Italian Cooking Techniques

One of the most popular ethnic cooking styles in America is Italian. Italy is actually a bastion of regional cooking styles loosely held together by a flag. Each region has its own specialties, from the pasta dough of Piedmont, which can include as many as a dozen eggs per kilo of flour, to the seafood risottos of Venice, a thinner soupier version of its northern cousins, and the pizza of Naples, with its simple crispness coming from a base of olive oil and the simplest of toppings, such as mozzarella and basil–no pineapple and Canadian bacon here–to the white bean ragouts of Tuscany accompanying spit roasted rabbits and game birds.

Although Italian cooking is regional in nature, there are some techniques which will enable an individual cook from anywhere to cook like a native.

The first technique is battuto, which means beaten. Battuto is a very finely chopped mixture of 1/4 part salt fat, bacon, or pancetta, along with 1/2 part onion and 1/4 part garlic. It may also contain carrots, celery, chilies, fennel, or bell pepper, as long as they are finely chopped. The consistency is most readily achieved in a food processor using the pulse setting. The mixture should look beaten together. A battuto is the first step in producing authentic tasting sauces and other complex dishes, such as soups, stews, and casseroles. The batutto is sautéed in olive oil until the onions are a mild yellow in color. Tomato, or whatever else the dish requires, such as vegetables or meat, stock, wine and the like, is then added along with fresh herbs. The final dish or sauce is cooked until ready. The beauty of buttato is that it introduces flavor complexity to the sauce or dish, just as the French mirepoix of vegetables adds complexity to stocks and soups.

A trito is the equivalent of a mirepoix. It is a combination of onions, celery, garlic, carrot, and parsley without the addition of pork. It is used in the same manner as a battuto.

Crudo is a technique by which a combination of finely minced raw, fresh herbs and vegetables (try fennel, tomato, bell peppers, chives, and garlic) are put onto or mixed with cooked food just before serving, as in Venetian risi e bisi (rice and peas) or pasta primavera.

One technique uniquely Italian, from the island of Sicily, is simmering vegetables from raw to cooked in a generous amount of olive oil and oregano. The vegetables brown beautifully and have a tender, crisp eating quality. Vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli are best for this technique.

Al dente is a term used in cooking pasta and vegetables. The literal translation is “to the teeth,” which indicates that the pasta or veggies should still have some resistance to the bite after cooking.

Risotto refers to both a technique of cooking and a dish made from Italian short grain rice. I have prepared both dry penne pasta and barley in the manner of risotto. Rice varieties other than arborio or carnoli can be cooked in the same manner. Short grain Japanese rice comes to mind. The basic risotto technique is to sauté the rice in butter or olive oil and to add the stock during cooking up to half the required volume in more than one application. The rice is cooked without a lid, allowing the liquid to be absorbed with constant stirring after each addition. Risotto can be served either wet in the Venetian tradition or dry, usually finished with pecorino cheese and butter as a side dish to braised meats or poultry.

Common additions to risotto as a main dish are shellfish, mushrooms, or game meats in what is known as a hunter’s risotto. In the fall, beet risotto is served in rural Italian households in celebration of the local harvest. Cooled risotto can also be made into cakes and fried.

Polenta derives its name from a porridge enjoyed by early Romans who originally made it with millet or barley. Once corn was introduced into Italy around 1500, polenta evolved into what it is today: a cornmeal mush of sorts with great versatility on the dining table. Using the basic formula of 4 cups water, milk, or stock to 1-cup cornmeal, the traditional method calls for stirring the cornmeal into boiling liquid and stirring in one direction for up to an hour. I have found that combining the cornmeal with cold liquid in the pan and then bringing this mixture to a boil while stirring in any direction helps eliminate lumps in the final product and reduces the overall cooking time in half. Polenta can be made with either coarse or fine ground cornmeal. It can also be made with semolina flour.

Flavorful additions to polenta include fresh herbs, roasted garlic, parmesan or gorgonzola cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, and olive paste added at the end of cooking. Polenta can be served soft or can be spooned out into an oiled pan, cooled, cut into triangles or squares, and baked, fried, or grilled. It is common in rural Italy for left over polenta from supper to be left out overnight at room temperature on the kitchen table and then cut and fried for breakfast the next morning.

One of the simplest, but most satisfying, seafood sauces I know of comes from Sicily. It is known as Salmoriglio and is traditionally served with grilled swordfish. The technique involves making a vinaigrette with freshly squeezed lemon juice, at least two lemons worth, and a generous amount of freshly chopped oregano, parsley, a