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Italian Kitchen Essentials

Below is a photograph of many of the normal contents of our kitchen or what we would describe as the Italian Kitchen Essentials, ie. most of things that you would expect to see in the average Italian kitchen, allowing for some regional differences perhaps. How some of these items are normally used has already been described in articles in Cooking the Italian Way and others will be discussed in future articles.

We'll start at twelve o’clock in the photograph and go round clockwise:

1. Extra virgin olive oil: Two bottles always open and in use, both DOP in this case, one from Puglia for cooking and the more expensive Baldaccini from Lucca for salads, dripping onto bread or bruschetta or finishing dishes with a flourish. Like many Italians who are serious about food, we always have a range of olive oils because lighter, less intense olive oil goes better with delicate fish dishes for example.

2. Dried oregano behind the olive oil and next to it fresh celery for the soffritto.

3. Garlic. Then olives next to it (in the plastic container) from the deli counter. These are always much better than olives sold in jars.

4. Pancetta and guanciale behind the olives, used for cooking all sorts of dishes (including many of those described in Quick Recipes and Slow Recipes) when another type of flavor adding fat is required besides just olive oil.

5. A jar of capers and a jar of anchovies in front of the olive oils. Even if you think you hate anchovies, they are typically crushed and “melted” into the heated olive oil as the starting point for many recipes and don’t in fact make the finished dish taste of anchovies at all. It’s more a question of the 'umami' that the Japanese describe, the so-called 'fifth taste'.

6. Two bags of flour next to the olive oil at one o'clock for making bread, pizza etc. Semolina durum wheat flour for fresh pasta, '00' for pizza and '0' and '1-2' for bread, generally speaking.

All the food products in a typical Italian kitchen

7. Next are five different types of dried pasta. In our cupboards there are normally packets of linguine, spaghetti, fusilli, mezzi rigatoni and orecchiette only because Italians get nervous if the pasta supplies at home start to look a little bare. It would be a like an American fridge with only one beer in it or an English kitchen cupboard down to its last tea bag. But the average Italian supermarket has a whole aisle full of pasta so there's no need to hoard and even during the lockdown there were never any empty shelves. (The photo below is just one small section of the 20 yards of double-sided supermarket shelf space devoted to pasta).

8. Top right at two o'clock there’s a machine for stretching out fresh pasta which we use occasionally if a dish needs a richer egg pasta. But ever since a fresh pasta shop opened right underneath our apartment some of the incentive has disappeared.

9. Three types of bread. Italians always eat bread with lunch and dinner but as I find the Tuscan bread a little boring (there’s no salt in it) I either buy another regional bread or make my own. Focaccia, schiacciata and pizza bianca, with or without toppings, are popular at lunchtime.

10. On top of the De Cecco spaghetti and linguine at three o'clock is the most useful thing in an Italian kitchen apart from the cheese grater. Tongs for transferring the pasta to the pan where the sauce has been cooking, so as to avoid pouring away the cooking water by draining the pasta in a colander. You often need some of the cooking water to get the right consistency for the dish after it’s all mixed and this is why Italians don't drain away the pasta water.

11. Bottom right at four o'clock, fresh tortellini to heat up in a rich chicken broth. Makes a perfect winter lunch.

12. At five o'clock fresh tomatoes on the vine. Italians tend not to eat as many fresh tomatoes in winter because the flavor is not even close to the riper summer flavors. Italy is not like the US where non-seasonal foods are routinely shipped in from Mexico and Central and South America. Foods available in Italian supermarkets predominantly reflect the current season.

different types of pasta in a supermarket in Lucca

13. At six o'clock, cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano DOP aged 30 months. Used to finish many different pasta dishes and types of risotto and there is no substitute for this excellent cheese. Grana Padano for us is a poor substitute. Pecorino Romano DOP is essential for certain dishes like Cacio e Pepe or all'Amatriciana in the winter and Pesto Genovese in the summer. A mature aged Pecorino or a softer stracchino is perfect at lunch and a southern kitchen would perhaps have caciocavallo cheese instead.

14. Sun dried tomatoes next to the cheese. We prefer these bought in dried form not submerged in oil. Useful for southern Italian recipes and often a better alternative to fresh tomatoes in winter.

