The Italian Larder
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- SEA SNAIL
- SEA URCHIN
Saffron (Zafferano) (Crocus sativus)
Saffron is a spice. It is the stigma of the crocus flower and is very highly prized for its unique flavour and golden orange hue it lends to dishes. It can be wild or cultivated (it is grown in Abruzzo, Sardegna, Sicilia, Toscana, and Umbria). It has historically been a status symbol due to its expense and rarity. It is the most expensive spice by weight because each stigma needs to be picked by hand and each flower only has three stigmas. It takes 500,000 stigmas to make one kilo of saffron. Fortunately only a tiny amount is needed to permeate the entire dish with its signature flavour.
Buy: Saffron comes in strands or in a powder (packaged in envelopes or vials). The powder is fine for dishes where you mainly want the colour but if you can afford the strands, they will be better as it is easier to see the quality you are purchasing. The saffron should be strongly scented and should not be uniform in colour with the higher quality saffron being more red in colour. Because of its expense there have been unscrupulous sellers since the Middle Ages who adulterate saffron strands to imitate saffron of higher quality. Buy from a reputable seller or brand of saffron or ask to test the saffron. The best saffron should be red with no yellow or white parts, the strand should be dry and brittle, some of the stigmas should be connected together, and it should have a strong aroma which is not musty. The yellow or white part is the “style” of the crocus plant and has no culinary value so is dead weight you are paying for. You can tell if the saffron has been dyed if you place it in warm water or milk and it immediately colours the water or milk. It should take real saffron a few minutes before the colour develops. In North Africa and the Middle East, they sometimes sell safflower (cartamo / zafferanone / zafferano bastardo) as saffron as it has a similar colour but no flavour so always test the saffron first.
Store: Store saffron in a cool, dark place in an airtight container for up to 6 months. Saffron will slowly lose its flavour over time so it best to purchase it in small quantities and use it quickly.
Prepare: To use powdered saffron, add it directly to the cooking liquid. To use saffron strands, they can first be toasted and crushed with a mortar and pestle or directly infused into a bit of tepid broth or water to release the flavour. Many people advocate waiting towards the end of cooking to add the saffron to preserve its delicate oils.
Eat: It is particularly good with rice (arancini) and risotto (risotto alla Milanese), couscous, pasta dishes (malloreddus), especially those with cheese or fish (pasta con le sarde), and fish soups and stews. It is also used to flavour pasta itself. Saffron is also used in syrups, liqueurs, and desserts (pardulas, zippulas). It pairs well with fennel, fish, garlic, mussels and white wine.
Sage (Salvia) (Salvia officinalis)
Regional names: erba sacra, erba savia
Sage is a Mediterranean herb, which can be cultivated or wild. The oval shaped leaves of the sage plant are a bit fuzzy and are more intensely flavoured when grown in hot climates and during hot seasons. There are many varieties of sage, all of which are aromatic and are used for cooking or ornamental use in the garden. The most commonly cultivated variety is Latifolia. Other varieties grown include Lavanulifolia, with elongated, straight leaves, and Crispa, with curly leaves. The name in Italian comes from the Latin “salus” which means health indicating its virtues have been known since ancient times.
Buy: Look for fresh looking, young leaves and stalks which are green, dry, and unwilted. They should not be wet, have signs of rot, or be yellow or brown. Smaller leaves tend to be more aromatic but the larger leaves are easier to attach to meat. Dry sage can be a suitable substitute for fresh sage (although fresh is always preferable) when used as an aromatic. Sage is intensely flavoured so only a few leaves are needed to flavour a dish.
Store: Store dry in plastic in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days.
Prepare: Wash the sage well, dry thoroughly with a thin cloth, pluck the leaves and finely chop the leaves. Also the leaves have a fuzzy texture so are often finely chopped or the whole leaf is used to flavour a dish and then discarded.
Eat: Sage always makes me think of cold weather as many of the dishes it stars in are autumn and winter dishes. It is classicly used to infuse flavour in butter to dress pasta (particularly ravioli and homemade pasta) and meat dishes. It pairs well with liver (fegato alla veneziana, spiedini di fegatelli), chicken, game (spiedini di uccellini), pork (maiale arrosto), goose, veal (saltimbocca, scaloppine) and fish. Sage is excellent battered and deep-fried in fritto misto, in soups, or used to flavour fish, pumpkin, and beans (fagioli all’uccelleto) and custard (salviata). It is also used to perfume oil, vinegar, wine and tea.
Salami (Salame / Insaccati)
Salami is a cured sausage made of minced or chopped meat (typically pork or pork mixed with beef- which is less desirable), flavourings, nitrates, salt, and black pepper held together by a natural (intestines, bladder, or neck) or artificial casing and dry-aged. The aging process allows the meat to mature and dry so that the flavour and texture both develops and mellows, causing the salami to lose about a third of its weight. There are also raw, pre-cooked or smoked salamis. Other types of meats used include goose, wild boar, mutton, veal, and horse. Historically families produced their own salami. Today salami is rarely made at home and since each area produces its own salami, there are hundreds of types of salamis in all sorts of shapes (cylindrical, elongated, flat, and curved), sizes, textures, and flavours.
Buy: It is best to buy whole salami and have the shop slice it if it is to be consumed within a few days. Otherwise buy it whole and slice it at home. Pre-sliced salami will have an inferior texture but the flavour should be fine. If the salami is slimy or smells off do not buy it as it has not been stored properly. It does not matter if the skin has marks or discolouration, these can easily be wiped off.
