There are some ingredients I couldn’t live without, I consider them as my staples and they are always present in my pantry. They are the ones I use most and the essential secret for the success of a good dish. It’s important to have a well-organized pantry because it helps you to put a great meal on the table at a moment’s notice, but also because it allows you to do just a quick everyday shopping trip to get the fresh ingredients you need for the recipes you have in mind.
Because Italian recipes are usually quite simple, and require only few ingredients and little cooking, it’s important to buy good quality, fresh ingredients. Even if sometimes I ask Italian friends visiting me in New York to bring me some specific brands that I love to help me feel more at home, almost all the ingredients we use in Italy are widely available in the U.S. as well. For example, in the Williamsburg Italian neighborhood you can find a good selection for really good prices too, but I also go to different farmer’s markets very often (in Italy we love going to the market – looking at, touching, selecting our food and talking to the farmer about its qualities.) Finally, when I need some particular staple ingredients which are difficult to find, I search for them on line.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
I prefer Parmigiano-Reggiano over Grana-Padano. Parmigiano is made exclusively from fresh semi-skimmed cow’s milk, and it has no preservatives.
I can’t image cooking pasta, risotto or soup without it. Its soft and tasty flakes are perfect for seasoning a salad but also as an antipasto, to eat alone or with some artichokes in oil and a slice of salame, while waiting for the dinner.
Its grainy velvet consistency is simply delicious in my opinion, and reminds me of the afternoon snacks that my mom used to give me when I was doing my homework on the kitchen table as she was preparing our dinner.
In my recipes I usually use a lot of it. In order to reduce time and effort, once in a while I grate a lot of it and I preserve it in a snap & seal freezer bags in my fridge or freezer. You can preserve it for one week in the fridge and one month in the freezer. Of course it’s not really the same, but if you choose a good Parmigiano-Reggiano the result is more than acceptable… even for an Italian.
- Extra-virgin Olive Oil
In Italy we use it more than the butter. I use it both for cooking and as a dressing. I think that there is nothing better and healthier, extra-virgin olive oil is produced without any additional chemical treatment and has the best taste.
In Italy we have many varieties of olive oil, depending on the regions it is produced in, sharper in the south or gentler in the north, but always made from early-harvested olives that give it its characteristic green-yellow color.
In the U.S. it’s difficult to find so many Italian varieties, so what is essential is that it is cold-pressed and sold in tin cans or dark glass bottles because the light oxides and spoils it. Of course I prefer Italian olive oil because I find it less acidic than others, so I always check that my oil was not only bottled in Italy, but that the olives were also grown and harvested there, otherwise it could contain a mixture of European olives that are not always shipped and processed safely.
- Vialone Nano Rice
It’s my favorite variety of rice for preparing risotto recipes.
This short-grained rich-in-starch type of rice results in the perfect creamy risotto, while keeping its shape and texture.
It provides a delicious last-minute first course, all you need is just some Parmigiano-Reggiano, vegetable stock, and whatever else is edible in your fridge.
- Capers in salt
They add a special flavor to sauces, salads, fish and meat.
Even if in the U.S. it’s easier to find them in brine, I prefer them in salt because salt preserves the original flavor better and you can even store them outside the fridge. Of course there are many varieties of them, I usually prefer the smallest ones, since they remind me of the delicious ones produced in Pantelleria (Sicily).
Mark loves them too, especially in a Sicilian-style salad with fennels and oranges. When you use capers, just remember to rinse them well to avoid excessive saltiness.