The Top Flavors Of Italy
In the post-Chef Boyardee era, it's hard to imagine that the idea of Italian food was once as foreign to most Americans as the feasting traditions of Armenian hill people. Now spaghetti, lasagna and eggplant parmigiana are a comfortable part of the general vocabulary. But Italy still has much to offer to those cooks wanting to venture outside the pasta and tomato products aisle.
Italy's geographic area of today covers what were once 20 independent regions. Under force of law, the inhabitants adopted the common tongue, but they continued in their foods and traditions, making their own unique contributions to the Italian cuisine.
True to Italy's peasant traditions, polenta and pasta form the base for many meals. Pasta may be mixed from simply water and wheat, in which case it is dried for later use, or it may be enriched with egg. Dried pasta comes in nearly 350 shapes and sizes, with the smallest destined for soups and the larger, longer noodles supporting hearty sauces. Egg noodles, on the other hand, go best with more delicate cream and butter sauces. All pastas should be slightly undercooked (it'll finish cooking while you drain it) and topped with only enough sauce to coat the pasta, not drown it.
Tomatoes are of prime importance, appearing in pasta sauces, soups, salads and the main course. But at least in the pasta department, Italian cooks will toss anything into the pan: peppers, winter squash, eggplant, arugula, peas. Pasta puttanesca (harlot's spaghetti) is a great use of pantry items -- capers, olives, garlic, tinned tomatoes -- suggesting its possible origin: "working women" didn't have time to shop. Vegetables can be sauteed in olive oil (used everywhere), or sometimes in butter, especially if the recipe is from one of Italy's more northern regions, closer to Europe and its dairy traditions.
Italy's vast coastline supplies a steady stream of fresh seafood, from scampi al forno (shrimp baked with garlic) to a full-flavored tomato-based zuppa di pesce (seafood soup). Anchovies are popular, as is tinned tuna (in oil only please) as an economical addition to sauces. One recipe translates the tuna into a pesto, mixing the canned fish with walnuts, parsley, oil, lemon and nuts. Italy's herbs thrive in its rough microclimates: rosemary, oregano, sage. Basil is grown all over, especially in and around Genoa, where the herb is worshiped and where pesto was developed by crushing the fragrant leaves together with garlic, cheese, nuts and olive oil.
Italian meals may be as simple as a hearty soup over stale bread in the winter, or a bowl of pasta with lentils. For a more formal meal, the courses are as follows: antipasto ("before-pasta"); primo, a pasta or rice course served in small amounts; segundo, a meat or seafood dish; contorno, side dishes of vegetables; and a cheese course, chosen from the region that the other dishes are from, if possible. Fruit is the most common ending, but for fancier occasions, a dolce or dessert course may be served.
Location is everything, and nowhere more so than in Italy. Its central location in the Mediterranean and its position as a powerful trade center has ensured a constant influx of new ingredients and techniques. Northern regions retain flavors of Germany, France and Switzerland. In Sicily, traces of Arab influence are found in the sweet and savory dishes; ciceri i triya, a Sicilian dish that combines chickpeas with boiled and fried pasta, is named after the Arabic word for pasta. But all Italian cuisines make some use of the ingredients Christopher Columbus and other explorers brought back from the New World: tomatoes, corn, peppers.