La Lingua Della Cucina
The passion that Italians bring to the kitchen is reflected in the language that they use to describe techniques and individual ingredients or recipes. Since Americans first started cooking spaghetti and tomato sauce in their homes in the early part of the twentieth century, they have expanded their preparation of Italian foods within the home. Lasagna, risotto, chicken cacciatore, minestrone, tiramisu – just to name a few; all came to be commonly prepared in the homes of Americans over the last century.
At the time when Julia Child caused a sensation by convincing American cooks that they could create the wonders of classic French cuisine in their own kitchens, Italian food was already a loved and accepted mainstay of the American diet. Today, it seems more popular than ever. America’s steady love of Italian food, in recent years fueled by a host of cookbooks and television shows, has thrust Italian home cooking once again into the spotlight. Attracted to “authentic” Italian food’s simplicity and affordability, Americans have taken to cooking Italian food at home.
Here are some of the culinary terms, you will most often come in contact with in your Italian cooking.
Aioli – A garlic mayonnaise is a delicious accompaniment to cold or hot grilled vegetables, steamed or boiled artichokes, boiled potatoes and grilled or baked fish and shellfish.
Al dente – “To the teeth.” The expression is used to describe pasta that is still firm and chewy when bitten into. When pasta is al dente, it is considered fully cooked and ready to eat.
Al forno – an expression used for baked or roasted in the forno (oven). Pasta al forno is a layered pasta, much like lasagna, but made with a shorter shaped pasta, such as penne or ziti.
Antipasto – Translates as before the meal, i.e. pasto, and not before the pasta, as some mistakenly believe. A selection of antipasti can be modest or extravagant, but in all aspects of Italian food, quality is always more important than quantity.
Arancine – ‘little oranges” are rice croquettes, perhaps stuffed with veal or a soft cheese such as caciocavallo or a cow’s milk mozzarella. Their orange hue originates from the addition of saffron to the rice and the subsequent frying in vegetable oil.
Arrabbiata – “Angry.” A tomato-based pasta sauce spiced with chilis and Amatriciano is a similar spicy sauce with the addition of pancetta.
Bagna Cauda – a warm anchovy–olive oil sauce served as a dip for vegetables.
Battuto – The action of the knife striking ingredients against the cutting board, in short, the first stage of the preparation of any dish, which requires basic and efficient skills with a sharp blade.
Besciamella – More commonly referred to in the French form, béchamel, this cooked sauce of butter, flour, milk and some nutmeg is often used in baked pasta dishes and as a sauce for vegetable side dishes, such as cauliflower.
Bolognese – A pasta sauce native to the Bologna area of Italy. It traditionally features finely chopped meats and a soffrito of onions, celery and carrots with a small amount of tomato paste.
Bufala – The water buffalo of the southern region of Campania produce the milk for the softest, creamiest form of mozzarella cheese. So very delicate in flavor that it is better used in a salad (Caprese Salad) instead of on a cooked dish, such as pizza.
Burro – Butter is traditionally viewed as the favored fat in northern italy where it is used for sautéing.
Capelli d’agelo – “Angel hair.” Long, thin strands of pasta that are thinner than capellini.
Carbonara – a spaghetti sauce based on eggs, cheese (Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano), bacon (guanciale or pancetta) and black pepper.
Contorni – Accompaniment to the meat or fish course of the meal, usually consisting of prepared vegetables such, as green beans, spinach or braised fennel.
Crostini – toasted bread, but usually topped with chopped tomatoes or porcini mushrooms or roasted peppers or chicken livers – called crostini in Tuscany and bruschetta in Rome.
Dolce -or the plural form, i dolci, on restaurant menus, refers to the sweet or dessert course of the meal, such as zabaglione, tiramisu and gelato (ice cream).
Fiorentina -a substantial slab of meat roughly equating to an American T bone steak. Not to be tackled without a hearty appetite.
Formaggio – cheese.
Insalata – The salad course, usually positioned between the main (meat or fish) course and the dessert, can consist of a simple bowl of greens or something more elaborate. Olive oil combined with freshly squeezed lemon juice and a little seasoning, or perhaps balsamic vinegar used sparingly, is all that is required to make the perfect dressing.
Polpette – meatballs.
Pomodoro – a meatless tomato sauce. The name means “golden apple” and refers to tomatoes that are yellow in color. Yes, I know – tomatoes are red. Here is the story:
David Gentilcore, professor of early modern history at the University of Leicester, writes, “ When explorers first brought tomatoes to Europe from the New World, they also brought over tomatillos. Tomatoes and tomatillos were considered interchangeable (they are botanical and culinary cousins) and many tomatillos are yellow. Italy and most of the rest of Europe soon took a pass on the tomatillo, but the name stuck. “Pomodoro” it was.”
Primavera – “Spring.” A pasta sauce traditionally made in the spring that features fresh vegetables as the main ingredient.
Primo – The first course (after the antipasto), hence the name, it usually involves a risotto or pasta dish.
Puttanesca – (literally “a la whore” in Italian) is a tangy, somewhat salty pasta sauce containing tomatoes, olive oil, olives, capers and garlic.
Saltimbocca -( literally “jump into the mouth”). In Rome this dish is prepared with veal and prosciutto crudo, or cured meat, and sage, all held together by a skewer in a sauce of white wine or marsala. Chicken and pork cutlets work just as well.
Secondo – the main dish of the menu that usually consists of meat or fish.
Semolina – A coarse flour made from durum wheat: a hard wheat with a high protein/low moisture content and a long shelf life.
Soffritto – the foundation of many Italian recipes, especially a pasta sauce or a braise of beef or lamb. It consists of finely diced carrots, onion, garlic and celery, or any combination of them depending on the recipe.
