The Italian Larder
Search by alphabet:
- BAKING POWDER
- BAY LEAF
- BEET GREENS
- BLACK PEPPERCORN
Baking powder (Lievito chimico / Lievito minerale / Lievito in polvere)
Substitute: To make your own baking powder mix 1 part bicarbonate of soda / baking soda with 2 parts cream of tartar in a 1:2 ratio.
Baking powder is used in baking to help a batter to rise. It is composed of an alkaline ingredient, bicarbonate of soda, an acidic ingredient, cream of tartar, and a starch as a filler to absorb moisture. These ingredients, when mixed with liquid, produce carbon dioxide gas that forms bubbles which leavens dough.
Buy: Baking powder is normally sold in small pots or in envelopes, sometimes mixed with vanilla.
Store: It should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place. Do not use baking powder past the expiration date as it may have lost its rising effect.
Prepare: When using baking powder, mix it into or sift together with the flour to help ensure its even distribution. Because baking powder starts to work when liquid is added, do not let batters and doughs containing baking powder to sit once added.
Eat: It is used in baking cakes or biscuits to help them rise. It can also be used in fried breads.
Basil (Basilico) (Ocimum basilicum)
Basil is a leafy herb, and is one of the signature flavours of Italian cooking. It pairs very well with tomatoes. Basil has a distinct flavour and is second to none. The Genovese variety is the most popular. Basil is in season from May to September. Italians believe basil stimulates digestion and diminishes stomach cramps.
Buy: There are many varieties of basil, some with very varying flavours, such as Asian basil which is distinctly different from Italian sweet basil. Dried basil is no substitute for fresh basil. Buying a pot of fresh basil is even better. The leaves should be bright green, not wilted, and without holes or brown spots. Basil plants are easily grown in a pot on the windowsill (also said to keep flies away).
Store: Basil is fragile and should be used quickly after being cut. It can be stored in the refrigerator with the cut ends in a small vase of water and the tops covered with a plastic bag for 2 days.
If you can only occasionally find fresh Italian basil, you can preserve it by freezing the leaves. Otherwise you can wash the basil in cold water, patting it dry with a dishcloth, and storing it submerged in olive oil (you may need to weigh them down). The oil can also be used in sauces. Alternatively you can preserve them by washing, drying, and layering them in a jar between layers of salt. Either way, store the preserved basil in a cool, dry place.
Prepare: Basil leaves should be torn (not cut) just before using. The most flavourful leaves are those nearest the tip of the plant, near the flower.
Eat: Basil can be eaten raw or cooked and is used in salads, with pasta (pasta alla norma), in sauces (pesto genovese), and on pizza. Basil pairs well with tomatoes, courgettes, aubergine, green beans, rice, and pumpkin.
Bay leaf (Alloro) (Laurus nobilis)
Bay leaf is the leaf of a laurel tree or bush and it is used as a herb. It has been used since antiquity.
Buy: Bay leaves can be purchased fresh or dry. Fresh are preferable as they have a stronger flavour but both are fine.
Store: Store in a dry, cool, dark place. Dry bay leaves should be used within a year. To dry fresh bay leaves, lay in a single layer, not touching each other, on a paper lined tray in a dark, dry place.
Prepare: Rinse the leaves in cold water, dry and use. They are normally removed from a dish once cooked, prior to serving.
Eat: Bay leaves are used as an aromatic for broth, fatty fish, and spit-roasted, grilled, and roasted meats. Bay leaves are also used in perfume, liqueurs, and with dried figs.
Bean (Fagiolo) (Phaseolus vulgaris)
Equivalent: 100 grams dried beans = 300 grams fresh beans (shelled) = 600 grams fresh beans (unshelled) = 480 grams tinned beans
Beans are legumes and are well-loved in Italy, particularly in Toscana (where the people are called “mangiafagioli”, meaning “bean eaters”) and in Veneto. Every region in Italy has a local bean dish. Beans have been popular since Roman times. Beans are extremely nutritious and an excellent protein substitute for meat, if mixed with other cereals.
They can be eaten fresh or dried. Beans grow in a long pod which is opened and the beans inside removed. There are many varieties of beans eaten in Italy. The main varieties are borlotti (medium length and are white and red mottled), cannellini (small and white), Scottish beans (white mottled with violet), and Spanish beans (big and are either violet “kidney beans” or white coloured). PGI varieties include fagiolo di Lamon, fagiolo di Sorana, and fagiolo di Sarconi.
Fresh beans are in season from June until September and are generally 8 to 15cm long. They are a good source of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, and vitamins A and C. Beans are generally not considered a refined food, despite being quite nutritious, probably due to their property of creating flatulence in those who eat them.
Buy: Beans are typically bought dried, tinned / jarred, or fresh. Beans are best fresh. If fresh beans are not available, cooking dried beans are also very good. If the process is too cumbersome or time consuming then tinned are fine.