Finocchiona Toscana is a large pork salami from Florence and Siena regions in Toscana. It is made with finely minced pork shoulder, loin, prosciutto, and pancetta, salt, black or green pepper, red wine, garlic, and wild fennel seeds. It is cased in bladder and aged for 60-90 days.
Salam d’la doja / Salame sotto grasso is a soft salami from the Vercelli and Novara provinces in Piemonte. It is made from medium ground pork leg, head, leg, lardo or pancetta fat, salt pepper, garlic, and Barbera red wine and cased in a cow or veal’s small intestines. It is aged from three months to a year and preserved in earthenware jars (doja), covered with lard. It has a pleasant, delicate flavour.
Salame d’Oca is from Piemonte, Veneto, Lombardia, and Friuli. It is made from minced goose meat, and seasonings, sometimes with Marsala wine. It is stuffed in the goose’s neck and is a traditional food of Italian Jews. There are cooked or raw versions. Types of goose salami include salame d’oca di Mortora PGI, salame d’oca ecumenico, salame d’oca friulano, and salame d’oca giudeo.
Salame di Fabriano is an ancient salami from the Fabriano region in the Marche made between October to March. It is one of the best salamis in central Italy. It is made from coarsely minced leg and shoulder pork with diced lardo and flavoured with black pepper and garlic. It is dried (but not smoked) near a fire.
Salame di Varzi PDO is from Lombardia, Piemonte, and Emilia-Romagna. It is delicate in flavour and made with coarsely minced pork cheek, shoulder, and culatello trimmings, black peppercorns, and garlic steeped in red wine. It is aged for a minimum of 45 days and up to six months or more.
Salame Felino / Salame di Felino is from near Parma in Emilia-Romagna. It is very delicate in flavour and made from the same pigs which prosciutto di Parma is made. It is made of finely minced pork, ham and pancetta. It has 20% fat content and is flavoured with garlic and white wine.
Salame gentile from Parma in Emilia-Romagna. It is made of minced pork loin and shoulder, diced lardo, salt, black pepper, garlic, and wine and aged for three months. It is cased in large intestines (budello gentile) from which it derives its name, “gentile”, which means “gentle” describing the soft, fatty texture of the large intestines.
Salame Milano is an industrially produced salami from Milano and Brianza areas in Lombardia. It is the most widely consumed salami in Italy. It is delicate in flavour and made with finely minced lean pork, 25% beef, and 25% pork fat and cured with salt and black pepper, and sometimes white wine and garlic (sometimes also pig’s blood). It is characterized by its finely ground fat. It is cased in intestines and aged for 10-15 days, although there are artisanal versions aged for three to six months.
Salame Napoli is an industrial produced salami from Campania. It is made with coarsely minced pork and has a maximum fat content of 25%. It is seasoned with salt and black and white pepper, cased in veal or pig’s intestines and fire-dried which lends a slightly smoky flavour. It is aged for a minimum of 30 days.
Salame Toscano is an industrially produced pork salami from Toscana. It is intensely flavoured and made with finely minced pork meat, cubed pork fat, red wine, and garlic. It is aged for a minimum of 20 days and up to a year.
Store: Keep salami at 10˚C in a well-ventilated location. If this is not possible, keep it in the drawer of the refrigerator wrapped in butcher paper so it does not dry out. Uncut salami can be kept indefinitely if stored properly. Once the salami is cut, cover it with cling film and an elastic band and eat it as fresh as possible. Slices of salami can be kept sealed in a plastic bag and should be eaten within a few days. If the cut end of the salami becomes discoloured, just slice off this piece and discard; the rest of the salami can still be eaten. If the skin of the salami becomes discoloured, this is not an issue.
Prepare: Using a meat slicer or a long knife, slice the salami thinly (1 to 2 mm), except for finocchiona and salame d’oca which can be sliced thicker (3 to 4 mm). Score the side of the skin and peel away and discard it.
Eat: Salami can be served as a cold cut alongside other cured meats or in sandwiches (panini). Raw salamis can be cooked and served with polenta (salame cotto)
Salt (Sale) (Sodium chloride)
Equivalents: 1 tablespoon coarse salt = 22 grams; 1 tablespoon salt = 15 grams
There are a variety of different kinds of salt to choose between. These include coarse grain (sale grosso), fine grain (sale fine), and the generally preferred variety is sea salt (sale marino), which is the most used type of salt in Italy. Salt has been used in Italy since prehistoric times for preserving foods such as anchovies, capers, and prosciutto as well as enhancing flavours. Such is the historical importance of salt that its name was given to ancient Italy’s most important trade route – the Via Salaria.
Buy: Buy coarse grain sea salt if it is to be used in dishes which will be cooked for a long period of time, to season pasta water, to seal in fish or chicken (al sale), to help grind aromatics in a mortar and pestle or to sprinkle over particular dishes (bollito di manzo). Otherwise fine grain sea salt is the most versatile and can be used in cooking or at the table. There are different coloured salts depending on their origin and mineral content, although I don’t find they are worth their premium pricing. One possible exception to this is marino grezzo / sale grigio which is a grey coloured sea salt which has not been refined and has retained more of the minerals. Salts flavoured with rosemary, sage, garlic, etc. can be found. One can also find iodinised salts (essentially table salt mixed with small amounts of iodine, said to prevent against iodine deficiency). Kosher salt is a popular salt in America that is larger in grain than fine salt, but finer in grain than coarse salt. It is not frequently used in Italy.
Store: Store salt in a sealed container in a cool, dry, dark place.
Prepare: There is no specific preparation for salt but do not use too liberally. Taste throughout cooking to ensure the salt level is appropriate.
