Secrets from the Italian kitchen
Want to become an Italian domestic goddess?
Just like in India, Italy’s cuisine varies widely across regions – from Venetian and Piedmontese in the north, Tuscan and Roman in central Italy, and Neapolitan and Sicilian cuisine in the south. In her book The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan, the high priestess of Italian cuisine says, “all roads lead to home, to la cucina di casa – the only one that deserves to be called Italian cooking”. Whichever region it comes from, classic Italian cuisine is all about bold flavours and colours, created using fresh, seasonal produce and high quality condiments.
Head to the market
Do you know why Italian food tastes better in Italy? It’s the quality and abundance of fresh produce available in its markets. Italians rarely buy fruits and vegetables from supermarkets, preferring instead to shop at the mercato settimanale, the weekly market. These outdoor markets have several stalls that literally burst with all kinds of vegetables and fruits, fresh fish, local cheese, prosciutto (salted and air cured ham), meat and more. Seasonality is a major consideration when the Italian nonna (grandmother) goes shopping, which means she buys delicate artichokes in spring, beautiful zucchini flowers in summer, aromatic truffles in autumn, and hearty radicchio in winter.
Stock up the pantry
While fresh produce is celebrated in Italian dishes, it’s the flavourings and condiments that elevate them to their heady heights. Buy the best extra virgin olive oil that you can find. It will feel like a splurge but you will find your cooking come alive with its fresh flavours. A bottle of balsamic vinegar (preferably thick, syrupy, and aged for several years) is a must to make your salads sing. Tart olives and peppery capers are essential additions to many pasta sauces. Speaking of pasta, have a variety of pasta shapes in stock, or at the very least keep a packet each of short (macaroni, penne, fusilli, farfalle etc.) and long (spaghetti, fettuccine, tagliatelle, angel hair etc.) pasta. Herbs are the other essential element of the Italian pantry; we recommend stocking dried basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary and sage. And finally, a block of good quality Parmigiano-reggiano is always handy; grate it as a garnish on your salads and pastas or slice it straight into your pasta sauces.
Remember the foundation
As Hazan says in her book, “flavour, in Italian dishes, builds up from the bottom; it is not a cover, it is a base”. The secret of Italian flavours lies in the soffrito – a sauté of base ingredients such as finely chopped onion, garlic, parsley, celery, carrot etc., along with lard or olive oil. The soffrito ingredients depend on the dish, but always involve sautéing them slowly in a pot or skillet till the onion becomes translucent and the garlic (if used) turns pale gold. Hazan advises that the onion be sautéed first and then the garlic, since onion takes longer to cook.
Keep it simple
Pick up any Italian recipe book and you will be surprised to see that many classic dishes seem to use very few ingredients. Celebrated Italian chef Massimo Bottura of the three-Michelin starred restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena has a simple thumb rule – keep recipes simple with distinct flavours that do not cover one another. This means that your pasta sauce should taste of tomato rather than being smothered with cheese (the number one mistake that Italian restaurants make in India is to add too much cheese and cream to their pasta sauces). If you’re making a ragù (a thick meat-based sauce used in pasta dishes or for layering in lasagne), the flavours of the meat should shine rather than the garlic or aromatic herbs.
Just follow these basics and you can whip up the taste of Italy whenever the mood strikes!