Fresh beans should be mature, crisp, firm, full-coloured (no discolouring), lumpy so you can see the beans inside have matured and are not dried out (although the pod should feel tough and leathery), and be unblemished (free from black or brown spots and holes). Shelled beans will be about half their weight with the shell so adjust this according to your recipe.
Dried beans should be purchased as close to their harvest date as possible as they harden over time. Try to use within 6 months of purchase but definitely within 1 year. The beans should be bright and shiny. Dried beans should not be wrinkled as this is an indication that they are old. Inspect the packaging for any signs of insects, dust or mould.
Tinned beans have a softer texture than fresh or dried beans and will disintegrate if cooked for too long. For tinned beans, add them to the recipe during the last 10 minutes of cooking to ensure they remain whole and reduce the salt in the recipe if the beans contain salt.
Store: To store fresh beans, place them in the refrigerator and ensure that they are dry and have good air circulation so that they don’t mould. Do not shell them until you are about to cook them. They are best consumed as soon as possible but may be stored in the refrigerator like this for 3-5 days. If you can’t use them within this time period, shell and freeze. To shell fresh beans, snap off the stem end and pull downwards along the spine to remove the string. Use your thumbs to pull the pod open and then slide your thumb along the inside to remove the beans.
Dried beans should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place and should not be kept for more than a year or they will stay hard when cooked. They should be kept in an airtight container.
Tinned beans can be kept in the cupboard until their expiration date indicated on the package. Tinned beans can be used directly from the tin without soaking or parcooking.
Prepare: To shell fresh beans, hold the stem end and break open using your thumbs to open the shell and dislodge the beans into a bowl. Discard the shells.
To prepare dry beans, rinse them and discard any stones, as well as any mouldy, damp, wrinkled, broken, or discoloured beans, then soak them overnight- or even for 2-3 days. Make sure the beans are covered by about 8 cm of fresh, tepid water. If the weather is hot, refrigerate the beans while they soak. The older the beans are, the longer you will need to soak them. (If you don’t have time to soak the beans overnight, you can wash them, then put them in cold water, bring to a boil for 5 minutes, remove from heat, let sit for 1 hour, strain, discard the water, and then the beans are ready to use.) Pick through the beans to ensure there is no debris, discard the water.
To cook fresh or dried beans: add new, fresh water and any aromatics. Some people say that adding salt when cooking beans makes them hard but I have never had this issue with beans that are not old. Simmer the beans in the water until tender as per the recipe. The older the beans are, the longer they need to be cooked. Cooked beans can be kept in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
Eat: Beans are used in starters, pastas (pasta e fagioli), soups (minestra di fagioli), salads, and as accompaniments to meat (fagioli all’uccelletto).
Borlotti bean / Cranberry bean (Borlotto) (Phaseolus vulgaris)
Substitute: cannellini beans
A borlotti bean is an oval-shaped bean which is cream coloured with dark red streaks with a nutty flavour.
Buy: Lamon PGI beans are a high quality borlotti bean from the town of Lamon in Veneto. Use the same criteria as in the general bean section above.
Store: Fresh borlotti beans should be kept in a bag in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.
Prepare: Fresh borlotti beans can be prepared by snapping off the stem and using your thumbs to open the pod and slide out the beans. Use dried beans as per the recipe but they are generally cooked slowly for 1 to 1.5 hours.
Eat: Borlotti beans are often boiled or sautéed. They are used in stews, mixed with rice, mixed with pasta (pisarei e faso) as an accompaniment to meat, and in soup (pasta e fagioli alla veneta, fagioli con le cotiche, minestra di fagioli alla emiliana, and minestra di fagioli alla friulana).
Broad Bean / Fava Bean (Fava) (Vica faba maior)
Substitute: fresh or frozen soy beans, peas
Yield: 1 kilo broad beans in the pod = 2 to 3 cups of shelled beans
Fava beans are one of my favourite vegetables and are well-worth the time and effort to prepare. Fava beans are meaty and strongly flavoured with herbal notes. These beans are one of the oldest foods of the Mediterranean. Fava beans are a spring vegetable that come in long pods ranging from 10 – 30cm long. They are light green in colour. When opened, they have a thick, soft lining nestling the beans inside. These fresh beans are available from March to May. Fava beans are a good source of protein, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, fibre, and vitamins (A and C).
The main varieites are Auperaguadulce, Aguadulce Supersimoia, Reina mora, and Baggiana.
Buy: You should select pods which are with no brown spots, look plump, crisp, are green (not yellow) and which are about 15cm in length. You should not be able to easily define the shape of the bean inside or the bean is past its prime. Avoid beans with blackened ends and if you can, split one open and look inside. The soft inner lining should be moist and the beans firm. If you twist off an end, the pod should be crunchy and juicy. Eat one if you can to taste if it is sweet and tender. The young beans should be tender and sweet although slightly bitter. Beans which are too old will have lost their bright green colour and will be starchy. They are also available dried, canned, or frozen. Only the frozen ones are substitutable for fresh ones.
Store: Fresh fava beans may be wrapped in plastic and kept in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 days. Frozen fava beans should be stored in the freezer, tightly sealed for up to 10 months. Dried fava beans may be kept in a cool, dry place sealed for up to a year.