15. At seven o'clock, three types of nuts for cooking: blanched almonds, pistachios and pine nuts. The first two appear in lots of Sicilian recipes (see Quick Recipes) and the pine nuts are essential for Pesto Genovese and are otherwise very versatile.

16. Left of the nuts is a small jar of dried chili peppers, always used judiciously in Italian cuisine.

17. At eight and nine o'clock, the fresh herbs used all the time in Italy, starting with parsley on the table and rosemary, sage and bay leaves in the basket. This was the wrong time of year for basil but there’s always some to be found if you look hard enough.

18. On the far left, a big heavy granite mortar and pestle. Useful for lightly crushing ingredients instead of completely blitzing them in a blender. Pesto Trapanese is better this way, also peppercorns in various dishes like Cacio e Pepe where you don’t want them turned to dust.

19. Above the mortar and pestle, white wine vinegar and red wine vinegar.

20. At ten o'clock, lemons. Lemon zest is used in many dishes and lemons are also essential to stop artichokes from turning black after they’ve been peeled and trimmed.

21. Alongside the lemons are Tarocco (blood) oranges which are native to Sicily and are a winter crop. They are extremely high in Vitamin C and antioxidants. They are very sweet and Italians love freshly squeezed orange juice, known as a spremuta d’arancia and either make it at home or drink it in their local bar.

22. Hidden behind the oranges is a fennel bulb. Italians love this vegetable and supermarket shelves are full of it. You can make a great risotto from nothing more than finely chopped fennel and then adding the green fronds towards the end as a herb that tastes of aniseed.

23. Breadcrumbs are in the container just left of the lemons and are home made from stale Tuscan bread (which goes hard if not actually stale very quickly). Most Pugliese recipes traditionally call for breadcrumbs instead of cheese, and home made breadcrumbs are so much better than bought.

24. On top of the kitchen scales are onions and carrots, the two other important ingredients in the typical soffritto.

25. Next is coarse sea salt used for cooking pasta, risotto and almost everything else where there is a liquid content in the dish which allows the coarse salt to distribute evenly. Sea salt is the least processed of all the different types of salt and we don’t really understand why Kosher salt is recommended so frequently in recipes outside Italy.

26. The blue packet to the right of the salt is beer yeast for any dough that needs to rise.

27. At eleven o’clock, almost hidden at the back, is Carnaroli rice for making risotto. Arborio will do, but Carnaroli is better.

28. Pellini from Verona is our preferred coffee brand for our DeLonghi espresso coffee machine, but there is an enormous selection of good coffee brands in Italy.

29. In front of the Pellini coffee and the salt and pepper shakers are artichokes, another very popular winter food in Italy.

30. Behind the artichokes are cans of crushed Italian tomatoes, indispensable in an Italian kitchen for everything from ragù to all’Amatriciana to minestrone.

31. Just to the right of the cans is a small bottle of DOP Balsamic vinegar from Modena. It has lots of uses apart from salads, like caramelizing onions or adding to different types of risotto. It goes very well with parmigiano reggiano as one would expect given how close Modena is to Parma.

32. Now we’re back at twelve o’clock. Right in the center of the photo are prosciutto and Luganega sausages. We prefer the prosciutto di San Daniele from Friuli-Venezia Giulia over the more famous prosciutto of Parma. It has a slightly different flavor, perhaps because the pigs in Friuli have to walk up and down hills all day (whereas Parma is flat) so their leg muscles are more developed than in Parma. The Luganega sausages are milder and leaner than the typical Tuscan sausage that is very fatty and full of garlic, so we prefer this northern sausage.

33. I missed this one first time around. The plastic bag just to the right of the central plate (with the barely legible word Firenze on the front) is a big bag of dried funghi porcini for rehydrating and using in a winter risotto either by itself or with a couple of Luganega sausages.

So what's the point of keeping your kitchen cupboards full of all these things?

Other than the well known health benefits of the Mediterranean diet (olive oil in particular), in the above photograph of the Italian kitchen are all the ingredients necessary to make any number of quick dinners. There are probably five different risotto dishes and definitely more than five pasta dinners that could be thrown together in minutes from various combinations of these items and many of them don't include any type of meat and others just a small amount of pancetta or guanciale. Some of them are already in the Quick Recipes section and others will be added over time. No need for a microwave and a freezer full of ready meals when your kitchen looks like ours.


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