Italian Ingredients You Need To Try Before You Die!
In all my years of cooking, one cuisine has grabbed my attention more than any other. That cuisine, of course, is Italian. The Italians are so passionate about their food, and they put so much love into each dish that it's hard not to taste amore in every bite. In Italy, the kitchen truly is the heart of the family home, and coming together to enjoy a feast together is a regular occurance. Also, there are so many different foods to prepare for so many different occasions that it's impossible to get bored of eating. Whether it's a Seven-Seafood Ciopinno around Christmas, Osso Bucco before Lent or simply Mamma's Meatballs on Sunday, the Italians celebrate their abundance of regional ingredients through cooking and I can't think of a more enjoyable cuisine!
Italy is a country with many different regions and climates. Each of those regions and climates have their own unique ingredients, and the dish you taste in one region may taste completely different in another. Soil, weather and growing practices all affect the taste of these ingredients, and for that reason, certain regional farmers and producers are known for their specific regional delicacy. Below are some items that you simply have to taste before you die... period. Even if you never make it to Italy, do your best to order these foods to taste and experiment with. Your taste-buds will say "Grazi!"
Often referred to as Parmesan Cheese, Parmagiano Reggiano is produced using milk from cows raised in Parma, Italy and aged for 33 months. There are many fine producers of Parmagiano Reggiano, but the best ones are those that practice the centuries-old tradition of using only the milk from native Parma cows and adding only region-specific curds. A good Parmagiano Reggiano will be hard, yet slightly crumbly and sharp. This wonderful cheese is perfect to shave into salads or over pastas, but loses most of it's integrity when cooking into sauces. Any Parma local will tell you that their cheese is meant to be used as a finishing ingredient or to compliment a salume plate (meats and cheese platter traditionally eaten as an afternoon snack) and not to be cooked or melted. When choosing a true Parma Cheese, look for one with a thick hard rind that has been stamped with the 33 month aged seal. True Parmagiano Reggiano is way more expensive than the domestic "green-can", but a one pound block of Parmagiano Reggiano should last you longer than a one pound can of the stuff you buy at the store.
Another delicious treat from Italy is Prosciutto. Prosciutto is the salt-cured back leg of a pig, and is valued for it's flavor as a cold-cut or used as a unique flavoring ingredient. Unlike ham, prosciutto is not "meaty" in texture, and is chewy when sliced too thick. For this reason, prosciutto is usually shaved or sliced paper-thin when served as a cold-cut, or diced into small chunks if used in a pasta, soup or sauce. Good quality prosciutto is typically air-dried for at least three months (usually during the Winter) and is most typically deboned. Some prosciutto producers will cure the meat on the bone to fully absorb the animal's flavor (San Danielle Prosciutto), but you'll pay a premium for such cuts. A dry climate is needed to make the best prosciutto, so the inland valleys of Central Italy seem to be the best choice among prosciutto producers. Cities like Parma, San Danielle and Tuscany all have their own versions of this Italian delicacy, but cheaper "domestic" prosciutto's are being produced all over the world now. There are a few domestic prosciutto's I've tasted that are very good, but nothing compares to a true Italy-produced leg.
Aged Balsamic Vinegar
I'm sure you're all familiar with balsamic vinegar but are you aware that if you leave it in the barrels or bottles for a few years, something magical happens to it? Like wine, balsamic vinegar's flavor profiles and acids change over extended periods of time if left alone and will lose some of it's sharp tanginess and become more mellow and smooth. You'll still have the intense flavor of the fermented grape, but the sweet notes will redevelop resulting in a condiment that you can literally use over ice cream.
Balsamic Glazed Strawberry Sundae
- 1 cup strawberries (cut into quarters)
- 1 tbsp. light corn syrup
- 1/4 cup aged balsamic vinegar
- 2 cups vanilla ice cream
- 2 tbsp. crushed pistachios
This semi-soft cheese is a form of mozzarella typically made from buffalo milk and is unlike the mozzarella most Americans are used to. Very mild in flavor, this cheese pairs incredibly well with the acidity of a fresh tomato, the sweetness of fresh basil and the richness of extra virgin olive oil and is one of the key ingredients to the Classico Neapolitan Caprese Ensalata. Try this cheese in salads, sliced on pizza or bruschetta or all by itself as a snack and you'll never want to go back to regular mozzarella again.
Bocconcini comes packed in a mild brine to assure freshness and therefore has a high liquid content. If using for cooking or baking, be sure to squeeze as much of the water out as possible using a clean towel or paper napkins. Bocconcini is rindless and and because of such, has a limited shelf life. Refrigeration is necessary and it's best to use within one month of the manufacturer's date. You can extend the shelf life by a few days by replacing the brine once a week though this tends to leave the cheese rubbery.