Prepare: Podding fava beans can be a chore so get the family to help out and make it fun. I get my 2 year old son to help me with podding as he loves to help out. To prepare fava beans, remove the pod, parboil for 2 minuted if fresh and 4 minutes if frozen and then cool in ice water to stop the cooking and bring out the colour. When cool, use your fingernail to pierce the waxy skin around each bean and squeeze the opposite end to pop the bean out. Cook as required in the recipe but typically about 8 to 10 minutes. Prepare dried fava beans as described in the main bean section above.
Eat: Only the fresh, young, tender, springtime fava beans can be eaten raw (with salami or pecorino cheese). They are used in starters, pastas, soups (favata alla sarda, zuppa di fave alla calabrese, and minestra di fave alla pugliese), salads (fave in insalata di Campania), with meat (fave a coniglio alla siciliana), and side dishes (fave col guanciale alla romana). The dried beans can be cooked and pureed (macco and ‘ncapriata).
Cannellini bean (Cannellino) (Phaseolus vulgaris)
Substitute: Borlotti beans
Cannellini beans grow inside a green pod about 8cm long. The beans are white, small, flat with rounded ends. They are eaten regularly in Toscana.
Buy: Cannellini beans come dried or tinned.
Store: Fresh cannellini beans need to be kept in a bag in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.
Prepare: For dried beans, prepare according to the general bean section above but they are generally cooked for 1 to 1.5 hours.
Eat: Eaten cold in salads (insalata di fagioli), as a side dish to meat (fagioli all’uccelletto or fagioli al fiasco), and in soups (ribollita).
Chickpea / Garbanzo bean (Cece) (Cicer arietinum)
Chickpeas grow on a plant inside a husk with a nutty flavour. They are rounded, cream in colour, and are smooth and resemble a hazelnut in shape. They are harvested between June and October but are not eaten fresh.
Buy: Chickpeas are typically sold dry, tinned, or ground into flour. The tinned variety can be interchangeably used with the rehydrated dried chickpeas.
Prepare: For dried beans, prepare according to the general bean section above. They take much longer than other legumes to soften and may need to be cooked for 1 to 3 hours.
Eat: Chickpeas are eaten in salad, lightly dressed on their own, in soup (cacciucco di ceci alla pisana and minestra di ceci toscana), in pasta (tria, ceci e pasta alla pugliese, lagane e ceci alla basilicata, panelle alla sicilia, and pasta e ceci alla romana), and in stews (ceci con la tempia di maiale and cisra). The flour is used in Liguria to make farinata and panissa.
Lentil (Lenticchia / Lente) (Lens esculenta)
Lentils have been eaten for over 9,000 years. Lentils are the flat rounded seeds of a plant and come in pods with 2 to 3 lentils inside. They range in colour from yellow to orange to brown to green. Lentils are rich in nutrients, protein, phosphorous, iron, and vitamin B.
The main varieties in Italy include Egizina, di Villalba, del Fucino, di Castelluccio, di Altamura, and di Mormanno. The most prized variety is Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia PGI from Umbria.
Buy: Lentils are sold dried. The quality of the lentil is determined by the variety and the soil in which it was grown.
Prepare: Lentils do not need to be soaked in advance, but they can be. They are boiled or braised in liquid but should not be cooked in untreated aluminium. They take between 25 to 60 minutes to cook depending on their age and variety.
Eat: Lentils are eaten on New Year’s Day in parts of Italy for good luck. They can be eaten hot or cold in soups, salads, pasta (pasta e lenticchie alla Campania), and as an accompaniment to sausage (lenticchie con il cotechino).
Beef (Carne bovina / Manzo / Bovino / Toro / Vacca) (Bos taurus)
Beef is the meat from a castrated male cow between 2 and 4 years old or a female cow between 1.5 and 3 years old which has never given birth. The meat from cows less than 2 years old is called either “vitellone”, for cows between 14 to 22 months old, or veal (vitello) for cows less than 12 months old (See Veal below). Male castrated cow more than 24 months old are called “manzo” and have intensely red, well marbled meat of good quality. Female cows which are between 16 and 22 months old and have not given birth are called “scottona” and have top quality, tender, well-marbled meat. Male cows older than 4 years are called “bue” and female cows over 3 years are called “vacca”. More veal is consumed in Italy than beef. The special breeds of cows for meat include: Chianina, Marchigiana, Piemontese, Maremmana, Podolica, and Romagnola. My favourite breeds are Chianina and Fassone piemontese.
Buy: When purchasing beef, the meat should be moist but not shiny, have a good colour, and should not have an off-putting smell. The packaging should be tear-free. Depending on the cut, the qualities to evaluate beef are the marbling (the fat mixed into the meat), colour, ratio of bone to meat, ratio of fat to meat, and the shape of the cut. The colour of the meat varies from pink to dark red according to the cut, age, breed, and gender of the cow, and whether the beef is fresh or dry aged. Aging beef enhances the flavour of the beef, although it costs more as the meat will have lost some of its water weight which they make up for in the price. Beef should be aged for no less than 2 weeks. The colour of the fat varies from white, if the beef was grain fed, to yellow, if the beef was grass-fed.
