International Cuisine Italian
Much like Indian food, Italian cuisine is held in high regard for its regional diversity. Contrary to popular belief, pizza is not native to the entire nation and nor is pasta. These specialty foods hail from different regions of this delicious country. Italian food is probably as common as Chinese in our country and pastas are made in many kitchens regularly. Italian cuisine is characterized by its simplicity, with many dishes having only four to eight ingredients. Italian chefs rely chiefly on the quality of the ingredients rather than on elaborate preparation and strictly believe in local produce and seasonality. Ingredients and dishes vary by region, for instance pizza is native to Naples and there is a law about the shape, weight, width and toppings for the perfect pizza. Italian cuisine has several commonly used ingredients, ranging from fruits, vegetables, sauces, cheese, wine, etc. In the Northern Italy, fish there is plenty of potatoes, rice, corn and different types of cheeses are the most common ingredients. Here the pasta is usually in a tomato base while in Tuscany and Umbria pasta is served in a tomato sauce spiked with peperoncini hot peppers. In Southern Italy, tomatoes – fresh or cooked into tomato sauce – peppers, olives and olive oil, garlic, artichokes, oranges, ricotta cheese, eggplants, zucchini and capers are important components to the local cuisine. Pasta includes noodles in various lengths, widths and shapes and are named based on their shape, like penne, macaroni, spaghetti, linguine, fusilli, lasagne and many more varieties that are filled with other ingredients like ravioli and tortellini.
- Pasta: Pasta is categorized in two basic styles: dried and fresh. Dried pasta is usually made without eggs and can be stored for up to two years under ideal conditions, while fresh pasta will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator and needs the use of egg as a binder. Pasta is generally cooked by boiling till soft or al dente, which means, with a ‘bite’ to it. Under Italian law, dry pasta (pasta secca) can only be made from durum wheat flour or durum wheat semolina, and is more commonly used in Southern Italy compared to their Northern counterparts, who traditionally prefer the fresh egg variety.
- Pizza: This oven baked flatbread is popular all over the world today but originated in the bylanes of Naples. The ideal pizza is thin crust, hand tossed, made with fresh dough and topped with only house made tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. Though even Italians enjoy a variety of toppings, the pizza we know is actually the morphed, localized version of the real thing!
- Risotto: Creamy and rich, this rice dish is made with a traditional Italian rice variety called, ‘arborio’. Arborio is a dense, starchy rice and takes a bit of time to cook. The ideal way to cook is to add liquid (water, wine, stock) in batches and at intervals, to allow the rice to slow cook and soften and absorb the flavours of the other ingredients. Common risottos include mushroom, saffron and even pumpkin. It can be fortified with herbs, wine and a variety of Italian cheese, usually pecorino or parmesan.
- Tiramisu: This dessert is a delight worldwide! Legend has it that it was named by a hotelier and named after his god daughter, though the Italian is said to be ‘pick me up’ because it is so rich and delicious and because it uses espresso coffee which is an instant perk up!
- Cheese: Italian cheeses today are as famous as their French cousins. Unlike English or French cheeses, only few are aged too long since Italians love fresh cheese and the most common example is Mozzarella or pizza cheese. Such is their fondness for fresh cheese, that goat cheese is native to Italy too! A number of Italian cheeses are best suited to eating at the table, and others are ideal for cooking. But most are versatile enough that they can be savored raw or cooked.
More than spices, Italian cuisine uses herbs.
- Basil: Italy's best known herb, basil has a strong anise flavor. A must in pesto, basil is a natural with tomatoes and is used mostly fresh. It is a herb that brings a gentle sweetness to tart pasta sauces and adds both aroma and flavor to risottos and bakes.
- Oregano: Oregano is a herb native to Italy and is used both fresh and dried. It is peppery and stark in flavor and is commonly used for pizza, pasta, bakes and even savoury pies.
- Bayleaf: Dried leaves are often dropped into a pot of simmering beans or soup to impart their gentle aroma but Italian cuisine also uses fresh bayleaf which is more potent in aroma and flavor. Bayleaf is considered a natural combination with red meats and red sauces like Arabiatta.
- Nutmeg: The Italians are fond of this spice, both in sweet and savoury dishes. Ground nutmeg is used to add fresh flavour and aroma in dishes as diverse as stews and desserts. Nutmeg is a common ingredient in ravioli and dishes which contain spinach or cheese as well.
- Saffron: This is used mostly in risotto and in fish soups and stews. Saffron is very expensive and therefore used sparingly. Saffron threads are steeped in a little warm water until the color and aroma are extracted; the water should then be strained and added to the dish. For desserts it is steeped in warm milk.
Common fruits & veggies:
- Garlic: Garlic's strong aroma and taste make it a powerful addition to any dish. Fresh garlic tends to have the most robust flavour, but garlic powder and even garlic salt taste great and are common key ingredients in everything from dips to seafood dishes in American cuisine.
- Spinach: Rich in vitamins and minerals, it is also concentrated in health-promoting phytonutrients. Spinach is used as a filling for tarts, as an ingredient for pastas and baby spinach is used in salads too. This is one of the most common greens used in American cuisine
- Pumpkin: Pumpkins and squash are believed to have originated in the ancient Americas, they made it to Italy via European explorers. Today pumpkin and squash are used for pies, casseroles and as side dishes and in famous dishes like risotto and stew.
- Tomatoes: Italy is among the world's leaders in tomato production, behind China, the United States, India, Turkey and Egypt, and is the largest tomato producer in Europe. So it is no surprise that tomatoes comprise a bulk of Italian cuisine. The traditional pizza sauce itself is an ode to the humble tomato. Italy produces a large selection of varieties most of which are available through the year. They also make a lot soups and preserves with tomatoes, like sun dried tomatoes which keep their favourite variants preserved for use any time of the year.
- Olives: Lovers of olives find it hard to choose between Spanish and Italian varieties both of which have distinctive flavours and attributes. Olive production is one of Italy's oldest industries, dating back to the 7th or 8th Century B.C. Although dwarfed by Spain, Italy is the second largest producer of olives in the world. Olives are used to add a tangy flavor to pastas, pizzas and soups and stews too, but mostly they are eaten cured in brine or oil, straight from the bottle and coupled with cheese and fresh Italian bread.
- Citrus Fruits: These fruits thrive in the Mediterranean climate, Italians enjoy from oranges to clementines and use them in preserves, desserts and cooked savoury foods too.
Vegit Cheese Balls: A creamy cheesy delicacy that melts in your mouth, cheese balls can be prepared easily by making small balls and rolling them in bread crumbs, deep fried to be served hot with tomato sauce or mayonnaise!