Eat: Salt is used in everything although some breads don’t have salt in them, particularly in Toscana. It is essential that pasta is cooked in water which has sufficient salt in it or this will affect the flavour of the pasta even if the sauce is correctly seasoned. Fish and chicken are baked in a crust of coarse-grain salt (branzino al sale) which seals the juices in while it bakes.
Substitute: Can add minced pork with aromatics of choice- rosemary, sage, fennel seed, chilli, garlic, etc.
Sausage is aromatised and/or seasoned minced meat placed in a natural or artificial casing. They are typically purchased raw (salsicce fresche) and usually served cooked. Although some sausages that have been cured and aged can be eaten raw. There are also smoked sausages. Sausage is typically made out of pork but can also be made with beef, wild boar, veal, lamb, horse, donkey, venison or pork liver. Usually inferior cuts are used to make sausages such as meat from the neck and belly. In northern Italy, most sausages are raw and served cooked. They are typically flavoured with black pepper, cinnamon, white wine, and/or garlic. In southern Italy the sausages are flavoured with fennel seeds, garlic, chilli, sundried tomato, orange peel, apples, and/or caciocavallo cheese. In central Italy there are many types of dried sausages, which are eaten raw. Each area in Italy has its own type of sausage so the varieties are endless.
Buy: The best fresh sausages will be made by a butcher that you trust. Otherwise buy packaged sausages checking the consistency is correct (firm and finely ground or coarsely ground) for their intended use.
Cervellata is a finely ground sausage from Calabria and Puglia with many variations. In Calabria it is made with pork and flavoured with chilli and white wine. In Puglia it is made with beef, kid goat, and lamb and flavoured with garlic, parsley or basil, pecorino cheese, and pepper. In Martina Franca in Puglia it is made with pork or pork and beef and flavoured with fennel seeds, pepper, and red wine.
Cervellatine is a thin pork sausage from Napoli in Campania. It is served with broccoli rabe or used in stuffings.
Cotechino is a boiling pork sausage made with up to 30% pork rind, neck and head pork, and lardo or golato from Piemonte, Valle d’Aosta, Lombardia, and Emilia-Romagna. The most important varieties are cotechino cremonese from Cremona and Bergamo in Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna (flavoured with Barbera red wine, pepper, spices, and sugar), cotechino Modena PGI from Lombardia, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna (flavoured with spices, aromatic herbs, and sugar), and cotechino piemontese used in bollito misto in Piemonte (flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, and pepper and cased in calf’s intestines which were marinated in white wine).
Lucanica / Salsiccia lucana is a traditional “U” shaped sausage sometimes flavoured with chilli, fennel seeds, and pepper and cased in pig’s intestines. It is dried for 15 to 20 days and can be preserved in lard. An important variety is the salsiccia di Cancellara.
Luganega lombarda is the most classic thin Italian pork sausage from Lombardia, which is made with finely ground 70% lean meat and 30% fat. The name comes from “lucanica” a reference to Lucanicans, inhabitants of Basilicata, from whom the northern Italians learned the art of sausage making. It is typically stewed and served with vegetables such as cabbage or spinach. An important variety of Luganega is the luganiga di Monza which is flavoured with Grana Padano cheese, chicken or beef broth, and Marsala wine.
Luganega trevisana is a type of luganega sausage from Veneto. It is a cured pork and chicken sausage flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, coriander, mace and pepper.
Salsiccia di fegato is an ancient, highly-spiced pig’s liver sausage from Lazio, Abruzzo and Molise. Typically flavoured with wild fennel, orange zest and pepper, it can be grilled, broiled or aged for a month and eaten raw. It is sometimes preserved in oil.
Salamitt di verz / Salsicciotti da verzata is a finely ground sausage. It is typically stewed and served with vegetables such as cabbage or spinach.
Salsiccia alla Milanese antica is a well-spiced sausage from Lombardia flavoured with cloves, cinnamon, saffron, pepper, mace, rose wine, pine nuts, raisins, sugar and Granone Lodigiano cheese. It is cooked in soup (minestrone) or with cabbage.
Salsiccia della Val Comino is made from pig offals (heart, lungs and liver), and flavoured with chilli, garlic, orange zest and apples.
Salsiccia di Bra is a finely ground veal and pork fat sausage from Piemonte which is flavoured with cinnamon, fennel, leeks, mace, nutmeg, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Robiola or Toma cheese and wine.
Salsiccia di Calabria PDO is a pork sausage flavoured with spices and herbs and cased in pig intestines. It is aged for a minimum of 30 days.
Salsiccia di Napoli / Punta ‘e curtiello is a coarsely hand chopped pork, beef, lamb or mutton sausage from Napoli in Campania. Sometimes pieces of Provola or Mozzarella cheese are added. It is typically smoked and eaten sliced. It can be flavoured with chilli or fennel seeds.
Salsiccia Toscana is a coarsely ground pork sausage from Toscana. It is made with finer cuts of pork such as the shoulder and leg and can be flavoured with rosemary and/or sage. It is typically grilled or pan-roasted with broccoli or turnip tops. It is sometimes aged.
Zampone Modena PGI is ground pork flavoured with wine, spices, and herbs and cased in the boned hind trotter of a pig from Lombardia, Veneto or Emilia-Romagna. It is dried and sold fresh or cooked. To prepare zampone alla modenese, prick it all over with a needle and nick the base, soak it in water for 10 hours, and simmer for up to four hours. It is served sliced with buttered spinach, stewed beans and lentils, and pureed potatoes. In Modena, they also serve with zabaglione made with balsamic vinegar.