Every part of Italy divides the cow up into different cuts with varying names. This creates a lot of confusion as one can imagine. The cuts and names given above are for the nationally named and recognised cuts in Italy.
Here are the nationally defined cuts of beef according to the Associazione Italiana Allevatori:
These are the most prized cuts of beef which are tender and easy to cook:
1 Full Loin (Lombata / Costata) – less tender than the fillet, good for steaks, bistecca fiorentina (Fiorentina steak), rare roast beef, or grilling
2. Fillet (Filetto) – this is the most tender but not most flavourful part of the cow, good for steaks, steak tartar, larding and roasting, or grilling
3. Topside (Fesa) – good for roast beef, grilled steaks, cutlets, and steak tartar
4. Thick flank (Noce) – a prized cut of beef good for escalopes, slices, steaks, and roasting
5. Tri-tip steak (Fianchetto) – a small triangular cut of beef above the thick flank, very tender and flavourful cut, suitable for rare steaks
6. Rump (Scamone) – a cut which needs to be cooked quickly, so it is good for large roasts and steaks or can be larded and braised
7. Top round (Sottofesa) – good for boiling or larded and braised
8. Silverside (Girello / Magatello) – good for steaks, escalopes, roast beef, braising, or carpaccio
9. Leg (Campanello / Pesce) – used for stews, pot roasts, and boiling. The outside part of the cut, once free from connective tissues, can be used as steak.
10. Shin (Muscolo posteriore / Geretto) – rich in connective tissues so is best for slow cooking such as braising (osso buco) and stewing; the knuckle is good for making gelatin
These are the firm and compact cuts:
11. Shank (Muscolo anteriore) – rich in connective tissues so is best for slow cooking, good for braising and stewing; the knuckle is good for making gelatin
12. Blade (Copertina di sotto) – is flavourful and tender, good for steaks and roulades
13. Arm clod (Fesone di spalla)- a large and lean cut good for steaks, roulades, cutlets, and roasts
14. Chuck (Copertina) – a cut with some cartiledge suitable for braising, stewing, and boiling
15. Top clod (Girello di spalla / Fusello) – lean cut of beef which should be larded before cooking; suitable for braising, stewing, roasting, and pan-frying
16. Shoulder (Polpo di spalla) – suitable for slow cooking such as braising or stewing
17. Neck (Collo)- a cut with lots of connective tissue so it needs to be boiled for a long time to be tender and flavourful; suitable for boiling, mincing, and stewing
18. Rib (Costate) – this is a tender and flavourful cut suitable for roast beef, chops, grilling, and pan frying
19. Flank / Middle rib (Pancia / Biancostato)- a flat and elongated cut with good flavour suitable for soup, stocks, boiling, braising, stews, and meatballs
20. Brisket (Petto) – a fatty and flavourful cut suitable for baking, stewing, or boiling (particularly the part towards the neck) although it should not be cooked too long and should remain pink inside
21. Chuck (Sottospalla / Cappello del prete) – suitable for braising and stewing
22. Chuck (Reale) – lean, flavourful meat suited to slow cooking such as boiling and making broth
Store: Beef should be wrapped and stored in the refrigerator at 5˚C on a tray to catch any drips. Meat should be unwrapped and stored, lightly wrapped in parchment paper or aluminium foil in the refrigerator as an airtight container may promote bacterial growth. It should be stored on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator so it doesn’t contaminate other food. Cuts of beef should be eaten within 3 to 5 days of purchase and minced beef within a day of purchase. If your time requirement is longer than this then the beef can be frozen at – 18˚C and then thawed in the refrigerator (6 to 7 hours per 450 gms), or in a sealed bag immersed in cold water until thawed. Cuts of beef can be stored, well-sealed in thick freezer bags, in the freezer for 6 to 12 months and minced beef for up to 3 months. If the meat begins to show signs of grey, white or brown patches on the meat, it is developing freezer burn and is dehydrating. It is still edible but it will be dry and not taste nice. Organ meats such as liver, brain, tripe, and sweetbreads are more highly perishable and should be consumed within a week of slaughter or purchased frozen.
Prepare: Remove the packaging, rinse the beef under cold water, dry on paper towels, and prepare according to the recipe. Steaks and roasts are often prepared rare in Italy (so the meat is not completely cooked and is pink). Beef is considered rare (al sangue) at 51˚C and will be very pink inside, medium (a punto) at 60 to 65˚C and will be slightly pink inside, and 70˚C is considered well done (ben cotto) and will have no sign of pink. The meat should be removed 2 to 3 degrees below this temperature however as it will continue to cook after being removed from the heat. Overcooked steaks and roast will turn to leather. Stewed, braised, and boiled beef are always completely cooked.
