residual sugars can caramelize and burn very quickly in a pan that is too hot. Once they have burned, the bitterness will permeate the entire dish, so you might just as well discard everything and start again-slowly. Season the aromatics with a pinch of salt-especially helpful when onions are present, since salt draws out their juices and further discourages scorching. Cook the aromatics slowly, over the lowest heat that will allow the pan's contents to just barely flutter, and pay attention to them with an occasional stir. Be patient. It may be 15 or 20 minutes before the vegetables are tender and translucent. Don't be tempted to rush this initial step. The aromatics should be carefully and attentively cooked so that they gradually, meltingly soften and release their flavors without browning.
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