Below are a few sample courses to get you started.
Bruschetta with Mozzarella and Favas Beans
- 2 cups canned fava beans (Progresso is a good brand), rinsed and drained
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 16 grilled baguette slices
- 1/4 pound buffalo mozzarella, torn into thin strips
- Aged balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
- 2 tablespoons thinly sliced basil leaves
Transfer the favas to a food processor and add the oil, lemon juice and zest and pulse to a coarse puree. Season with salt and pepper.
Spread the fava-bean puree on the toasts and top with the mozzarella strips. Drizzle the toasts with the balsamic vinegar and scatter the basil on top.
- 1/2 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 red or orange bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch strips
- 1 pound thin spaghetti or linguine
- 3/4 cup half-and-half
- 3/4 cup chicken broth
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 cloves garlic, sliced
- 2 cups grape tomatoes, halved
- 1/3 cup grated Parmesan
- 1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- Shaved Parmesan
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add asparagus and green beans; cook 4 minutes. Add peppers and cook 1 more minute. Scoop out vegetables with a large slotted spoon and place in a colander.
Add pasta to boiling water and cook to the al dente stage, about 7-8 minutes. Drain; return to the pot.
In a mixing bowl, combine half-and-half, chicken broth, cornstarch, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and garlic and cook 30 seconds. Add the half-and-half mixture and simmer for a few minutes, stirring until slightly thickened.
Add cooked vegetables and tomatoes. Cook, stirring a few times, for about 2 minutes.
Pour into the pot with the pasta and stir gently. Add grated Parmesan and parsley. Allow to stand for 5 minutes. Serve in pasta bowls with shaved Parmesan on top.
- 8 small skinless, boneless chicken thighs (2 pounds)
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- All-purpose flour, for dredging
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 8 garlic cloves, halved lengthwise and lightly smashed
- 4 large rosemary sprigs, broken into 2-inch pieces
- 2 cups low sodium chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup spicy Italian pickled peppers, sliced
Season the chicken with salt and pepper and dredge in flour. In a large skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the chicken and cook over high heat, turning once, until browned and crusty on both sides, about 8-10 minutes.
Add the garlic and rosemary and cook for 2-3 more minutes, until the garlic is lightly browned. Transfer the chicken to a platter, leaving the rosemary and garlic in the skillet.
Add the stock to the skillet and cook over high heat, scraping up any browned bits, until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice and butter and swirl until emulsified.
Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the skillet. Add the peppers and cook, turning the chicken until coated in the sauce, about 3 minutes.
Transfer the chicken and sauce to a platter and serve.
Spinach Salad with Bagna Cauda Dressing
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 5 anchovies, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus lemon wedges for serving
- 3 thyme sprigs
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1/4 cup coarse dry bread crumbs (see tip below)
- 10 ounces baby spinach
- Freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for garnish
In a small saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat until foaming. Add the anchovies and cook until dissolved, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the olive oil, vinegar and lemon juice. Add the thyme sprigs and let steep for 20 minutes. Discard the thyme and season the dressing with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, in a small dry skillet, toast the bread crumbs over moderate heat, tossing, until golden, about 4 minutes. Let the bread crumbs cool.
In a large bowl, toss the spinach with half of the dressing and half of the bread crumbs and season with salt and pepper.
Transfer the salad to plates or a platter and top with the remaining bread crumbs and the shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Pass the remaining dressing at the table and serve with lemon wedges.
The bagna cauda dressing can be refrigerated overnight. Warm gently before using.
To make bread crumbs, tear 2 slices of day-old white bread into pieces, spread on a baking sheet and toast in a 300°F oven until dried but not browned, about 10 minutes.
Transfer to a food processor and pulse a few times until coarse crumbs form.
Almond Crusted Limoncello Pound Cake
- 3/4 cups sliced almonds
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- Grated zest & juice of 2 large lemons, divided
- 6 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2 cups cake flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons Limoncello
- Oil for coating the pan
- 1/4 cup Limoncello
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon butter
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Use a pastry brush to thoroughly oil a 12 cup bundt pan, then sprinkle almonds evenly in the pan and set aside.
In a large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter, sugar and lemon zest, reserving the lemon juice for later use, with the mixer on low speed until creamy, about 5 minutes, scraping the bowl occasionally.
Add 3 eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add 1 cup of cake flour, blending well, then add the salt and remaining eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition.
Add the remaining flour with 3 tablespoons Limoncello, beating just until mixture is well blended.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, gently tapping the filled pan on the counter a few times.
Bake in the preheated oven until a wooden skewer inserted near the center comes out clean, 50-55 minutes.
Just before the cake is done, prepare the glaze. In a small saucepan, blend Limoncello, reserved lemon juice, sugar and butter. Place over medium high heat and bring to a boil. Let boil for about 2 minutes.
Remove cake from oven after it tests done, then pour the glaze mixture over the top of the hot cake while still in the pan.
Let cake cool in the pan, placed on a wire rack. The glaze will be absorbed into the cake as it cools.
When the cake is cooled, invert it onto a serving plate and serve.
- 6 Tips for Eating Healthy at Italian Restaurants (stacyknows.com)
- Peeking into an Italian American’s Kitchen (thegratefultraveler.com)
- A Healthier Indulgence…Baked Ziti! (newlyfedblog.com)
- Recipe Rescue: Spicy Pasta Bake (k99.com)
- Waitrose gluten free pasta : review. (mumblingsontheverge.wordpress.com)
- Healthy Meat Sauce (scrumptiousbiteshappylife.com)
- Non-Tomato Pasta (fatherjerabek.wordpress.com)