Store: Store sausages sealed in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. They can be stored well-sealed in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Prepare: Cut the sausage casings in between the sausages to separate them. Prick the sausage casing every 2 to 3 cm with a pin (do not use a fork) to allow the fat to escape while cooking and cook slowly to ensure that the sausage does not burst. If the sausage will not be grilled, then marinate it a few minutes in the cooking liquid (water, white wine or broth). Cut into one of the sausages to ensure it is cooked through, it should be only slightly pink in the centre.
Eat: Sausages are normally pan-roasted, fried, baked, grilled, or stewed and occasionally boiled. They are also eaten raw, spread on bread. Sausages which are finely minced such as luganiga or salamitt di verz are usually stewed and served with vegetables such as cabbage or spinach. Sausages which are coarsely ground with simple flavourings such as salsicce toscane or punta ‘e curtiello are best grilled or pan roasted with vegetables such as broccoli and turnip tops. They can be cooked alone, as part of a more complex dish (casoeûla) or with other ingredients such as broccoli, turnip tops, chilli, wine, garlic, vinegar (salsiccie all’aceto). They can be served whole with polenta or browned, then stewed and broken into pieces to sprinkle over risotto in northern Italy or pasta in southern Italy.
Savoiardi / Sponge fingers / Ladyfingers (Savoiardi / Pistoccus)
Savoiardi are crisp, light, oblong sponge finger biscuits (cookies) which originate in Piemonte. They used to be made at home and by pastry shops but today are industrially produced. They are usually flavoured with vanilla but have also been flavoured with anise, cinnamon and candied citron.
Buy: Savoiardi are sold pre-packaged in plastic. Check to ensure the contents are not broken and that the expiry date has not arrived.
Store: Store in a cool, dark, dry place.
Prepare: There is no special preparation required, just use according to the recipe or eat as is.
Eat: They are eaten on their own or as an accompaniment to creams (bavarese, salsa alla vaniglia, salsa al cioccolato, crema Chantilly), gelato, fruit salad (macedonie di frutta), hot chocolate, or sweet wine. They are also used in cakes (charlotte, zuccotto) and puddings (tiramisu, zuppa inglese).
Scallop (Cappasanta / Conchiglia di San Giacomo / Conchiglia di San Jacopo / Canestrello) (Pecten jacobaeus / Aequipecten opercularis)
Regional names: ventaglio, pettine maggiore, cappa santa, conchiglia del Pellegrino, Jacopo, pellegrina, coquille Saint Jacques
Equivalents: 175 gms=3-4 large scallops =10-15 small scallops = 1 main course serving
Scallops are one of the most prized seafoods. They are rare in Italy and are only traditionally eaten in Veneto. The variety found in Italy is the great Mediterranean scallop. Its shell is reddish brown in colour with one shell more convex and the other flat. It has a delicate flavour and a soft, buttery texture.
Buy: Fresh scallops are better than frozen scallops. Fresh scallops are best in winter, and are sold cleaned (leaving just the meat and sometimes the roe) or on the shell. They are best purchased in the closed shell, although this is less common. Scallops sold on the shell are sold fresh, not frozen. The shells are nice for presentation purposes. When buying fresh scallops, look for ones with uniform pearly white to pale pink muscles, which are moist and sticky without being dripping wet. They should not be bright white as this indicates they have been treated with chemicals. The white muscle should be firm and the scallop should have a fresh ocean scent to it. Scallops in the shell should be closed or able to close if the shell is tapped or squeezed. Cleaned scallops are sold wet-packed or dry-packed. Scallops should appear unblemished and not torn or ragged as this may suggest they were improperly stored. But if you cannot buy very fresh scallops, look for scallops that have been individually quick frozen (IQF). Scallops come in a range of sizes from small to large, but in Italy it is forbidden to fish for scallops less than 10 cm in diameter. Look for scallops that are 10 to 15 cm in diameter.
The sizing is numbered suggesting the number of scallops to make a pound (450 gms). “U” and the number means “under” so U10 means less than 10 scallops to make a pound. The large ones range up to 5 cm in diameter.
Bay scallops are a smaller variety which are sweeter and more delicate. They should not be fried. Bay scallops have a different numbering system so will be labelled as 70/120 indicating between 70 to 120 scallops in one pound.
Diver scallops / Diver-collected are considered a premium product as most scallops are harvested by dragging nets along the sea floor, while the diver scallops have been hand fished. Diver scallops tend to be larger as they select the large ones but are also less environmentally damaging as the nets drag in all sizes of scallops and other shellfish as well.
Dry-packed and chemical-free are preferable because this means they have not been chemically treated, and the weight you pay for is the actual weight of the meat.
Wet-packed means the scallops have been soaked in a liquid phosphate solution that whitens them and plumps them up, so that 30% more of their weight is in fact water weight. The phosphate not only has an unpleasant flavour but when the scallops cook the liquid seeps out making it impossible to sear them.
Store: Fresh scallops are best consumed upon purchasing. Live scallops can be placed in a container, covered with a damp towel or paper and placed in the drawer of the refrigerator for up to a day. Cleaned scallops may be covered with cling film and stored in the refrigerator for up to three days. They can also be sealed and frozen for up to 3 months.