Eat: Beef can be braised (brasato and arrosto), roasted, grilled (bistecca alla fiorentina), stewed (coda alla vaccinara, garofolato, and stufato), or boiled (bollito misto). It can also be minced and added to sauces (ragù alla bolognese), meatballs, or meatloaves.
Beet / Beetroot (Barbabietola / Rapa rossa) (Beta vulgaris)
Beets are a winter root vegetable with a pleasantly sweet and earthy flavour. Beets are very beautiful and come in hues of purple-red, red, yellow, and orange. The root can be round or elongated. The leaves are eaten more frequently in Italian cooking and salads. Beets are in season from July to November and can be kept through the winter. The best varieties in Italy are Nera piatta d’Egitto, Chioggia, and Ossa cilindrica.
Buy: Choose beets with their greens attached so you can verify their freshness. If this is not possible, try to buy beets with at least 5cm of stalk attached so that their colour stays intact during cooking. Beetroot should be firm, regularly shaped, unwithered, and free from holes and black marks. They should have a long tipped whispy end where the tip of the root is and ideally be around 5cm in diameter or less. The smaller the beet, the more tender it is. Irregularly shaped beets are often due to bolting and will be woody, tough and bitter. Jarred or tinned beets do not compare to fresh ones, especially when freshly roasted at home.
Store: If the greens are attached to the beet, then cut them off about 5cm from the root. See beet greens below for more details. Beets are best kept in a dry, cool place unpeeled and loosely wrapped, for up to 3 weeks. Cut the greens off and reserve separately, wrapped and refrigerated.
Prepare: Beets must be cooked until tender otherwise they can be bitter. They should not be overcooked as they become mushy. They are best when roasted as it concentrates their flavor. Cookeing them with their skins on preserves their colour. They can be peeled afterwards.
Eat: Beets can be roasted, baked, boiled, steamed, pickled, and grated raw for salad. They pair well with onions, apples, olive oil, butter, lemon, orange, mustard, capers, parsley, rosemary, and garlic.
Beet greens (Barbabietola / Rapa rossa) (Beta vulgaris)
Substitutes: spinach or chard
This is the top leafy part of the beetroot which is green with streaks of red. The greens are delicious and are not so much sweet as slightly nutty in flavour. I love beet greens in savoury tarts such as torta verde. They are similar to chard, or spinach. They have a thick texture and mild flavour.
Buy: Choose greens which are tender looking (small bunches with small, bright green leaves and thin ribs) as older leaves can be chewy. The leaves should be bright green and unblemished and free from holes, yellowing, withering, rot, or brown marks. Although even if the leaves are withered and yellowing, the root is still good to eat.
Store: The greens are best used within a day of purchase and can be kept in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Prepare: Wash thoroughly in several changes of cold water. Discard any yellow or rotting leaves. If the leaves are wider than the length of your fingers, cut the leaves from the ribs and prepare according to the recipe.
Eat: Beet greens can be used interchangeably with chard or spinach. Beet greens are also used in pastas and pies (torta verde) and are well suited to slow braising. Baby beet greens are used in salads.
Black peppercorn (Pepe nero) (Piper nigrum)
Black pepper is a spice. It is the sun-dried berry of the pepper vine that comes in whole corns. The black peppercorn is round, hard, and wrinkly with a spicy, pronounced flavour. When stripped of the outer shell, dried, and ground, this pepper then becomes the white pepper known more commonly in China. Black pepper is more pronounced in flavour and is spicier than white peppercorn. Pepper has preservative properties which is why it is often used in making salumi.
Buy: Buy in small quantities and use the whole peppercorn, rather than the pre-ground pepper. Invest in a pepper grinder to freshly grind the pepper as the flavour of the pepper diminishes rapidly once ground. Black peppercorns should be uniform in colour, aromatic, hard, and free from dust. The best black pepper is grown in Mangalore and Malabar, India and Sumatra, Indonesia. The best varieties are Tellicherry and Lampung.
Store: Store in a cool, dark, dry place in an airtight container.
Prepare: Use as per the recipe, but typically you can just grind directly from the pepper grinder. Otherwise you can use a mortar and pestle, a coffee grinder, or chop and crush finely with a large knife.
Eat: A spice regularly used in Italian cooking, particularly in making soups, with meat, beans (fagioli al fiasco) and pastas (alla carbonara and cacio pepe). It is often used to top salads and pastas which do not have cheese as a topping (such as pastas that contain fish or shellfish). Black pepper can be used as a preservative so is used in cured meats such as ham, pancetta, etc.
Blackberry (Mora) (Rubus fruticosus)
These are dark purple berries which are a grouping of sacs filled with juice and seeds. Blackberries are fruit which are in season at the end of the summer and beginning of the autumn with the peak months being July and August. They are rich in vitamin B1, vitamin C, and minerals. The best varieties are the American black satin and thornfree.
