Italian food is an art form painted with the colors of fresh herbs and seasonal produce. The recipes in Italy may vary from region to region, but the core of Italian cuisine is consistent throughout the country. In the history of Italian cuisine, most dishes were made with vegetables and very little meat, unlike much of the modern-day Italian dishes. Authentic Italian food is simple, flavorful and delicious.
Though I have never had the pleasure of visiting Italy, I grew up eating Italian food. My mother was taught to cook by an Italian chef and, every Sunday she would make sauce and some kind of pasta dish. My mother said she craved spaghetti when she was expecting me and I, am half-Italian, so I guess it’s no surprise that I cook a lot of Italian food. Though I didn’t learn how to really cook until I became vegan, I always knew how to make Italian dishes from having watched my mother. It’s a good thing I learned because, like my mother, I am hard to please when it comes to eating Italian food at restaurants. I would much rather make it myself. Here are some of the basics so you can also make your own Italian-style food at home.
1. Herbs and Spices
True Italian recipes do not have more than six or seven ingredients, and that includes the seasoning. The goal is to bring out the natural flavors of ingredients rather than pile a lot on top of each other. Salt is an important ingredient. It is used to season food, bring out the ingredients’ flavors, season pasta water and draw liquid out of certain vegetables such as eggplant. Coarse salt is used in recipes where it has time to melt while finer salt is used to finish a dish or at the table. Black pepper is not often used unless a recipe specifically calls for that flavor. Hot red pepper, or pepperoncino, is used to give heat to a dish. They can either be in whole pepper form or red pepper flakes, also called crushed red pepper.
The most commonly used herbs are parsley, rosemary, sage, and basil. While most people think of oregano as crucial to Italian dishes, it is actually used mainly in Southern Italy. Except for oregano, fresh herbs are preferred. Oregano is an exception to the rule as it tastes better when it is dried.
2. Aromatics and Fats
Another misconception about Italian food is that every dish contains tons of garlic. Garlic is an important part of cooking, especially in Southern Italy, but usually it’s just a clove or two that have been crushed to release flavor into the oil and are then removed. Yellow and white onions are common with red onions used mainly for dishes where the onion is served raw. Other aromatics used are olives and capers which add flavor and salt. Olives can be dry or brined with small, black olives being the most commonly used. Capers are either packed in salt or in vinegar. Taste these flavors in this Caramelized Vegan Onion Tart with Olives and this Tempeh Piccata.
Most cuisines have a trinity of aromatics that is the base of dishes. In Italian cooking, that trinity is typically finely chopped onion, carrot and celery known as soffritto. Sometimes fresh herbs such as parsley or rosemary or garlic will be added to it. The mixture is gently sauteed until softened and the flavors have infused the oil or butter. Then the main ingredients are cooked in the soffritto and get all that yummy flavor.
One of the most important ingredients in Italian cooking is olive oil, especially extra-virgin olive oil. Be sure to get good quality oil since that taste will be in the finished dish. Learn How to Infuse Your Own Olive Oil with Herbs and Spices. Vegetable oil is also used especially for frying and other situations where the taste of the oil is not important. Butter is used a lot, especially in the northern regions, for cooking. When it comes to bread, most Italians dip their bread in olive oil rather than eat it with butter. Many people cook in a combination of oil and butter because oil burns at higher temperatures than butter does so using both will prevent the oil from burning. This method is also done so that a dish gets the taste of butter but less cholesterol. That’s not an issue, of course, with vegan butter which is very easy to make yourself.
3. Fruits and Vegetables
Italian food uses a lot of fresh, seasonal produce. The most commonly used vegetables are bell peppers, eggplants, zucchini, artichokes, green beans, mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, celery, carrots, peas, leafy greens and tomatoes. Dried porcini mushrooms are good to keep on hand for making mushroom stock or using in pasta sauces, stews, risotto and these Potato, Porcini Mushroom Ravioli in Broccoli Cream Sauce. Since tomatoes are only in season for a very short time, it is common to use canned tomatoes, even in authentic Italian cooking. When selecting canned tomatoes, make sure they don’t contain sodium chloride or other additives. The only ingredients should be tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, salt and maybe, basil. They can be bought whole, diced, crushed or pureed. I tend to only buy the diced and crushed varieties. Of course, tomatoes are necessary to make the most well-known Italian sauces such as My Mom’s Marinara, Puttanesca Sauce, Vodka Cream Sauce, and Bolognese Sauce.
Vegetables are used in most dishes including pasta dishes, risottos, salads, soups, side dishes, main dishes and pizza. Recipes you should definitely try include Cauliflower Piccata, Spaghetti Squash with Alfredo Sauce, Creamy Pumpkin and Spinach Lasagna, Minestrone Soup, Spicy Eggplant Caponata, Mozzarella-Stuffed Eggplant Meatballs, and Raw Lasagna with Cilantro Pesto, Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Marinated Veggies.
Commonly eaten fruits include grapes, berries, cherries, citrus fruit such as lemons and oranges, pears, plums, figs and apples. Try this Raw Massaged Kale Salad with Fresh Figs and Oranges, Spicy Lemon Sauteed Broccolini, and Arugula Basil Salad with Sweet Corn, Red Beans, Lemon and Spices for savory ways to enjoy fruit. Fruits are eaten both fresh and dried and make up the typical dessert or last course in Italy. Indulge in these Beautiful Berry Napoleons, Raw Fruit Tartlets, Macerated Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar and Basil, and this No-Bake Lemon Tart.