Prepare: Open the shell by inserting a knife into the hinge of the shell and cutting the muscle while holding it closed. The scallop has three parts: the round white, firm muscle (noce), the crescent-shaped orange or yellow coral (corallo), and the mantle (alveola). The muscle is the prized part of the scallop, the coral is also edible, and the mantle should be discarded or used for broth (fumetto) and filtered. Use a paring knife the cut the muscle from the shell and soak the muscle and coral in cold water for 10-15 minutes to remove any sand. There is a small, rectangular muscle attached to the larger round muscle which is tough and rubbery to eat, so pinch it and pull it to remove it from the main muscle. Wash the shell. Defrost frozen scallops overnight in the refrigerator or in a sealed plastic bag in running cold water. Scallops should be cooked carefully so as to not overcook them and render them rubbery and tough. Small scallops will take a few seconds to cook, whereas large scallops will take a minute or two.
Corals: Some people eat the corals as they are, and others lay them in a single layer on a baking pan and dry them out in a low oven overnight until they are hard and dry. They then grind them to a powder in a food processor and sprinkle the mixture over pastas, risottos, and seafood dishes.
Eat: Scallops should be accompanied by other delicate flavours. Scallops can be fried (cappesante in tecia), deep-fried (conchiglie fritte), sautéed, grilled (conchiglie alla griglia), baked (cappesante al forno), poached, steamed (conchiglie in insalata, conchiglie a vapore), grilled or used in soup. Scallops are great in seafood salads, stewed in white wine, gratinéed (capesante gratinate) and as stuffing for meat.
Sea snail (Lumaca di mare / Chiocciola di mare) (Trochocochlea turbinata)
Regional names: cargolo, bovoleti, maruzele, bombetto, bomboletto, bovoeto, bovoleto, caragol, maruzela, maruzzella, uccuna, vuccuna
There are many types of sea snails in Italy but they are less than 3 cm in length, have a spiral-shaped shell which is brown or grey and patterned. They are often found in the lagoons in Venice and most of the recipes for them are from Venice.
Buy: They should be purchased live as after they die, they immediately give off a strong smell of ammonia. Look for brightly coloured, intact shells. The muscle should retract when touched. It should have a pleasant, fresh ocean scent.
Store: Sea snails should be consumed as soon as purchased but can be kept in the refrigerator covered by a damp cloth or paper in the drawer for up to a day. The meat can also be extracted and frozen in a sealed freezer bag for up to 3 months.
Prepare: Sea snails should be soaked in cold water for 20 minutes, occasionally agitating the water to ensure that any sand or debris is removed.
Eat: Sea snails are eaten cooked as a starter, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. They can be removed from their shell using a small fork or pin. They can be sautéed, baked (bovoleti in tecia) or boiled (caragoli lessati).
Sea urchin (Riccio di mare) (Paracentrotus lividus, Sphaerechinus granularis, Psammechinus microtuberculatus, Arbacia aequituberculata)
Sea urchin is a prized seafood which is round and covered in spikes. It is commonly found along the Italian coast, although not all types are edible. The edible part of the sea urchin is the gonad (the part that produces the sperm in males and eggs in females), also known as the coral (it is not the eggs as many people believe). The coral is bright red, orange, or yellow in colour and has a delicate and rich flavour of the ocean. It has a soft custard-like texture which is slightly grainy. They are in season from October to April, but are most plentiful in the spring when the coral the largest, just before the sea urchin breeds. They are particularly prized in Sicilia, Puglia, and Calabria.
Buy: Live sea urchin will be the freshest. The coral should be brightly coloured, appear dry and firm, and have a fresh ocean scent. If it appears watery, seems to be melting or smells fishy, do not buy it. The coral should fill the shell and be plump and flavourful. Test the spines by pressing on them with a finger to see if they offer resistance and are springy.
Purple sea urchin (Paracentrotus lividus) is purple, green or brown in colour and lives in the Mediterranean Sea and the eastern Atlantic Ocean. It grows up to 7 cm in diameter and has very long, sharply pointed spines.
Purple sea urchin (Sphaerechinus granulari) has a purple shell but the spines can be purple or white in colour and are short. It lives in the Mediterranean Sea and the eastern Atlantic Ocean and grows up to 15 cm in diameter.
Green sea urchin (Psammechinus microtuberculatus) has a brown shell and either green or white, short, thin spines. It lives in the Atlantic Ocean, Adriatic Sea, and Aegean Sea and grows up to 5 cm in diameter.
Black sea urchin (Arbacia aequituberculata) is black in colour and lives in the Mediterranean Sea. It has thick, long black spines.
Store: Sea urchins should be purchased the day they are to be consumed but can be stored in the refrigerator at 3˚C for up to a day.
Prepare: Use scissors or a sharp knife to cut a 5 cm in diameter circle in the top of the sea urchin. Carefully remove the black part of the sea urchin without breaking the coral. Use a spoon to remove and discard the liquid. Gently remove the coral from the shell using a spoon ensuring it remains whole and rinse under cold water. To serve it raw for guests, fill the shell with shaved ice and top it with the coral.
Eat: The best way to eat sea urchin is raw on bread, sometimes with a squeeze of lemon. It is also used to dress pasta (spaghetti ai ricci di mare) and in omelettes (omelette ai ricci di mare).
Seafood (Frutta di Mare)- See individual types (Clam, Crab, Crayfish, Cuttlefish, Lobster, Mussel, Octopus, Oyster, Prawn, Scallop, Sea snail, Sea urchin, and Squid)
Shallot (Scalogno) (Allium cepa Var. aggregantum)
Shallot is a pear-shaped bulbous root vegetable which is part of the onion family. Their delicate, slightly sweet flavour is intense but less pungent than onion and slightly different, a bit similar to garlic. It was not often used in traditional Italian cooking outside of Emilia-Romagna and Toscana, although is becoming more popular.
