Long story short – I consider myself to be, more or less, an Italian home cook. I can cook a few Spanish dishes, a few French, a couple of Greek ones, even a couple of English ones (are there more than a couple? haha). But I really find myself constantly drawn to ingredients & techniques that are, above all, Italian.
I may or may not have Italian or Italian-American ancestry. There’s a lot of myth and mystery alike about that in my family. So I may not have an Italian-sounding name like Giada or something, but I can’t deny there is some kind of strong spiritual connection between Italy and my tiny kitchen (ahem … anyone know the patron saint of chefs/cooking?). Perhaps I should change the name of the blog to Cucina Miniscula.
Today, since I’m the latest person I know to give up cable in the name of financial stability, I was perusing the Cooking Channel website, and came across this: The Italian pantry essentials. I had been meaning to write a post on my own “pantry essentials” for quite some time, so when I came across that page, I thought: There’s no time like the present. And so, in no particular order, and without further ado …
Lemons. I’m never without lemons, or at the very least, lemon juice. North Carolina isn’t a big citrus-growing region, so I figure I might as well buy them year-round if they’re going to have to come from California anyway. I buy them by the bagful. There are very few things, in my opinion and experience, that a little lemon zest can’t improve. Tuna salad? Pasta with seasonal veggies? Warmed up Chinese leftovers? Even vanilla ice cream (trust me – just a dash, it’s amazing, and very Italian) takes to a bit of lemon like a fish to water. It’s my favorite way to make a dish taste like summer – my favorite time of year.
Pasta. I’m going to learn to make my own fresh pasta this summer. I bought the machine and everything. In the meantime, I always have some decent storebought dried pasta. Lately I’ve gone back to the less-waistline-friendly “white” pasta, but I still keep the whole wheat stuff around. There’s something very comforting about knowing that no matter what else happened that day, or how little cash I have at any given moment, there’s always a comforting bowl of pasta a few minutes away at home.
Grains. Ever since I read Food Matters, I’m a huge believer in the power of whole grains. My personal favorite is farro. I’ve even started eating farro for breakfast with a bit of yogurt!
Olive Oil. Until recently, I didn’t pay much attention to the varying degrees of quality in olive oils. I’m still generally fine with whatever the supermarket has (even their in-house brand is good enough for me), but I recently had my mind opened to the wonderfulness that comes with a truly beautifully crafted, delicious olive oil. NC foodie folks, I suggest you check out Green Gate Olive Oils on Stratford Road in Winston-Salem (or down in Pinehurst). They are super-nice, you can taste olive oils and balsamic vinegars all day long, and I promise you’ll find a new favorite ingredient. Plus – olive oil is SO good for you!
Vinegar. I literally have five different kinds of vinegar in my cabinet right now. My most-used is probably balsamic (currently enjoying the heck out of a red apple balsamic from Green Gate!), but one of my most popular dishes lately has been a potato salad that uses Champagne vinegar. And I’m not sure where I learned this; it might be some kind of subliminal message from Mama Italia, but … a few dashes of balsamic vinegar in homemade tomato sauce will make WORLDS of difference.
Pork. In various forms. I’m not into many actual pork dishes (although my own mamma made an awesome pork Milanese last week when my brother and I visited – molto bene!). But I have found pancetta to be a nearly-indispensable starting point for some seriously good eating. Hell, I cook it up with scrambled eggs for a bacon-and-eggs treat, and it’s a well-known fact among my friends that the only I’ll eat melon is with prosciutto wrapped around it.
Spices. Easily the most overcrowded section of the pantry (isn’t it like that in every home cook’s kitchen?), but there are a few can’t-live-without-‘em, must-have go-tos here. Fresh garlic, obviously. Usually a couple of shallots (I use them so much more frequently than regular onions that I keep ‘em with the garlic in the spice cupboard). Red pepper flakes, powdered cayenne pepper, paprika, dried oregano & thyme, bay leaves – those are the ones I actually have to replace because I run out, not because they’ve been in there forever.
Stock. Almost always chicken, and almost always homemade. Making stock is possibly the simplest kitchen task there is. I usually buy chicken whole or in bits other than breast cuts, so there’s often a good bit of “breaking down” to do before I actually prepare a dish or put things away in the freezer. Those broken down parts are what stock is made of! It’s so much better than canned, and it’s classic “waste not, want not.”
Cheese. Much like the selection of vinegars & olive oils in my pantry, I usually also have quite a variety in the fridge at any given time. I have yet to find an Italian recipe involving pecorino Romano that I don’t absolutely love, and you can’t beat a few slices of good Cheddar with a bit of good bread for a simple midday meal.
Butter & flour. I put these two together because I use them together, more often than not. Bêchamel sauce (aka mac & cheese – I’m fancy like that), cream sauce – all those classic, decadent European sauces start with a roux of butter & flour. For me, lately, the basic roux has been a springboard into discovering all kinds of flavors for sauces, casseroles, and more.
Tomato. I realize this is the one perishable (well, maybe other than cheese) on my list, but I’m really including puree, canned, crushed, whatever. Like I said about pasta, there aren’t many easier, faster, or more comforting quick meals than pasta and tomato sauce, and with a box of pasta and a can of tomatoes in my pantry, that comfort is never more than a few minutes away.
Last, but certainly not least …
Beer and/or wine. Actually, it’s rare that I’ll have both on hand. I am not a big believer in “saving” wines for “special occasions,” or whatever other silly reasons. If there’s wine in my house, it’s going into my belly one way or another. There are always two glasses of wine out when I’m cooking – one for me and one for whatever’s on the stove. As for beer, I’ve long acknowledged that I have beer-snob tendencies (although, still can’t beat dollar-domestics night at the local bar …), and this summer is the summer when I put my snobbery to the test as I learn about and attempt home brewing with my best friend Lisa. Much “taste testing” of different brews and styles has happened over the last few weeks and I think we’re actually going to try and make our own very soon.
On a somewhat related note, my dear friend and fellow blogger Healthy Mika just recently posted her entry into the “ABCs of Food” trend that’s making the rounds. As always, her post is excellently written, insightful, down-to-earth, and downright inspiring. And if you peruse her blog carefully you may get to see several embarassing photos of yours truly.