Don’t be fooled by simplicity.
Brilliance can belie simple components, and that’s often the case with Italian food.
As with any skill, cooking takes years of dedicated practise to master. But take a few basic ingredients, and you have the foundations of one of the world’s best loved cuisines.
Here’s a quick guide to six essential ingredients used in Italian cooking.
The mainstay of the Italian diet. Only pizza rivals pasta in the race for first image conjured by the imagination at mention of the phrase ‘Italian food.’
According to a Romanic but dubious legend, pasta is said to have been adapted from cooking knowledge brought to Italy from the Far East by 13th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo. But setting aside debates of fact or fiction, over the centuries the Italians have undeniably mastered pasta and elevated this simple staple to culturally emblematic status.
The best pasta is usually the ‘pasta fresca,’ freshly made by experienced hands.
But if you know what to buy, dried options can be good too. Look for dried pasta that has been extruded through bronze dies instead of industrial Teflon. Pasta aficionados agree that the traditional bronze die method produces the superior dried pasta. De Cecco is one reputable bronze died dried pasta brand to look out for.
If pasta is the brick, then olive oil is the mortar of Italian cuisine. It’s the base that holds everything else together. It goes into, onto, or into then onto almost anything and everything that’s edible and Italian.
Tuscany and Abruzzi are two of Italy’s most famous olive oil producing regions. The olive oils from these areas rank among the best in the world.
Remember, extra virgin is the flavoursome choice for garnishing food, but when frying or baking, always use standard olive oil.
Another ingredient of great versatility. Tomatoes can be enjoyed raw in salads, puréed on pizza where they underpin all other toppings, or used to make another essential staple of Italian cuisine: tomato sauce.
A basic tomato sauce only requires basic cooking skills to make. Fry an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic in olive oil, add a can of tinned tomatoes, season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar, leave to simmer for 15 minutes, then tear up a few fresh basil leaves and add them to the mix before serving .
Even basic home cooked tomato sauce is almost always superior to its pre-made jarred counterparts.
Try to imagine Rome without the Colosseum, and you’ll have a rough idea what Italian cooking would be without garlic. It’s one of Italian cuisine’s fundamental flavours.
Avoid burning by frying gently on a low heat.
There are many illustrious Italian cheeses. Mozzarella and ricotta are two others that deserve at least an honourable mention. But Parmesan, with its distinctive hard flaky texture and nutty savoury flavour, is perhaps the most versatile, and perhaps the most revered.
As with Champaign, Parmesan is intimately bound to its region of origin – only cheese produced in northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna province can legally bear the Parmigiano ‘Parmesan’ Reggiano name.
While principally used in the UK as an ingredient and a garnish, in Italy, Parmesan is also served with fruit and honey as a dessert.
As with cheese, it’s difficult to talk about one herb used in Italian cooking without also at least mentioning rosemary, sage, and oregano. All are essentials in any Italian kitchen. But basil is perhaps the most commonly used and is also the centrepiece of that most quintessential of Italian sauces: green pesto.
Many Italian dishes wouldn’t be complete without basil’s unique extra dash of flavour.
Basil and tomato, especially, is a match made in the taste bud heavens.
When herbs are dried some of their flavour evaporates too. So if you don’t have one already, a windowsill herb garden is a sound culinary investment in any kitchen.