Almost every Italian city and town has its specialties and there are regional specialties also; the end result is a huge number of local cuisines rather than a single national cuisine. However, there are some dishes that you will find almost everywhere and that are now standards among the many Italian communities scattered across the globe.
Vegetables play a large part in Italian cuisine because the fertile soil, especially in the south, provides bountiful amounts of vegetables and herbs. A typical cold salad might include raw or cooked vegetables tossed with herbs and cheese. Other popular dishes are cianfotta, a stewed dish of eggplants, peppers, zucchini and onions with basil and olive oil that is served cold. Pepperoni imbottiti stuffs red and yellow bell peppers with breadcrumbs seasoned with black olives, capers, garlic and anchovies and, of course, the famous parmigiana di melanzane or eggplant parmigiana.
There’s an old saying that “good cooking begins in the market” and never is this more true than with Italian cuisine which relies heavily on fresh produce. The most commonly used vegetables include tomatoes, garlic, onions, bell peppers (capsicum), eggplants (aubergine), cabbage, zucchini (courgettes), artichokes, fennel, mushrooms, celery, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and lettuce. These vegetables are traditionally chopped and added to baked pasta dishes, risottos and pizza or turned into salads, soups, appetizers and side dishes.
Vegetables can easily be the highlight of a meal. For example, a grilled mushroom cap filled with arugula bean salad, roasted vegetables paired with creamy polenta or a vegetable laced risotto offer substance as a main meal. With a little crusty bread and some aged cheese on the table, you also have a healthful meal. Here are some vegetable main dishes you might find on the Italian table.
Warm Farro Pilaf with Dried Cranberries
An Italian wheat grain, farro is chewy and tender, like barley but with a milder flavor. Pearled or cracked farro cooks much faster than whole regular farro and it doesn’t require soaking before it’s made. The farro in this recipe can be made a few days ahead or even frozen.
For the Farro
- 1 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium carrot, cut in half
- 1 celery rib, cut in half
- 1/2 small onion in one piece
- 1 ¼ cups pearled farro
- 4 cups vegetable broth
For the Pilaf
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 medium onion, diced (2/3 cup)
- 1/2 lb kale, center stem removed, chopped (4 packed cups)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
To make Farro:
Heat oil in saucepan over medium-high heat. Add carrot, celery and onion. Cook 3 to 5 minutes or until vegetables start to brown. Add farro and stir well. Pour in broth, and bring mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and cover. Cook 20 minutes or until just tender; drain. Discard carrot, celery and onion. Cool Farro.
To make Pilaf:
Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté diced onion 5 to 7 minutes. Add kale and cook 5 to 7 minutes or just until wilted. Reduce heat to medium and stir in garlic and Aleppo pepper. Cook 1 minute, then add farro, and sauté 3 to 5 minutes or until warmed through. Remove from heat and stir in dried cranberries and pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper, if desired. Serve warm.
Parmesan-Butternut Squash Gratin
- 1 butternut squash (2 1/2 lb)
- 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
- 2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup Italian seasoned panko bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Heat oven to 375°F. Spray 13×9-inch (3-quart) glass baking dish with cooking spray. Peel, halve lengthwise and seed squash; cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Arrange with slices overlapping slightly in the bottom of baking dish.
In a 2-quart saucepan melt butter over medium heat. Reduce heat to low. Add garlic; cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently, until garlic is soft and butter is infused with garlic flavor. Do not let butter brown.
In a small bowl mix bread crumbs, cheese and 1 tablespoon of the butter-garlic mixture.
Brush squash slices with remaining butter-garlic mixture. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and bread crumb mixture.
Bake uncovered 30 to 40 minutes or until squash is tender when pierced with fork. Increase oven temperature to 425°F; bake 5 to 10 minutes longer or until the squash is lightly browned. Before serving, sprinkle parsley over top.
