Many of us have a relatively intimate knowledge of Italian food like lasagna, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and of wines such as Chianti. But when taking a closer look, you’ll find an abundance of delightful Italian delicacies with a variety of everyday uses. Take a virtual trip to Italy enjoying the tastes and textures of Italy’s finest exports and culinary contributions.
Beans and Nuts
Cannellini beans are commonly referred to as white Italian kidney beans. The light-colored, oval shaped bean achieves a soft, buttery texture when cooked in soups and stews. Cannellini beans are a flavorful addition to minestrone or pasta e fagioli.
Pinoli, or pinenut, is produced from the Italian pine’s cones. Pinenut can be used in any type of cuisine either as an accent to pasta dishes or as the main ingredient in desserts. Pinenut is most commonly known for its inclusion in pesto sauce: a fragrant combination of basil, garlic, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and, of course, pinenuts.
Breads and Pastries
Focaccia is a yeast-based bread often flavored with fresh herbs, cheeses or onions. This hearty bread is a perfect candidate as part of an antipasto platter of cured meats and cheese. Ciabatta is very similar to focaccia in that it’s made with olive oil and flavored with herbs, but is more closely related to sourdough bread with its airy interior texture. This hearty bread is excellent for sandwiches and making croutons.
Italian cantucci or cantuccini are commonly known in the English speaking world as biscotti. However, you have to be careful, as “biscotto” in Italian means “cookie.” American “biscotti” are, as said, cantuccini, a type of cookie traditionally flavored with almonds and spices, typical of Tuscany. Biscotti are an elegant accompaniment to your morning cappuccino or after dinner coffee liqueurs.
Fruits and Vegetables
The birth of sun-dried tomatoes, or pomodori secchi, came when Italians wanted to preserve their summer tomatoes for year-round use. Although the practice of sun-drying tomatoes on rooftops has primarily migrated to the United States, these bathed-in-the-sun morsels are packed with a splash of summer tastes.
Pancetta, the Italian version of bacon, is typically seasoned with peppercorns and, at times, wine and other selected seasonings. Producing a unique flavor following the aging process, pancetta is a staple of many Italian dishes and a key ingredient in spaghetti alla Carbonara.
Prosciutto is a luscious Italian ham. This cured treat produces a milder, sweeter flavor with aging. Enjoy a delicious sampling of the classic thinly shaved Italian ham served with a sweet, summer melon. Salami, or salame, is a flavorful combination of extra lean pork, carefully selected spices and garlic. Salami makes an enjoyable addition to an antipasto platter or on focaccia bread sandwiches.
Extra virgin is considered the “first pressed” and highest grade olive oil, and known to be the best color, aroma and taste of all olive oils. The olives must be fully ripe before picking and pressing begins. It must contain not more than 1% acidity to be classified as extra virgin, the highest grade given to olive oil. Virgin olive oil also is pressed oil, but contains not more than 2% acidity. Extra virgin olive oil is a delicious choice for dipping breads or used in salad dressings.
Refined olive oil continues beyond pressing to the refining process where steam heat is used to reduce acidity. Pure olive oil is a combination of extra virgin and refined, and is the most functional olive oil in all types of cooking. Extra light olive oil is a very mild, blend of extra virgin and refined olive oil (usually 5% extra virgin and 95% refined). Because of a high smoking point, extra light olive oil is a wise choice when searing and frying.
Arborio is the most commonly known rice in the world today, and was created especially for making risotto. The high starch content in Arborio rice produces a silky, thick, al dente risotto. Carnaroli is known as the king of Italian rice. Plain risotto, or risotto finished with olive or truffle oil, is best made using Carnaroli rice. Vialone Nano is also used in risotto, but is considered a stronger grain, able to hold its taste and texture next to exotic meats and fish.
By Melissa A. Tyson