Buy: Shallots can have grey, pinkish or golden brown skins. They range in size from large (up to 15 cm long) to small (2.5 cm in length). The most common type of shallot found in Italy is the grey or pink coloured and measures 5 cm in diameter. It grows with two bulbs attached to a single root, typically one larger than the other. Try to avoid shallots with a green sprout, although they can be removed if this is all that is available.
Store: Shallots are more perishable than onions. They should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place. Do not refrigerate.
Prepare: If the shallot has a green sprout in the centre, cut the shallot in half and remove and discard the green shoot. Shallots are usually skinned and finely chopped or thinly sliced. They can be easily skinned by blanching them in boiling water for a minute and then soaking in ice water to stop the cooking. Do not brown shallots, as they become bitter.
Eat: They are often used in soffritto (a base for many recipes- finely chopped together with carrot and celery), raw in salads, cooked in sauces, braised, or roasted. Shallots pair well with butter, wine, vinegar, herbs, lemons, and capers.
Sherry is a fortified Spanish wine made within three subzones (Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlucar de Barrameda). It is made with the Palomino and Pedro Ximenez (PX) grape varieties. Once the grapes are harvested, they are left to sit in the sun for a short period of time. The wine is made and alcohol is added (the amount of alcohol determines if the sherry becomes a Fino (less alcohol) or Oloroso (more alcohol). The wine is put into oak casks and permitted to come into contact with the air inside the cask. The Fino has lower alcohol so yeast (flor) will form on the surface of the wine, limiting the degree of oxidisation. In Oloroso sherry, the higher alcohol level inhibits the formation of the flor so the sherry oxidizes and becomes darker in colour and richer in flavour. The sherry is then processed according to the Solera system, in which the younger sherry is mixed with older vintages and a percentage is drained off. The removed amount is then added to older casks, so that the younger and mature sherry is routinely blended. Sherry is typically a mixture of wines made in different years of production and does not use wines from a single year of production (a vintage).
Buy: They type of sherry one buys ought to depend on what purpose it is intended to fill, as there are a number of varieties to choose between. These include dry varieties (Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso, and Palo cortado), sweet (Sweet sherry, Cream sherry, and Pedro Ximenez), and from lightly flavoured (Fino and Manzanilla) to richly flavoured (Oloroso).
Fino is hay coloured, extra-dry, light-bodied, and has a pungent but delicate aroma with an alcohol content of 15 to 17%;
Manzanilla is an amber coloured Fino, is dry, and has an aroma of almonds. It can only be made in San Lucar and has a distinctive flavour.
Amontillado is a style of sherry in between Fino and Oloroso, in terms of colour and body. The flor used in the Fino dies off part way through the process, so it partially oxidizes.
Oloroso is subdivided into Oloroso, which is dry, very aromatic, richly flavoured with notes of walnuts, full-bodied, and has an alcohol content of 18%; and Raya which is less-prized.
Palo cortado is a dry sherry similar to an Oloroso in terms of its full flavour.
Sweet sherry is a dry sherry which has been sweetened with grape juice from Pedro Ximenez grapes which were partially dried first. It is reddish brown in colour and has notes of fig and molasses.
Cream sherry is made from Amontillado or Oloroso sherry and sweetened with grape juice. It is creamy in texture, reddish brown in colour, and sweet.
Pedro Ximenez is a syrupy sweet sherry made from dried grapes. It has notes of dates, figs, molasses, and toffee.
Store: Store sherry upright in a cool dark place. Unopened Fino, Manzanilla and Amontillado sherries can be stored for up to one year. Once opened, they need to be stored in the refrigerator, sealed, for up to one week. The rest of the sherries can be stored for up to three years unopened. Once opened, stored them sealed at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
Prepare: Fino, Manzanilla, and Amontillado sherries should be served chilled (7-10˚C). Oloroso, Palo cortado, Sweet sherry, cream sherry, and Pedro Ximenez can be served room temperature.
Drink: Fino and Amontillado are served chilled (6˚C) as aperitifs. Oloroso and Raya are served at room temperature as digestifs after a meal.
Spinach (Spinacio) (Spinacia oleracea)
Substitute: chard and beet greens
Equivalents: 225 grams = 1 serving = ½ cup cooked
Spinach is a leafy, dark green vegetable. It is mostly grown in Toscana and Lazio. Spinach is an iconic ingredient of Florentine cooking, and preparations named “alla fiorentina” indicate spinach is used. There are many varieties of spinach eaten in Italy, some annual and some perennial, so it is available year-round. The best variety is “Gigante d’Inverno” which has large, meaty leaves and is a winter variety. Other varieties include “Merlo nero” with crinkled leaves, “Riccio di Castelnuovo” with rounded meaty leaves, “Viroflay” with large leaves, “Matador” with rounded smooth leaves, “Riccio d’Asti” with wide, and “America” with crinkled leaves. Spinach is rich in Vitamin A, calcium, iron and phosphorus.
Buy: Spinach is sold frozen (inferior) or fresh, often in bags, bunches, or loose. There are three main types: one with dark, crinkled leaves, one with pointed smooth leaves, and one with broad round leaves which is best for salads. Look for leaves which are fresh, green, dry, and crisp without any yellowing, wilting, bruising, mould, flowers, or spots. Baby spinach has a tender texture, and is ideal for eating raw and cooking lightly. It has become popular and is now readily available.
Store: It is ideal to use spinach immediately as the vitamin content reduces with time. Spinach should be stored dry in a plastic bag at 5 to 6˚C in the drawer of the fridge for 3 to 4 days. Never store cooked spinach. It can be frozen.