Roasted Vegetable and Bean Casserole
- 2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 2 pounds cipolline onions, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, trimmed and peeled
- 1 bulb fennel, cored and cut lengthwise into 2-inch pieces
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes
- 3 cups cooked dried cannellini beans or equivalent canned, rinsed and drained
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Place the potatoes, onions and fennel in a roasting pan. Add the olive oil and toss well to coat.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Roast, turning occasionally, for 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and beans and roast another 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes and cipolline are fork-tender and golden brown. Garnish with thyme.
Deep Dish Spinach Pizza
- 1 pound fresh spinach, thoroughly washed and stemmed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1/2 recipe quick whole-wheat pizza dough (recipe below)
- 1 1/2 cups shredded Mozzarella cheese
- 1 cup freshly shredded Provolone cheese
- 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 1/4 cup thick tomato sauce (recipe below)
Heat oil in a large skillet and add garlic; saute for 30 seconds. Add spinach and cook until wilted. Remove from heat. Chop spinach.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly oil a 9-inch round baking pan 1 1/2 inches deep and sprinkle the bottom of the pan lightly with cornmeal. Roll dough into a 12-inch circle and fit into pan. Dough should just cover the bottom and sides of the pan with no overhang.
Mix cheeses together and spread 1 cup of the cheese mixture over the bottom of the dough in the pan. Spread the spinach over the cheese, covering the cheese completely. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of cheese over the spinach layer. Spread the tomato sauce over the spinach.
Bake in the preheated oven 20 minutes. Take the pizza out of the oven and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top of the pizza. Return the pizza to the oven and bake 5-10 minutes until the cheese is melted and the filling is bubbly. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes before cutting.
Yield: one 9-inch deep-dish pizza, serving 6 to 8.
Quick Whole-Wheat Pizza Dough
- 1 package dry yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
Dissolve yeast in 1 cup of water, stir in olive oil and set aside until bubbly.
Combine the all-purpose flour with the whole-wheat flour and salt in a food processor bowl. Process for a few seconds to blend. With processor running, slowly pour yeast mixture through the feed tube and continue to process until a firm, smooth and elastic ball of dough forms. If the mixture is too dry, you may have to add another tablespoon or so of warm water. If it is too soft, add a little more all-purpose flour, one tablespoon at a time.
Remove dough from the processor bowl, divide in half and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate half the dough for this recipe for at least 10 minutes or up to one day. Freeze the other half of the dough for another use.
Yield: dough for two 9-inch deep-dish pizzas or two 12-inch flat pizzas
Thick Tomato Sauce
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped fine
- 1 clove garlic, chopped fine
- 1 16-ounce can whole plum tomatoes
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Pinch crushed red pepper
Heat olive oil in a large skillet, add onion and garlic and cook over medium low heat, stirring, until the onion is soft but not brown. Add remaining ingredients including liquid from the tomatoes. Crush tomatoes with the back of a spoon.
Adjust heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is very thick and no longer liquid, about 30 minutes. Stir sauce from time to time to prevent sticking.
Yield: 1 1/4 cups
Slow Cooked Vegetarian Stuffed Peppers
- 6 large sweet bell peppers
- 2 cups cooked brown rice
- 3 small tomatoes, chopped
- 1 cup frozen corn, thawed
- 1 small sweet onion, chopped
- 1/3 cup canned red beans, rinsed and drained
- 1/3 cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained
- 3/4 cup cubed Monterey Jack cheese
- 1 can (4-1/4 ounces) chopped ripe olives
- 4 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 3/4 cup meatless spaghetti sauce
- 1/2 cup water
- 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Cut tops off peppers and remove seeds; set aside. In a large bowl, combine the rice, tomatoes, corn, onion and beans. Stir in the Monterey Jack cheese, olives, basil, garlic, salt and pepper. Spoon into peppers.
Combine spaghetti sauce and water; pour half into an oval 5-qt. slow cooker. Add the stuffed peppers. Top with remaining sauce. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese.
Cover and cook on low for 3-1/2 to 4 hours or until peppers are tender and filling is heated through. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese.
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