Classico Neopolitan Caprese Ensalata
- 1 ripe roma tomato
- 1 2 ounce ball bocconcini
- 6 fresh basil leaves
- 1/4 tsp. sea salt
- 1/4 tsp. cracked fresh pepper
- 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
Italy's kissing cousin to bacon, pancetta is the salt-cured belly fat of Italian-raised pigs. Unlike traditional bacon, pancetta is not smoked and the salt-curing process "cooks" it so that it can safely be enjoyed raw. Pancetta can be sliced thin and used in a salume plate or diced up for a flavoring ingredient in soups, salads and pastas.
Whether it's noodles or sheets, gnocchi or tortellini, there is a huge difference in taste and mouth-feel when working with fresh pasta. Dried pastas are not bad to use (many kitchens prefer using them because of their consistency and shelf life) but for a truly authentic Italian experience, try getting your hands on some fresh-made pasta to play with. Like most "fresh" ingredients, fresh pasta will not last nearly as long as dried pasta so be sure not to order more than you need. Some fresh pastas are okay to freeze and it's recommended that stuffed pastas be frozen as quickly as possible if you're not planning to use them for a few days (to avoid the pasta turning soggy and to keep the stuffing from going rancid).
Another option you may want to entertain if you want an ongoing supply of fresh pasta is to buy a pasta maker and make your own! Most pasta makers are simple to use and relatively inexpensive. Also, since most pasta is made of nothing more than eggs, flour and water, you'll save a ton of money by making your own. Not just that but you'll have the freedom to try out different flavors to add to your pasta (sun-dried tomato and spinach are always popular).
You've probably had a good tiramisu before. You know, that decadant Italian dessert that has lady fingers, espresso and a light dusting of cocoa or cinnamon? Well one of the main ingredients is marscapone cheese. Marscapone is a triple-whipped light cream cheese that more closely resembles a creamy frosting than an actual cheese which makes it a favorite for Italian desserts and pastries. With just a bit of sugar, this mellow cheese becomes a rich stuffing for cannolis or as a layer between sheet cakes. It can also be used with fresh berries in a bellini or even just as a dip for fresh strawberries. Stir it into a red sauce, add a bit of crushed chili flakes and you have a simple Diavolo Veracruz Sauce that goes great with rigatoni or penne pasta. Whatever you decide to do with this versatile cheese is entirely up to you. The possibilities are endless...
Puglia Olive Oil
This bold olive oil from the region of Puglia is favored above other olive oils for it's intense olive flavor. This is considered a "drizzling" oil because a little goes a long way and it's not recommended to use for cooking. This particular type of olive oil has a very musky flavor that is reminiscent of white truffles and goes great with bruschetta, fresh breads, caprese and other salads.
Pugliese Balsamic Viniagrette
- 2/3 cup Puglia olive oil
- 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp. minced shallots
- 1/2 tbsp. minced fresh oregano
- 1 tsp. mustard
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- 1/2 tsp. cracked black pepper
In a small bowl, mix all ingredients together with a whisk until fully incorporated. Toss with your favorite greens and serve immediately.
Check out some of my recipe hubs...
- How to make Perfect Hollandaise - Great on Eggs Benedict, Asparagus and Poached Salmon, this recipe includes helpful videos and tips to assure you success!
- How to make Perfect Demi-Glace - This is a great hub if you've ever wanted to make Demi-Glace at home. This easy to follow recipe is based on the classic Escoffier recipe taught to students throughout the world at Cordon Bleu certified schools.
- How to make Perfect Pesto - Who doesn't love Pesto? Here's a recipe you can make at home in your blender or food processor in a matter of minutes! This hub also talks about the benefits of using a Mortar & Pestle, and provides handy links to shop for the right one.
- Steamed Mussels in Garlic Saffron Broth - Truly, one of my favorite recipes. Mussels were one of the first things I ever learned how to cook, and this recipe was perfected over decades of experimenting with freshly caught Pacific Black Mussels.
- How to make Perfect Meatballs - Try this authentic Sicilian recipe the next time you're in the mood for meatballs! This hub also includes some great tips for avoiding dried-out meatballs, and links to some great Italian cookbooks. Salud!
- Cream of Roasted Butternut Squash Soup - One of my signature soups. This recipe can be served hot or cold, and is sure to be the best squash soup you'll ever taste!
- Creamy Champagne Viniagrette - This easy to make viniagrette goes great as a dressing or a marinade, and is needed to make the Perfect Portobello Mushroom Appetizer. I gaurantee you'll love this one!
- Chef Delaney's Perfect BBQ Spice Rub - Shhhh! Don't tell anyone, but here's my secret spice rub recipe. Alright, I guess you can tell your friends and family... but that's it! This rub goes great on anything you want to throw on the grill and is easy to make. Try this on ribs with my famous Smoked Peach and Chipotle BBQ Sauce and be prepared to be impressed!
- Smoked Peach and Chipotle BBQ Sauce - Another Chef Delaney signature recipe, this sauce combines sweet, spicy and smoky flavors in perfect harmony to create a grilling sauce with just the right amount of stickiness, and a one of a kind flavor that will boost you from Backyard Chef to Grill-Master in no time!