A staple item in the kitchen pantry of any Italian cook. When used with discretion, they can add a distinct flavour to many sauces. Anchovies may also be used in stuffing for baked vegetables, or mashed in oil–based sauces for boiled vegetables. Do not overcook or the anchovies will become bitter and unpleasant.
When buying fresh, don’t choose products that are hairy – the heart will be tough and tasteless. Look for leaves that are pressed tightly against each other. Open leaves are a sign that the artichoke is overripe.
One of the most popular and widely used Italian herbs, basil is also one of the most delicate. Once cut from the plant, it does not hold up very long. Fresh basil will last two to three days in the refrigerator if wrapped in damp paper towels and placed in a plastic bag. If you wish to keep it longer, basil may be preserved in olive oil or between layers of coarse salt in a tightly sealed jar. (It will lose some of its color, but will retain most of its flavour). Do not use dried basil as a substitute for fresh – the flavours bear no resemblance to one another.
Despite the widespread use of olive oil, butter is equally important in the Italian kitchen. Use only unsalted or sweet butter; its flavour is more delicate. Take care when storing. Sweet butter is more perishable than the salted variety, and it readily absorbs the flavours of nearby foods. Keep covered, and always store in the refrigerator.
Capers are the small, unopened buds of a bush that grows wild in Mediterranean countries. They are used frequently in Sicilian cooking and may be added to sauces for pasta, meat, fish, or stuffing. Capers are usually packed in brine and should be drained before using, unless otherwise specified.
Resist the urge to buy the largest you can find – the core will be tough, and the taste bitter.
When choosing garlic, select heads that are firm to the touch. Garlic should be chopped finely, rather than squeezed through a press. (The latter method tends to release only the juices, leaving most of the pulp behind). Never substitute garlic powder or garlic salt for fresh garlic. Do not overcook garlic or it will burn. If this happens, the only alternative is to start again.
This is a blue–veined cheese made with cow’s milk. It usually ripens in two to three months. Young gorgonzolas are mild, creamy, and sweet. Aged varieties are spicy and strong. The blue veins are produced by inserting long copper, steel, or brass needles into the cheese, allowing air to enter and form mold. The more holes, the tangier the cheese. Gorgonzola is best if eaten within a day or two of purchase.
In general, it’s best to use fresh herbs whenever possible. They add a more delicate flavour to the dish being prepared. The exceptions to this rule are oregano and rosemary, which retain most of their flavour when dried. Use all herbs with restraint. Seasonings should complement the main ingredients, not overpower them.
A creamy cheese made from cow’s milk. It is best known as an ingredient in tiramisu, but can also be added to sauces to create a creamier consistency.
True mozzarella is made from water buffalo milk – and is not easily found in North America. It is generally stored in water, and should be used within a day or two of purchase. Fresh mozzarella is often paired with sliced tomatoes or roasted peppers and served as a first course.
When buying mushrooms, avoid those that are bruised or discoloured. To store, wrap in a slightly damp paper towel and keep in the refrigerator. Never wrap mushrooms in plastic – the trapped moisture will create mold. Washing mushrooms can alter their texture. To clean, use a soft brush to remove any dirt. If dirt remains, pass quickly under a stream of cold water, taking care not to wet the undersides.
Always use the best extra virgin olive oil you can afford. Olive oils have a shelf life of approximately one year. Store in a cool, dark place – never in the refrigerator and never near a source of heat. Do not add the remnants of an old bottle of oil to a new bottle. The older oil will have a stronger flavour that will permeate the new.
Remember that different types of tomatoes are suited for different purposed. Plum tomatoes, for example, have few seeds, are small and fleshy, and carry less water than other varieties – perfect for making sauces. Beefsteak tomatoes, while tasty when ripe, are too watery for sauces. Cherry tomatoes are often sweet and nicely coloured, making them ideal for almost any use, but peeling and seeding takes patience. Store tomatoes at room temperature – refrigeration will change the flavour. If good, fresh tomatoes are not available, choose high–quality canned tomatoes in their own juices.
Ideally, it’s best to use vegetables that are in season, and bought straight from the farm. Since that’s not always possible, follow these guidelines when buying from your local supermarket or green grocer. Avoid vegetables that are bruised, discoloured, spotty, wrinkled, or wilted. When choosing leafy vegetables, look for nice color – there should be no yellow leaves, and no discoloration at leaf edges. Use all vegetables quickly. The longer they are stored, the more flavour they lose.