Buy: Blackberries tend to be wild and are available frozen or fresh. Buy fresh blackberries which are soft to touch, dry, plump, shiny, black, and free from bruising. They should not be shrivelled, dried out or mouldy. Blackberries can be black and still be sour so check to ensure they are ripe by touching to see if they are soft. They should not have the stem attached or have any redness to them or they will not be ripe. There should not be juice in the packaging as the berries will be damaged and then very quickly mould. Turn over the packaging to check the bottom for any juice or mould. If you buy berries loose, then package them in smaller packages of 200 grams each so that the weight of the berries don’t crush the ones on bottom.
Store: Berries mould very quickly so they should be used as soon as purchased. The berries should be placed on trays lined with paper towels so that they are not touching each other in a single layer and placed in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days. Throw away any soft berries as they will mould quickly. Otherwise, they can be rinsed and frozen on trays lined with parchment paper. Once frozen, they can be sealed in bags and kept in the freezer.
Prepare: Rinse with cold water, pat dry, and use whole.
Eat: Blackberries are always included in any “woodland fruit” (ai frutti di bosco) preparation. They are eaten on their own after lunch together with strawberries and raspberries. They also pair well with peaches, apples, pouring cream, whipping cream, or cream flavoured gelato. Blackberries are used in tarts, pies, dumplings, cakes, candies, fruit salads, jams, syrups, gelato, sorbet, and to decorate biscuits. Normally the first berries of the season are used to make mixed bowls of berries and later in the season they are used for baking, gelato, jams, and syrups.
Blueberry / Bilberry (Mirtillo) (Vaccinium myrtillus)
Blueberries are a fruit which can be wild or cultivated. In Italy there are wild blueberries which are blue, black, and red. Cultivated blueberries are always blue with a silvery bloom and are much larger than wild ones although have less flavour. Blueberries are a fruit which are in season from late spring through summer. There are many varieties of blueberries which range in intensity of flavour but at the store they are rarely labelled.
Buy: Buy blueberries which are plump but not hard. Don’t buy blueberries which are shrivelled, have soft spots, are broken, mouldy, or have juice in the packaging. Smell them to make sure there is no spoilage. Make sure to look at the bottom of the packing for signs of spoilage. If they are bought loose, only package 200 grams at a time to ensure they don’t crush each other.
Store: They can be kept spread on a sheet pan in in the refrigerator for up to a week (discard any mouldy berries).
Prepare: Rinse in cold water and remove any stems. Discard and mouldy or shrivelled berries.
Eat: Blueberries are eaten in Italy fresh with gelato or semifreddo or made into gelato, drinks, jellies, jams (confettura di mirtilli), or in desserts (crostata di mirtilli, torta di mirtilli). They pair well with lemon.
Every area in Italy has different bread and there are more than 1,000 types of bread in Italy. It is probably one of the most discussed foods in Italy. If an Italian moves from one area to another, one of the things they miss the most will be the bread they grew up on. Ordinary bread (pane comune) uses only wheat flour, water, salt, and a rising agent whereas special bread (pane speciale) can have other ingredients or different flour. Breads can be made with whole wheat flour, white flour, semolina (in the south), cornmeal, or rye flour (in the north) mixed with water, a rising agent, and usually salt. They can be flavoured with olives, nuts, cheese, onion, herbs, fruit, honey, or meat. Typical bread shapes are long, round, wreath, rolls, disks, flattened, thin threads, tile, and braid. There are many special shapes used for festive breads.
Buy: The best bread is bought from a bakery which has a special bread oven. Home ovens cannot replicate the effect of these commercial ovens, although very nice bread can be made at home. Historically much of the bread was made at home but then taken to a communal oven to be baked properly.
Store: Store bread in a cool, dry place. It should be consumed as soon as purchased although some types of bread can last 1 to 2 days.
Prepare: No special preparation is needed. If the bread was not purchased that day, it will improve after being warmed in the oven or toasted.
Eat: Bread can be eaten at any time with every type of food. Bread is eaten for breakfast and at lunch and dinner as a starter like bruschetta or crostini, served in soups and salads, made into dumplings (canederli), ground and sprinkled over pastas, used in stuffings, and even dessert (torta nicolotta). Stale breads can be used for salads (panzanella), soups (pappa col pomodoro, pancotto, and ribollita), dressed and served (pancotto), and made into breadcrumbs (see below).
Here are the superstar breads of Italy:
Ciabatta means slipper because the bread is shaped like a slipper with a rounded side rectangular low loaf. Ciabattas have a thin crispy crust and are typically made without salt. They originate from Toscana but now can be found throughout Italy. It was traditionally made once a week and is baked directly on the oven floor free form (no tin). It has large irregular holes inside. Stale ciabatta is used in salads and soups as it can be soaked thoroughly and then squeezed without disintegrating.
Focaccia genovese / Fugassa
Focaccia is a dimpled, fluffy yeasted bread infused with olive oil and has a range of toppings or fillings to choose from such as onions (focaccia con le cipolle / sardenaria), potatoes, tomato, cheese (focaccia di Recco), olives, rosemary, sage, eggs, walnuts, anchovies, pork cracklings, lard, and oregano. It is baked in the oven on large metal baking tin or in discs. Focaccia is from Liguria but enjoyed throughout Italy, typically eaten as a snack or starter.
