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There is arguably no food as great smelling and great tasting as Italian. From spaghetti, to garlic bread and Italian salad dressings, the mouth simply waters when thinking about a great Italian meal.

Coming from an Italian family of great cooks, I learned through my father and his relatives how to make great Italian food. Here, I’d like to share some of that knowledge.

First, you should know that you DON’T have to use a recipe to make some great tasting Italian meals. Know which ingredients to pair together will allow you to create some great tasting food, as well as make meals that are relatively quick and easy.

There are many ingredients that go into great Italian food:

TOMATOES: Whether using whole or cut up tomatoes for salads or other recipes, or using stewed tomatoes for spaghetti sauce, there’s one thing I’ve learned: “ALL TOMATOES ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL.”

Without going into the brand specifics, quality tomatoes are key. If you think about it, tomatoes could be picked at any time during growing and ripening. Different brands may do it differently. In addition, stewing and canning methods vary. Although I don’t know this to be absolutely true, what I do know is different brands of tomatoes taste different. The best way to judge is to try different brands and pick the ones you like.

My family’s favorite brand, and therefore, the ones I use for making spaghetti sauce is “74/40 Tomato Filets.” They’re not available in supermarkets – only specialty stores. You can find them if you search online.

PASTA: Of course, pasta is the main ingredient of may Italian dishes. Looking in your grocery aisle, you’ll find a wide array of pasts shapes and sizes, from regular spaghetti, to fettuccine (wide noodles), angel hair (thin noodles), to shells, bow-ties, macaroni, farfalle, and more. Each has its own uses and tastes.

Of course, regular spaghetti is most often served with tomato sauce and fettuccine with alfredo (white cheese) sauce, but these are only the most common uses. Your own creative ideas can turn these pastas into unique meals.

BASIL: A very common spice in Italian cooking, basil has a sweet taste, which accounts for it being referred to as “sweet basil.”

It comes dried in your spice aisle, but BY FAR, the best use is picked fresh.

Basil it extremely easy to grow in gardens or in pots, taking no care at all except watering. Just look for seeds or plants in your local garden center, plant according to the directions, and you’ll be enjoying the fresh taste of basil in your own recipes.

Use basil in pasta dishes, in tomato sauces, in meatloaf, over steak, and more. I LOVE IT. I can’t get enough during the growing season.

A wonderful dish is combining fresh tomato slices, olive oil, mozzarella cheese, salt, pepper, and basil into a salad mixture. Yummy!

GARLIC: It’s no secret that garlic is a staple of Italian cooking. If I have a choice, I’ll always use fresh over bottled. Here’s a little story.

For years, I would purchase bottled minced garlic and use it in dishes because it’s definitely easier than using fresh and I didn’t want the hassle. Just use approximately 1 tsp. minced for each clove.

One day I decided to purchase some fresh garlic instead. I was blown away by the difference! The aroma! The taste! There really is no comparison! Just get a good quality garlic press and try using fresh garlic. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. You may not want to go back.

OREGANO: Another necessary ingredient of Italian dishes is oregano. Next to garlic, it’s probably the most common. Adding garlic and oregano to dishes is the quickest and easiest way to add an Italian flavor.

Although I’ve grown fresh oregano and used it in dishes, I find the dried spice has a more pungent flavor and I do prefer it over the fresh. Try both and decide for yourself.

OLIVE OIL: Olive oil is used my many Italian cooks to saute ingredients, add to salad dressings and add to pasta dishes.

If you want that true Italian flavor, do not use vegetable oil at all. Olive oil is the way to go! Besides giving a great flavor, olive oil is MUCH healthier than other oils, containing the “good” fats that can contribute to a heart-healthy diet.

So, purchase the best olive oil you can afford and use it in all your cooking in place of other oils. You’ll be better for it. (As a side note, olive oil should not be used for deep-frying.)

Here’s a simple recipe for homemade Italian dressing. Combine 2 parts olive oil to one part red wine vinegar, add salt, pepper, oregano, and garlic powder to taste. Mix and pour over salad.

ROMANO CHEESE: If you ask a lot of people what type of cheese goes into Italian cooking, they would say Parmesan. However, that answer would NOT be correct. The correct answer is Romano. This cheese has a stronger and more pungent flavor than Parmesan. Sprinkle it over salads, pasta, and garlic bread for a great tasting Italian cheese flavor.

Buy the grated Romano in your local supermarket, and make sure the jar says 100% Romano, no fillers or other cheeses mixed in. It’s not always easy to find, but look hard because it’s essential for a great Italian dish.

With the ingredients above and a little creativity, you should be able to cook some great Italian meals. Try some soon.

Essential Ingredients For Great Italian Cooking

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