Prepare: Remove any roots. Fill the sink with cold water and wash spinach well, agitating the water to allow any sand or grit to fall to the bottom. Repeat until there is no more sand. Remove the large stems, large ribs, and any damaged leaves. The stems and ribs can be braised separately. Never cook spinach in untreated aluminium as it alters the colour and flavour. Spinach is often boiled in salted water, and sautéed although this dilutes the nutrients. Instead, it is best sautéed directly in the pan with its washing water attached. Spinach should be bright green when cooked. It turns dark green when overcooked.
Eat: Spinach may be eaten raw in salads (spinaci crudi, spinaci a crudo) or cooked. It is used as a filling for pastas (ravioli, agnolotti, tortelli maremmani, cazunziei, cajincì, rofioi), crepes (crespelle alla fiorentina), pies (scarpazzone), in dumplings (ravioli gnudi alla fiorentina, gnocchi verdi, malfatti), in tarts, risotto (risotto verde), stuffings (rotolo di vitello, pollo ripieno), flans (sformato di spinaci), croquettes (crocchette di spinaci), omelettes, soups (zuppa pasqualina) and in fresh pasta dough (lasagne alla bolognese). It can be also be fried (spinaci alla romana), baked (spinaci alla fiorentina), boiled (spinaci lessati), stewed (spinaci stufati) or steamed (spinaci a vapore). It is great cooked with butter (spinaci al burro) and is a good accompaniment to roast and sautéed meat (spinaci per contorno). Spinach pairs well with garlic, olive oil, pancetta, beans, ricotta, butter, lemon juice, eggs, cream, chilli, parsley, basil, nutmeg, lentils, onions, chickpeas, mushrooms and pine nuts.
Squid / Calamari (Calamaro) (Loligo vulgaris, Todarodes sagittatus)
Regional names: totano del riso, totanu, toutinus, toutineddus, calamai, calamaro todaro, totano (the Ligurian name for calamaro)
Squid is a pale pink coloured seafood with brown and red spots, and a long body with two fins, two arms and eight tentacles. It ranges in length from 3 to 50 cm, and is available year-round.
Buy: Squid can be purchased frozen or fresh. It is difficult to determine if a squid has been previously frozen. Smell the squid to determine its freshness. It should have a fresh scent of the sea without any hint of ammonia. The skin should be intact and bright, unless it has been removed. The smaller ones will be sweeter and tenderer but ultimately consult a recipe to determine what size squid to purchase (See Eat below).
Common squid (Calamaro) (Loligo vulgaris) is found near Sicilia and in the Adriatic sea.
Baby Calamari (Calamaretto) is a younger and smaller common squid. They are between 3 to 5 cm in length and have no arms.
European flying squid (Totano) (Todarodes sagittatus) is smaller, has lateral fins, and larger tentacles. It is less prized than the common squid as they are less flavourful and have a tougher texture. It is distinguishable by the lateral fins which, when extended, are triangular in shape extending from the tip of the head. The flying squid is generally wider than it is long. On the common squid the fins are attached further down the body. The body is also less than half of the total length, whereas the common squid has a longer body.
Store: Gut and wrap the squid in plastic and keep in the refrigerator. Baby calamari should be eaten the same day they are purchased. Medium-sized squid can be kept for a day and large squid can be kept for a day and a half. Squid can be frozen if well-sealed for up to 3 months. Defrosted squid should be eaten as quickly as possible on the day it was defrosted.
Prepare: See how to prepare squid for a how to guide. Baby calamari do not need to be gutted or skinned before cooking if they will be deep-fried. When cooking larger squid whole, the quill, beak and sacks need to be removed, though the eyes can be left attached. Large squid become more tender if marinated in wine or vinegar before cooking. In order to ensure the squid is tender, either cook quickly or stew slowly. Cooking for too long or too short a period of time will produce rubbery squid. European flying squid need to be cooked for 10% longer than common squid.
Eat: Baby calamari are best boiled (insalata di mare, calamaretti in insalata, zuppa di calamaretti) or breaded or battered and deep-fried (fritto misto di pesce, calamaretti fritti). Medium-sized calamari, between 5 to 20 cm in length, are best cut and fried (calamari fritti), grilled (calamari alla griglia), stewed, stuffed (calamari imbottiti, calamari ripieni) or baked. Large squid, between 20 to 30 cm in length, should be fried, stewed or griddled. They pair well with parsley, chilli, olive oil, lemon, garlic, tomatoes and white wine.
Strawberry / European wild strawberry/ Alpine strawberry (Fragola / Fragolina / Fragola di bosco / Fragola selvatica) (Fragaria / Fragaria vesca)
Strawberries are a fruit which are in season from the spring through the autumn. The biggest producers of strawberries are Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, and Piemonte. There are many varieties of strawberries divided into three categories: small cultivated strawberries, large strawberries or wild strawberries. The most common cultivated varieties are Gorella which is an elongated conical form, which has a firm, intensely red flesh which matures in May, Pocahontas, which is large and conical in shape, Aliso the most common variety cultivated outside in the south and in greenhouses in the north, and Belrube which is elongated conical in shape and of premium quality. The most common variety of wild strawberry is Fragola di bosca.
Buy: Buy organic cultivated strawberries as non-organic strawberries can be sprayed with a lot of chemicals. They should be shiny, plump, and the leaves should be bright green and look fresh. They should be soft and juicy, not hard or bruised. Check carefully to ensure they have no holes, mould, soft spots, or brown spots. The colour and size of the strawberry do not indicate taste. Smell them to see if they smell of strawberries. The darker the colour for that variety (some are naturally lighter in colour) indicates they will be sweeter. If they are bought loose, only package 200 grams at a time to ensure they don’t crush each other.
