I feel that, if we're going to "cook Italian", then let's use the best ingredients we can lay our hands on. My humble opinions expressed here are just that---my opinions, which are just as subjective as everyone else's. Most of the information is based on my experience. Surely, other folks' experience and the products they use will differ; however, here are mine for what they're worth. As least these are worth trying! I welcome comments from you and any valuable contributions you wish to make!
OLIVE OILS: One of the most important ingredients in Italian cooking, actually in almost anything you're cooking, is your olive oil---the proper type of oil for the dish you're preparing, the grade of the oil, and of course how much you're willing to spend on them. Olive oil is the most healthy of all the oils---yes, I know, you're going to say canola oil is better; however, hubby's doctor recommends olive oil and that's good enoguh for me. Remember, there are 14 grams of fat in every kind of oil so replacing one oil with another to watch calories or fat grams doesn't cut it.
BACK TO MY ITALIAN RECIPES
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the oil from the first pressing of olives, the heaviest, most concentrated in density, and hence it imparts the best and most concentrated flavor. It's best used in dressings, for searing, for drizzling, for dipping chunks of good crusty bread, and for any other purpose you want that extra flavor. Even though most countries produce their own olive oils, the nuances of flavor differ sometimes dramatically, and many of their prices can be exorbitant. So try to find a good-qualilty Italian import that is consistent in quality and that won't cost you an arm and a leg (unless of course you really WANT to blow the budget!). I'm not talking Pompeiian here---I'm talking GOOD oils!
TOMATOES, TOMATO PASTE AND TOMATO SAUCE:
Olive Oil (just plain olive oil) is much lighter than extra virgin and from the second or third pressings of the olives, is great for frying, sauteeing, general flavoring, or put it in your pizza dough and Italian bread. "Light", "Lite" or whatever you see on the grocery shelves don't have a place in my kitchen. If you choose to use them, it's your dinner!
The second most important ingredient in Italian cooking is the kind of tomatoes you use. The type and quality of your tomatoes can radically alter the flavor and consistency of your dish.
Fresh Tomatoes definitely have their place in so many Italian dishes and in many "fresh" pasta sauces. For the lowest acidity, fewer seeds, thinner skins, and less juice, try to use large good ripe Roma tomatoes. Many types of homegrown tomatoes are great in fresh sauces (especially cut cherry tomatoes), but some may be too acidic and that acidity can't always be offset by a tespoonful of sugar.
PARMESAN AND ROMANO CHEESES:
Canned Tomatoes go into so many different sauces, you really want to use the best---and the best is San Marzano imported from Italy. San Marzano tomatoes are intrinsically Italian-grown Roma tomatoes, are lower in acidity, sweeter, and generally enhance your sauce instead of detract from it. Most U.S. brands of canned tomatoes, regardless of the type of tomato used, are highly acidic, many take on a "tinny" taste, some have little or no flavor at all---remember, you get what you pay for with these! One U.S. brand of canned tomatoes that I will use is "Cento" as I figure if that's good enough for some restaurants, it's good enough for me when I can't find San Marzano!
Tomato Paste is essential for thickening some sauces, flavoring some pan sauces, and generally giving body to a dish. My favorite is the small tubes of imported Italian tomato paste that allows me to use 1-2 tablespoons and store the rest in the fridge for later. For larger portions, canned Contadina Tomato Paste seems to have good flavor without being too acidic (but I WILL use store brands).
Tomato Sauce or Puree is fine in many dishes, but for big pots of homemade marinara or meat sauces, I'll crush and squish up good canned tomatoes by hand and cook them down over very low heat. If you haven't tried that, do it---it's like playing in the mud again like a kid! *LOL*
P-L-E-A-S-E don't use that canned stuff! No matter how they try to package it or advertise it, it all seems to taste like cardboard compared to freshly grated stuff. Even if you can't afford or can't find best quality imported cheeses, your grocer carries decent brands of ready-packed chunks you can grate either by hand or in a food processor.
Parmesan Cheese - what can I say? Good fresh aged imported Parmigiano-Reggiano is tops! It keeps well in the fridge so you can grate or shave only as much as you need. It's a fresh cows' milk hard cheese with a pungent yet sweet flavor that, used properly, can knock your socks off!
Romano Cheese - Again I say, good fresh aged imported Pecorino Romano is tops and keeps as well in the fridge as the Parmesan does. It's a fresh sheep's milk hard cheese. I occasionally combine it with some of the Parmesan and that too can knock your socks off!
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Is there any Italian food that does not contain garlic, fresh or otherwise (well, except maybe desserts)? Not in our house anyway. I am personally opposed to those teensy little dried-up so-called garlic heads I see in so many grocery stores these days! My personal choice is a large fresh hardneck head of garlic with between 6 and 10 large cloves that are ultra-fragrant, crispy-fresh, and easy to peel. I am also opposed to those jars, large or small, of "fresh minced garlic" that isn't so fresh and certainly with little really fresh flavor. Also, I use very sparingly garlic salt, garlic powder, granulated garlic---whatever---it depends on the dish.
So do yourself a favor and buy really fresh---even if you have to order it like I do, since I'm in a very rural area. Here is where I get mine---at The Garlic Store---where the choices are myriad hardnecks, softnecks, elephant, etc. and most of it is organically grown. Yah, it's expensive in comparison, but my dinner is worth it---how about yours? Click here for the Garlic Store. My favorites are Russian Giant, Siberian, Music, Italian Red, Rocambole
There is pasta, and then there is pasta. If you are very particular about your brands of pasta, that is fine with me. There are quite a few excellent imports that will cost you big $$; then there are American companies now selling all sorts of "gourmet" pastas, low-carb pastas, etc. also costing big $$. Personally, I stay away from cheap store brands and stick with Barilla or Ronzoni for everyday use. I also love the fresh pastas you can now find in the grocer's deli or dairy sections, especially fettuccini, ravioli and tortellini.
If you are brave enough and make your own pastas, complete with the machine, etc. I sing your praises. I am not yet that brave and haven't blown the $$ on a machine!.
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There is no really good substitute for fresh herbs in cooking, except in some long-simmered sauces where the dried herbs lend a milder longer-lasting flavor without becoming bitter. Whether you are a gardener or just a grocery shopper, for Italian cooking you should keep on hand a fresh supply of Rosemary, Oregano, Thyme and Sage--and don't forget the flat-leaf Italian parsley.
If you are converting measurments in a recipe from fresh herbs to dried, or vice versa, remember that the dried herbs yield more concentrated flavors than the fresh. It takes more fresh herbs than dried; thus, 1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano would convert to about 1 tablespoon dried oregano or less. It's better to err on the lesser side and adjust seasoning toward the end of preparation of the dish.