Grissini are long thin breadsticks with a fine, crunchy texture from Piemonte. Freshly handmade grissini are incomparable to factory produced grissini. They are made from flour, water, and salt. There also exist versions with whole wheat, olive oil, butter, seeds, cheese, spinach, pancetta, onion, fennel, or herbs. Grissini are eaten with drinks, with starters, or with a meal instead of bread. Grissini are often sold prepackaged with quality varying widely. They should be stored well-sealed in a dry place (but not in a plastic bag).
Rosemary bread (Pan di ramerino/Panmarino)
This Tuscan bread is flavoured with sugar, raisins, olive oil, and rosemary and was typically eaten at Easter. Now it is eaten throughout the year. Traditionally pan di ramerino are bread rolls, nowadays there is also a rosemary loaf known as panmarino.
Rye bread (Pane Nero)
Pane nero is a bread made with rye flour from Valle d’Aosta. It is quite hearty and spicy.
Schiacciata means squashed because the bread is flat. The dough has been squashed with a spoon and sprinkled with olive oil and salt after it has been baked. It is generally a variation on focaccia. There is also a crisp bread called schiacciata or schiacciatina which is paper thin and salted, sometimes flavoured with herbs. There is also a sweet version of the fluffier schiacciata using grapes called schiacchiata con l’uva which is traditionally made in the autumn. Both versions are traditionally Tuscan. It is said that historically schiacciata was the last bread to be baked in the oven.
Breadcrumbs (Mollica di pane)
Equivalents: 1 cup of breadcrumbs = 50 grams
Breadcrumbs can be made from fresh and stale bread alike, depending on what a recipe specifically calls for. Bread is never left for waste in Italy and resurfaces again and again in different dishes.
Buy: You can also buy bags of dried breadcrumbs. I prefer the ones with a larger crumb but this is a matter of preference.
Store: Fresh breadcrumbs should be used immediately. Dried breadcrumbs can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place.
Prepare: To make fresh breadcrumbs, cut the white bread into slices, remove the crust and then cut the interior of the bread into cubes and then chop them even smaller by hand with a large knife, in a food processor, or grate them.
To make dried breadcrumbs, put your stale bread into an oven set to 75˚C until it is dry and golden in colour. Place it inside a clean plastic bag or a cloth and pound it with the side of a knife or a mallet or roll it with a rolling pin until they make crumbs. You can filter out the bigger pieces through a mesh and pound the large pieces again.
Breadcrumbs are generally soaked in water, milk or broth prior to using for stuffings, meat balls, and meatloaves.
Eat: Breadcrumbs are used to bread and fry meat and vegetables, used in stuffings, made into dumplings (minestra mariconda, passatelli, and minestra del paradiso), soup (stracciatelle), fried with flavourings and used to top pastas and risotto in place of cheese, and used in meatballs and meatloaves, etc. They add crunch to a dish when needed and help more cohesively bind meat dishes while softening the texture.
Bresaola (Bresaola / Brisaola)
Bresaola is a cured meat from Lombardia. It can be made from one of five cuts of beef (also horse although quite rare), often the fillet, which has been lighty salted, either dry cured with aromatics or marinated in wine and aromatics, and aged for two to three months.
Buy: The most well known bresaola are from Valtellina and Valchiavenna in Lombardia. Bresaola can be purchased aged, which is more traditional, or less aged, which is more prevalent.
Store: Store wrapped securely in wax paper in the refrigerator.
Prepare: Slice thinly.
Eat: It is eaten as a starter, dressed with olive oil, freshly ground black pepper, and lemon juice which is left to infuse for an hour before eating. More mature bresaola can be dressed with olive oil, freshly ground black pepper, and thinly sliced onion or spring onion.
Broccoletti / Broccoli raab / Sprouting broccoli / Turnip tops
(Broccoletti / Broccoli raab / Rapini / Friarielli / Cavolo broccolo ramoso / Cime di rapa)
(Brassica rapa subsp. Sylvestris var. esculenta)
Broccoli raab is a vegetable which is actually the leafy greens of the turnip. The flavour of turnip tops is more bitter than Calabrian broccoli. The stalks and leaves are similar to gai lan which has long stems. They are in season from spring through summer, although some varieties are in season during the winter.
Buy: Turnip tops should be young, tender leaves and unopen flowers of the turnip plant. The stalks should be as thin as possible and the leaves tender.
Store: Turnip tops can be kept for 1 day in the refrigerator but are best consumed upon purchasing.
Prepare: Remove the leaves from the stems and discard any damaged, yellow, or tough leaves. Rinse the leaves in cold water. Peel the inner stalk and use the chop the white part inside.
