The Italian Pantry, Part 2

Dec 16, 2014

Last time we covered 6 essentials that any well stocked Italian kitchen should have. We continue that list with 6 more Italian Pantry staples in this installment. 

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Beans and Legumes

Packed with protein and fiber, beans are a key ingredient in many Italian dishes. La Cucina Povera, or ‘humble food’ makes good use of these healthful legumes. Beans are used in soups like Pasta e Fagioli, in pasta dishes, salads, mashed with herbs and smeared on bruschetta and just eaten as snacks. Boasting a very long shelf time, I keep these in both dried and canned forms. Some Italian favorites are the ceci, (or chickpea), lentils, the speckled borlotti, resembling a cranberry bean, the large flat fava bean and the very popular white cannellini bean. I like to quick soak dried beans a pound at a time, use half and freeze half for later. Add fresh ceci to salads or just salt and eat like snacks. Try a fresh tuna salad using a good quality Italian tuna tossed with parsley, red onion, celery, capers and red peppers, tossed with olive oil and lemon juice and then adding a rinsed can of cannellini beans. Or add borlotti to a rich tomato based stew.

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Garlic

A signature flavor in Italian cuisine, although in true Italian cooking garlic is not used as heavily as one might think. Dating back before Roman times this relative of the lily plant has many medicinal as well as culinary uses. It’s thought to keep colds at bay and cure everything from acne to toothaches! 

In Italy, it is an essential ingredient in almost every type of savory dish. Whether used only to lend its fragrance the olive oil used to cook delicate dishes or minced and blended with parsley, lemon juice and olive oil for a basic marinade for fish or vegetables, it’s a staple of any kitchen! 

Look for firm heads and no sign of shriveling, sprouting or decay. Garlic will keep for a long time in a dark place with good ventilation. Do not store it in the refrigerator, this will cause it to break down more quickly and mold. You can store chopped or minced garlic for short times in the fridge, but use as quickly as possible. 

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Rice 

What would Italian cooking be without a good risotto? The rice cultivated for this dish include the best known Arborio rice as well as several just making their way to our shores such as Carnaroli, Baldo, Vialone Nano and Calriso. Risotto rice grains are short, round and plump, and contain a type of starch that lends itself to the creamy texture prized in a good risotto dish. While Arborio might be the easiest to find, keep and eye out for the others, as each can lend a subtle nuance of their own to risotto. Carnaroli in particular can produce an exquisitely creamy risotto with becoming mushy and porridge-like.

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Grains

Farro is a grain from ancient Rome that has steadily gained popularity here. A bit confusing at first, we Americans have finally wrapped our heads around this delicious, nutty and satisfying food. There are 3 grains in the farro family, farro piccolo (einkorn), farro media (emmer) and farro grande (spelt). Medio is what you will mostly find and look for the semiperlato version. This has some of the hard bran removed so it’s faster and easier to cook while still retaining it’s healthy, nutty flavor. Use it in risottos, salads, soups, pilafs, wherever you would use rice. You can even eat it as you would an oatmeal, served hot with fruits and honey!

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Fresh and Dried Herbs

In the summer garden fresh herbs abound! My garden overflows with basil, parsley, rosemary, marjoram, oregano, sage and thyme. Mint takes over wherever it can, chives and fennel round out the mix. Use them if you can but be certain to dry some of the sage, rosemary, oregano and thyme for winter! All can be used to bring out the best in so many dishes, but I want to sing the praises of parsley for a bit. If all you know is the curly parsley plunked forlornly on the side of a plate for garnish, you are missing out! Nothing can perk a dish up while adding vitamins and a fresh clean flavor like a good Italian parsley. It supports basil in it’s starring role in pesto, brings life to fish dishes and grains and gives a pop of flavor to salad dressings and marinades. But chop with care, the more finely it is chopped, the more flavor it loses. And don’t toss out those stems, often they pack more flavor than the leaves do!

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Hard Cheeses

Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padana, Pecorino Romano and Asiago are all fine grating cheeses, but what is the difference, how do you choose? If possible, keep a little of each on hand! But if not, here are some pointers on how to use them. 

Parmegiano-Reggiano, considered the King of Cheeses in Italy! This cow’s milk cheese is complex in it’s flavor, rich and nutty and a tad bit salty. Use it when it can be the star of the dish, not overwhelmed by the other flavors.  It is also the most expensive choice.

Grana Padano is the older cousin of Parm, it predates it by hundreds of years. Less complex and less salty, it pairs well with other foods and is a bit more affordable as well! 

Asiago is also a hard cheese, but is much milder, considerably less salty  and softer in texture. It is not usually aged as long as the others and has a sweeter flavor and smoother texture. In its youngest form, Presso, it is actually a semisoft cheese!

Pecorino Romano is the only sheep’s cheese of the group. It is sharp in flavor, intensely salty and is rarely eaten as a table cheese. It can be grated over pasta dishes, risottos, etc, just mind the salt level! 

If you want more info on any of these and how to use them, take a look at “The Nibble”. It has a comprehensive multi-part article full of great facts and suggestions!

 

Next time, we wrap this up with 6 more Italian Pantry staples! Ciao!

 

 

 

- Victoria Harper

Victoria Harper is the tour guide and owner of In Splendid Company