Recently I overheard a man on the street say “Of course I can cook. I am Italian!” Was this overly confident? Not necessarily. One’s roots are significant and Italian heritage by definition brings with it a culinary sophistication and expertise. Further, the joy and love of Italy’s culinary traditions are wrapped in family life and the 21 regions of Italy itself--each of which are tied to distinct agricultural products. So while Italy is one nation, it has many distinct food traditions tied to the regional cuisine and wine of their ancestors.
In Northern Italy, the cuisine is based on cattle, dairy, rice farming, and meat. Southern Italy is known for its olive oil, ripe tomatoes, eggplants and fresh fish. These regional foods appeal to the eating habits and cultural preferences of many who have been eating locally for centuries. Today, in Italy and the United States, eating locally grown food has taken on a political and healthy eating significance. It is better for the local economy and it’s also healthier to eat fresh food grown locally.
Old truths about food are being rediscovered. Following the rhythms of the seasons is better eating and better for us--asparagus in the spring, tomatoes and basil in the summer, and pot roast to warm us in the cooler months of the year. Italian culinary tradition follows these eating guidelines.
This awareness of what it means to eat healthy is being fueled not only by Italian historical precedent and tradition, but by television and the print media. A recent issue of the New York Times Magazine featured food on their cover. Celebrity chefs Lydia Bastianich and Mario Batali guide us along culinary paths that are hundreds of years old through their TV shows, restaurants and family backgrounds. We all experience this culinary movement in our home towns and over the Internet on food blogs and culinary websites.
Recently I lunched at Joe’s, a small hamburger café and was pleasantly surprised to see a half dozen pasta dishes on the menu alongside burgers and hot dogs. Frank, the owner, explained that he put the dishes on the menu because he couldn’t escape his roots. A customer who knew him from the Italian restaurant Frank and his family ran for many years said he missed the wonderful marinara and gnocchi made at the restaurant. Frank listened and added these Italian dishes to his menu, which made his customers very happy.
Americans now have the opportunity to learn in great detail about Italian cooking thanks to the recent publication of an English language version of Italy’s most popular cookbook, The Silver Spoon, or II Cucchiaio D’argento by Editoriale Domus. The cookbook, now in its 8th Edition, enables American cooks to revel in the extraordinary agricultural and gastronomic traditions of Italy past and present. The book includes both new recipes and ancient ones and is 1263 pages long with beautiful illustrations and more than 2000 recipes. It’s color-coded by courses such as Antipasti and the First Course while the Vegetable course is naturally color-coded green in the book and has the greatest number of pages. But meatballs alone have 40 entries, tomatoes have 125 entries and there are 12 pages devoted only to risottos.
As The Silver Spoon convincingly points out, “Rice is the most popular grain in the world but the way of cooking risotto is quintessentially Italian.” There are variations in recipes but the preparation remains the same--slightly browning or “toasting” the rice in a pan with a little oil or butter over low heat and adding small portions of hot broth or stock. While you may think of risotto as something only to be eaten in a fine dining restaurant, it is actually a great and filling family dish that can be made at home. I helped raise three sons and a stepson and nothing made them happier than digging into a big bowl of risotto. Even teenage boys’ appetites can be satisfied with this wonderful and comforting dish.
Artichoke Risotto - Serves 4
2 cups Arborio rice available in local markets—also called Risotto rice
2 8-oz cans of artichoke hearts in water, chopped
6-7 cups of simmering vegetable or chicken broth
2 oz sweet unsalted butter
2 oz. extra virgin olive oil
1 small diced onion
1 garlic clove, minced
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup freshly chopped parsley
Season to taste
Steps to Follow
Simmer the broth at low temperature. Drain and chop the hearts and pat dry.
Next sautee the chopped hearts with melted butter until golden and tender, lightly seasoning with salt and pepper, and set aside.
Next put the oil in a medium-size soup pan and sauté the onions for 2 minutes over medium heat. Pour the rice into this pan and begin to add 1cup of broth and cook until it’s absorbed--lightly stirrring as you go. Add the remaining broth, ½ cup at a time, stirring until each addition is absorbed before adding the next.
Taste and season with salt and pepper.
The rice is done when it’s al dente, which is tender but firm to the bite. This can take up to 20 minutes but it’s worth it.
Add the golden pieces of artichoke to the pan mixing with the rice. Finish by garnishing with the Parmesan and parsley.
Another garnish is to steam one large artichoke for 40 minutes or when you can easily insert a knife in the bottom. Pull the tougher, outside leaves off. The remaining green leaves can be plated as garnish and eaten by drawing the flesh against your teeth.