Italian food is tasty! And I’d say easy. It’s a layered architecture – you take tasty ingredients and add things that compliment the taste. Tomatoes + garlic + olive oil + grilled chicken + shredded parmesan. Yum!
This is very different from Thai where you take many things that taste neutral to terrible by themselves and combine them in a way that plays each flavor against the others to create something amazing. Coconut milk + curry paste + fish sauce + lime juice + rice. But if you go wrong it’s not just too much garlic, or too little. It’s terrible!
So, having just returned from a visit to Italy, here is my quick guide to a big chunk of Italian cooking. It applies to making food, or what to buy when going out there.
Rule #1. Ingredients. Italy is blessed with incredible ingredients. In the US you’ll have to do some shopping. Taste and explore the subtle differences. Bread, olive oil, charcuterie, cheeses… Now on to the recipes.
#1 Slice bread. Bring to table with olive oil.
#2 Slice meat. Bring to table. Voilà – salumi plate! Do try to slice appropriate to the meat, and vary the thickness within the slice for things like Jamón. Different thicknesses are different experiences.
#3 Slice cheese. Bring to table. Cheese plate!
If you are in Italy I highly recommend buying the above at the store and slicing yourselves. You’ll be stunned at the amount of salumi you can get at the grocery store for the price of one little salumi plate.
I would also say that these are the highlights of eating in Italy. Oh, and of course wine. Most restaurants, especially in the tourist zones and city centers, seem to actually subtract value in moving to the following items. You can find good places, but in my limited experience it’s easier to find great Italian food in a major US city than in a major city in Italy, just because there are so many places that are expensive yet stunningly mediocre and cater to tourists that never come back. I also think the internet ratings are skewed by travelers smitten more with their adventure than the actual food. I’m sure that this gets better out of the tourist zones and look forward to exploring on the next trip.
Anyway, moving on to adding value beyond ingredients.
#4 Caprese. Go beyond simply cutting stuff up to add a little mixing. Slice great tomatoes and real mozzarella. Intermix the slices with fresh basil leaves and/or arugula or other fresh greens. Drizzle with a little good olive oil (they can add more). Serve with bread. You can also add a little balsamic vinegar. Key word – little. And don’t add honey, sugar or get fancy!
#5 Pesto. Take a combination of pine nuts (preferably slightly toasted), shredded parmesan, garlic (preferably slightly roasted), olive oil, and herbs. Fresh basil is the classic but you can mix in others – fresh thyme, arugula, etc. Put in a food processor until it’s a rough paste that still has some character to it – not completely smooth. Experiment with proportions – you can mix, taste, edit, repeat. Or you can even omit or change the nuts, add no cheese, no garlic, whatever. Tasty herby stuff mixed. It’s not rocket science. Put on about anything, bread, pasta, chicken, or just eat it straight!
#6 Polenta. An underutilized star. It’s basically cornmeal porridge, aka grits. It can be coarse or fine. But the difference is really in the preparation. It can be made creamy with cheese in which case it’s a lot like grits ( not my favorite ). Or it can be more coarse and made into little pancakes. From there you can use the pancakes as is, or grill them which is my favorite! And then put stuff on ’em – kind of like little pizzas. Meat, sauce, cheese… Easy enough!
#7 Tomato sauce. It’s not super hard but the prepared versions are awfully good these days so I’d probably just buy it. Put on pasta as usual, grilled chicken, meatballs, grilled eggplant, vegetables, whatever!
#8 White sauce. This is harder to make well. The stuff in the store that doesn’t require refrigeration is inherently pretty bad. The fresh stuff in the gourmet section is ok. I’m not going to get into it here, but if you learn how to make a basic Bechamel sauce then you can do anything – cheeses, herbs, mushrooms… Real (dulce) Gorgonzola and mushrooms is my favorite!
Mix those together in interesting ways and you have darn near everything covered. Add some grilled meat and you have a full meal!