4. Legumes and Grains
Beans and lentils are used widely in Italian cooking. It’s good to keep dried lentils and beans on hand, as they are economical and easy to store. The most common beans used are chickpeas and cannellini beans which are in many dishes, including the classic soup pasta e fagioli. To make my Pasta e Fagioli: in a large stockpot, heat 1 Tbs. oil over medium heat. Saute 1 diced onion for about 4 minutes until softened. Add 3 thinly sliced scallions, 1 large diced carrot, 2 ribs of diced celery, and 2 cloves minced garlic to the pot. Let cook for 4 minutes until the vegetables soften. Mix in 1 tsp. dried rosemary and ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes. Stir in 6-8 cups vegetable broth and/or water and 2 cups chopped tomatoes. Bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add 1 ½ cups cooked cannellini beans and 3 cups cooked fusilli or other small pasta. Season the soup with salt and black pepper to taste. Add 1 large bunch of chopped chard, kale or other greens to the pot. Do not stir. Cover the pot and let the greens steam until they are a verdant, bright green. Uncover the pot and stir in the greens. Serve while hot. Sprinkle with vegan grated parmesan, if desired. For other favorite Italian soups with beans, try this Minestrone Soup and this Escarole and White Bean Soup. I use lentils and beans to make my Vegan Bolognese Sauce, Lentil Meatballs, and Gluten-Free Spicy Italian Sausages.
In Northern Italy, rice is as popular as pasta is in the southern areas. Of course, rice, particularly Arborio rice, is used to make risotto. Polenta is made from medium-coarse, yellow cornmeal which is used for rustic dishes while finer cornmeal is used for dishes requiring a smoother texture. Try your hand at risotto by making Lentil-Kale Risotto, Butternut Squash Risotto, Mushroom and Asparagus Risotto, and my Brown Rice Portobello Risotto with Vegan Blue Cheese.
Flour, all-purpose, whole wheat and semolina, is necessary for baking bread, making fresh pasta, pizza and desserts as well as thickening sauces and soups. Bread is served at every meal, to eat and to sop up the juices and sauces. Ciabatta, focaccia and crusty, whole-grain Italian bread are delicious. Try making your own Sourdough Whole-Wheat Ciabatta Bread, Mediterranean Focaccia Bread and Focaccia with Roma Tomatoes and Onions.
We can’t talk about Italian food and not mention pasta. Pasta can be made fresh (pasta fresca) or bought dried (pasta secca). Pasta comes in many shapes and sizes. The type of sauce should determine which shape pasta to use. For tips on how to cook pasta, read “Pasta: How to Avoid 8 Common Cooking Mistakes” and then make this Rigatoni with Creamy Cauliflower Sauce, Lemon Butter Fettuccine with Parsley and Pine Nuts, Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti, Wild Garlic Gnocchi in Almond Cream Sauce, and Turnip Ravioli. You can even learn to Make Your Own Bean Pasta.
6. Other Common Ingredients
Low-sodium vegetable broth and/or bouillon are good to have on hand for sauces, soups and risottos. Read How to Make Oil-Free Vegan Vegetable Broth. Red and white wine vinegars are used in Italian cuisine while balsamic vinegar is reserved for special purposes. Wine is often used in cooking such as for risotto and pan sauces, especially white wine though red wine gets the job of making this amazing Homemade Spicy Red Wine Tomato Sauce. Pine nuts, walnuts and almonds are used in cooking and eaten as snacks. Pesto, an Italian sauce, is traditionally made with basil, olive oil, garlic and pine nuts though you can certainly use other nuts to make it. See How to Make Pesto Without Cheese – It’s Easy for tips, and then make 5 Minute Basil Pesto Raw Zucchini Pasta, Ramp and Spinach Pesto Pasta, Basil-Walnut Pesto and Fresh Summer Vegan Pesto Pizza.
Another misconception about Italian food is that it usually gets covered with some type of cheese. Cheese is a popular food in Italian food but it doesn’t end up overtaking the dish. Cheese can stuff pasta, get tossed into salads and be eaten as a savory dessert. Italian cheeses include Parmesan, mozzarella, Romano, gorgonzola and ricotta. It is possible to buy or make vegan versions of all these cheeses. I make my own Tofu Ricotta like this: crumble 1 block of drained firm tofu in a bowl. Add 2 Tbs. nutritional yeast or vegan parmesan, 2 Tbs. fresh chopped parsley, 1 ½ tsp. dried oregano, 2 tsp. garlic powder, 1 tsp. dried basil, 1 tsp. kosher salt, ½ tsp. black pepper, 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper and the zest of one lemon. Mix until fully blended. To make the tofu ricotta creamier and more decadent, add ½ cup vegan cream cheese. It’s so good, you could just eat it by the spoonful or you can use to make Spinach Tofu Gnudi Balls. See how to make your own Vegan Moxarella Cheese and Raw Almond Parmesan, then check out The Best Cheesy Italian Recipes Veganized!
The Italian feast isn’t over until guests indulge in a delicious dessert. Have some Almond Biscotti with Chocolate Drizzle, Panna Cotta with Caramel Sauce, Lemon Basil Granita, White Chocolate Coconut Cream Panna Cotta, Sugar-Free No-Bake Bourbon Tiramisu, and Decadent Raw Vegan Tiramisu with Coffee Ladyfingers.
After writing about all this delicious food, it’s no surprise that I’m now craving Italian. I think I will go make a big pan of baked ziti. What amazing Italian dish are you going to make?
Lead Image Source: Lemon-Butter Fettuccine with Parsley and Pine Nut