Italy has 20 regions, each with its own specialty dishes and cooking styles. A common factor across every region is the use of fresh products. From the far north regions to the southern shores, fresh food is the key to great tasting dishes. Italian recipes are handed down from grandmothers to the next generations. Many recipes are surprisingly simple, so you do not need to be a culinary expert to cook up great Italian dishes at home.
Traditionally, the preparation of Italian food is as much of a part of the feast as the actual meal. Kids can join in on the cooking fun by washing produce, measuring ingredients, stirring, and more. Children who get involved in preparing their food are more likely to eat it.
The basic ingredients to keep on hand for preparing healthy Italian dishes are:
- Olive oil
- Olives and capers
- Whole Grains
- Tomatoes (Fresh and Canned)
- Parmesan cheese or other hard cheese
- Mozzarella cheese
Common Herbs and Spices in Italian foods:
In addition to fresh basil and Italian parsley (flat-leafed variety), oregano, thyme and marjoram are commonly used in Italian dishes. Lemons grow throughout Italy and are also used to enhance many Italian dishes.
Cheese is a great source of calcium which is an important mineral for healthy teeth and bones. Italy produces over 400 varieties of cheese. The most well-known Italian cheeses are mozzarella and parmesan. Here are some of the lesser known but equally delicious Italian cheeses to look for in your local market:
- Asiago - made from cow's milk and available fresh or aged. Fresh Asiago has a smooth texture and can be melted on sandwiches. Aged Asiago has a texture and flavor that is similar to parmesan and can be used in soups, sauces, salads, and pastas.
- Gorgonzola -made from cow's milk and aged in a process much like blue cheese. Gorgonzola can be purchased in block form or crumbles. It makes a great addition to pasta and pizza. It also works well as an appetizer or snack with sliced apples and pears.
- Mascarpone- Mascarpone is a rich, creamy cheese made from cow's milk. It is the main ingredient in the dessert, Tiramisu.
- Pecorino Romano - a hard, salty cheese made from sheep's milk. It has a sharp flavor and is used to flavor sauces and pastas.
- Provolone -a semi-hard cheese made from cow's milk. The flavor can range from mild to sharp depending on aging. Provolone is a great cheese for sandwiches and melts.
- Ricotta - Although commonly known as a cheese, Ricotta is made from the whey of sheep, cow, goat or buffalo milk and is not produced in the same way as cheese. It does not contain casein and can be eaten by people with casein sensitivity. Ricotta is used in lasagna, stuffed shells and many Italian desserts.
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