European wild strawberry/ Alpine strawberry (Fragolina / Fragola di bosco / Fragola selvatica) (Fragaria vesca) are tiny berries which are intensely perfumed and have an intense flavour with a hint of candied violet flavour. They must be very fresh as the perfume and flavour dissipate quickly. Wild strawberries are excellent but rare. They are soft and slightly darker in colour.
Store: Strawberries are fragile and highly perishable when harvested when ripe. Place kitchen paper on a tray and lay out the strawberries. Inspect the berries for mould or soft spots and discard. Very firm berries can be held at room temperature for 12 hours to ripen. Very ripe strawberries can be refrigerated for up to two days.
Prepare: Rinse with cold water, remove the stem, and serve.
Eat: Strawberries are often eaten fresh in sauces (composta di fragole), cakes (charlotte di fragole), tarts (crostata alla frutta), semifreddo (semifreddo alle fragole), gelato or sorbet (sorbetto di fragole). Fresh strawberries can be macerated (fragole romanoff, fragole al vino bianco, sottobosco). Wild strawberries can be eaten with very old, top quality balsamic vinegar. They can also be cooked and made into jam. The jam can be used to stuff biscuits, pastry, and tarts (crostata di fragola). Strawberries are also made into liqueur (fragolino).
Sugar (Zucchero) (Saccarum officinarum)
Equivalents: 1 cup icing sugar = 125 grams
1 cup sugar = 170 grams
Sugar is derived from sugar cane or sugar beet.
Buy: The finer the sugar, the faster it dissolves. There are also flavoured sugars with vanilla, spices, or coconut flavours.
Granulated sugar (Zucchero commune / Zucchero granulato) the largest granules of the sugars. It is highly refined. It is used in coffee tea, cooking fruit, toffee, fondants, etc.
Caster sugar (Zucchero semolato) is finer than granulated sugar but not as fine as icing sugar. It is sold in two sizes: fine (fino) and extra fine (extrafino). It dissolves easily so is perfect for meringues, custards, cakes, tarts, creams, sauces, syrups, fruit salad, confectionery gelatines, jams, souffles, mousses or any other preparation where the sugar should dissolve before being heated. It is also sprinkled over crepes and fritters.
Icing sugar / Confectioner’s sugar / Powdered sugar (Zucchero a velo) has the finest texture of the sugars and is very white in colour. It often contains 3% cornflour to keep it dry. It tastes sweeter than granulated or caster sugar. It is sprinkled over desserts and can be used in sorbets, icing, marzipan, macaroons (amaretti) and biscuit and wafer stuffings. Icing sugar sprinkled over fresh fruit will protect it from oxidising.
Cane sugar (Zucchero di canna) is dark-coloured, moist, and with a strong flavour similar to liquorice. It can be used in rustic desserts where its intense flavour will not overpower more delicate ingredients, and its colour doesn’t mar the dish.
Coarse sugar / Pearl sugar / Decorator’s sugar (Zucchero in granella) is very large grain, white sugar used to decorate cakes (panettone), biscuits, and pastry. It comes in large grain, medium grain, and fine grain.
Fructose is derived from fruit. Since the grains are uniform in size, it is resistant to crystallization, and is very soluble, fructose is often used in packaged mixes where it is important that the ingredients do not separate.
Glucose (Glucosio) is derived from corn and does not crystallize. As such it is used in jams, candying fruit and in gelato.
Store: It can be stored for a long time in a dry place. If it is in a box or in a paper sack, it is best to transfer it to an airtight container. Icing sugar in particular needs to be kept dry or it clumps.
Prepare: Sugar tastes sweeter when hot than when cold, so cold preparations will need more sugar than hot preparations. Sugar can be added in its purchased form to dishes or can be made into syrup or caramel. To do this, simply heat sugar in a clean, heavy bottomed, stainless steel concave sauce pan (saucier) and use a candy thermometer to determine the appropriate stage:
Syrup (Velatura) the sugar melts
Thread (Filo sottile) 105˚C –used for gelatines, jams, and confectionary.
Thread (Filo forte) 107˚C
Soft ball (Piuma forte) 112.5˚C
Soft ball (Piccola palla / Piccola bolla) 117.5˚C – used to make fondant, nougat, and praline
Firm ball (Grande palla / Grande bolla) 121˚C – used to make brittle (croccanti), caramels, meringues, and nougats (mandorlati)
Soft crack (Piccolo cassé) 132˚C – used to make nougat (mandorlati) and brittles (croccanti).
Hard crack (Gran casse / Caramella) 145˚C – used to make candy, caramelized fruit, brittle (croccanti) and spun sugar
Light caramel / Butterscotch (Caramello) 145˚C used in puddings, creams, and rice desserts.
Dark caramel (Caramello forte) 180˚C – used to colour syrups, liqueurs and creams.
Eat: Sugar is used to sweeten coffee, tea, and cocktails. It is essential in making desserts, gelato, jams, pastry, and syrups. It can also be used to balance out other flavours such as hot and sour flavours. It can be caramelized to create colour and a more intense flavour. Sugar has many chemical effects in cooking, including preserving foods; incorporating air and tenderizing baked goods; inhibiting gluten development to produce a finer crumb; delaying starch gelatinization; accelerating yeast growth; preserving colour, texture and shape of fruit and vegetables when tinning and freezing; stabilising egg foam; delaying coagulation of egg proteins in custards; facilitating the gelling process in fruit jams; helping to brown foods; creating the crinkled texture on top of baked goods and enhancing the smooth texture of gelato.