Eat: Turnip tops can be cooked just with their washing water attached but then have a stronger, bitterer flavour. Instead, if they are boiled in salted water, strained, and shocked in cold water, they become sweet. Turnip tops are often boiled in salted water and dressed with olive oil and vinegar or lemon. They are typically served as a side dish (such as broccoletti gratinati friarielli ala napoletana, and broccoletti di rapa affogati alla pugliese). Turnip tops pair well with fried or stewed with garlic, olive oil, and chilli, gratineed, cooked with tomato, or cooked with wine and then used to dress pasta or flavour cooked bread.
Broccoli (Broccoli / Cavolo broccoli ramoso) (Broccoli oleracea italica forma cimosa)
or Broccolini / Tenderstem broccoli (Broccolini) (Brassica oleracea)
or Romanesco broccoli (Cavolo broccolo / Broccoli Romanesco / Romanesco) (Broccoli oleracea italica forma caput / Brassica oleracea italica forma cimosa)
Equivalent: 1 medium head of broccoli = 500 grams
Broccoli is a vegetable which is part of the cabbage family and comes in many forms in Italy. Broccoli in Italy can be green, pink, or purple (in Calabria and Sicilia) or white. It has many different regional names but typically is consumed in the south. Broccolo in some regions, such as Sicilia, even means cauliflower. Broccoli is full of vitamins A and C, calcium, and phosphorus.
Buy: Broccoli flowers should be dry, firm, closed tightly and not have started to open and show petals. The leaves should be brightly-coloured and fresh looking. Broccoli heads should not have yellow flower buds or any sign of yellowing. The florets should snap cleanly and the buds should be juicy and firm. You can prick the stalk with your fingernail to ensure it is crunchy in texture but not hard.
Broccoli / Calabrian broccoli (Cavolo broccoli ramose / Broccoletti) (Brassica oleracea italic forma cimosa) is the most common type known in the West. It resembles a tree with a large green head. Broccoli is harvested from September until December.
Broccolini / Tenderstem broccoli (Broccolini) (Brassica oleracea) is a hybrid of Calabrian broccoli and kai-lan. It has long, thin stalks and dark green florets similar to Calabrian broccoli florets on the ends. It is sold until the spring.
Romanesco broccoli (Cavolo broccoli / Broccoli romanesco / Romanesco) (Brassica oleracea italic forma caput) is a yellow-green variety with pointy, compact florets whose texture more closely resembles cauliflower. It is a winter broccoli which is harvested from December to March. The most common varieties of romanesco broccoli are Bronzino di Albenga, Precoce di Verona, Grosso romanesco, and Violetto di Sicilia.
Store: Broccoli can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for a couple of days.
Prepare: Broccoli should be washed well and soaked for half an hour in cold water to remove any insects and sand. Cut off the hard bottom end of the stalk. The florets of the broccoli should be removed from the stem with a paring knife and should be further broken into similar sized pieces. The stem can be peeled (with leaves removed and discarded), chopped or sliced, and cooked. Broccoli can be steamed or sautéed but should be bright green when cooked. Care should be taken not to overcook broccoli as it turns dark green, goes limp, and develops an unpleasant smell.
Eat: Broccoli can be eaten raw or cooked (steamed, sautéed, or boiled). Broccoli is eaten on its own in a side dish, on pizza with sausage, used in soups, or is incorporated into a pasta dish like orecchiette and broccoli. Broccoli pairs well with garlic, chilli, olive oil, butter, lemon, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, olives, capers, marjoram, parsley, and oregano.
Butter (Burro / Manteca)
Equivalents: 1 cup butter = 230 grams
1 “uovo” (egg) of butter = 30-40 grams
1 “noce” (nut) of butter = 20 grams
Butter is the fat which separates out when churning or centrifuging the cream of a cow. It is more frequently used in the north than in the rest of Italy. Butter contains vitamins A and D but also contains high levels of cholesterol so should be eaten in small amounts.
Buy: Butter comes salted or unsalted. Unsalted is generally preferable as it must be sold as fresh as possible without the salt to help preserve it. Salt also masks the flavour of butter which has begun to sour and lowers the temperature at which butter begins to burn. In Italy butter is required to have a minimum of 82% fat content. Make sure when you purchase the butter that it is solid, smooth, and there are no signs that the butter has melted and then solidified. There should be no visible moisture. It should be evenly light yellow in colour. The best butter should be sweet and delicate in flavour, similar to cream.
Store: Butter should be stored in the refrigerator in a sealed container as foods with strong odours will transfer their flavour to the butter. Follow the expiration date on the packaging. It can also be frozen to preserve it longer.
Prepare: Butter can be used raw for eating or dressing food, room temperature for baking, melted for baking and dressing food, or used to fry or sauté. Butter melts at 28 to 33˚C and burns at 130˚C (unless the fat solids are separated out, called “clarified butter”, in which case it has a smoking point of 250˚C).
Eat: Butter is eaten raw, spread on bread and used to dress risotto, pasta, and boiled vegetables. It is melted and served with boiled fish, seafood, and vegetables. Browned butter is used to dress pan-fried meat, cutlets, and some fish. Butter can be mixed with oil when cooking to benefit from the flavour of the butter while the oil prevents the butter from burning.
Button mushroom – See Mushroom: Button