Sunday, March 14, 2010
The Italian and food : that's amore!!
Today I want to talk about a very close and special relationship we Italians have: the one with our food!!
I’m all the time traveling with my music and getting to meet so many people. It is with great pride that I can say that, in all the places I’ve been, in Europe, in Asia and in the USA…everybody seems to love Italy and the Italians!!
They of course all love the country and the beauty of the landscape from north to south, the arts, the language, the music and of course they love the food!! Maybe just as much as we love it!!
There is no Italian movie from the past or the present that doesn’t picture the Italians doing what they love the most: sitting on a table while enjoying food.
I think that the reason so many people fall in love with Italy has much to do with its cuisine. Italian cuisine as a national cuisine known today has evolved through centuries of social and political changes and has been influenced by diverse groups of people and places, historically and in modern times. The Americas, for instance, had a huge influence on Italian cuisine. Significant change occurred with discovery of the New World, which helped shape much of what is known as Italian cuisine today with the introduction of items such as potatoes, tomatoes, bell pepper and maize and, which are all central parts of our cuisine, but not introduced until the 18th century.
Ingredients and dishes vary by region. There are many significant regional dishes that have become both national and regional. Many dishes that were once regional, however, have proliferated in different variations across the country in the present day.
Cheese and wine are also a major part of the Italian cuisine, playing different roles both regionally and nationally with their many variations and Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) (regulated appellation) laws.
The world has adopted parts of Italy's cuisine, but not necessarily the structure of our meals. In Italy a meal is a leisurely sequence of events served in courses on separate plates, each appearing in the appropriate sequence. Americans often find it frustrating for a meal to be so lengthy, but, for us Italians, a lunch or a dinner is often the main event and the focus of celebrations. We just love to sit, eat and talk!!
In Italy we always say that“people eat to live” but that “we Italian live… to eat”! And it’s kind of true! We talk about what we are going to eat for dinner during lunch and during dinner we are discussing what we will be eating next day for lunch. We love our food: pasta, spaghetti, pizza, focaccia, bruschette, arancini, granita, lasagna, risotto, polenta, gnocchi and zampone, to name a few of the widely regarded as amongst the most popular in the world. Basil, mozzarella, garlic, olive oil and tomatoes and are examples of ingredients which are used frequently in Italian cuisine.
The cooking style is usually quite simple and the portions are very moderate. We have no really elaborate sauces, and what sauces do exist are used only in small amounts, just enough to moisten pasta or delicately anoint meat or fish.
Italian chefs claim that the secret to Italian cooking is sapori e saperi (flavors and skills), which implies doing little to excellent fresh ingredients.
While there are many differences between regions, and between households within a region, the concept of Italian food would not exist unless there were many similarities as well. There is a tendency for food experts to stress the differences instead of the similarities within the Italian food tradition. But there is much that links it as a single cuisine. Some examples are the structure of the meal, the pasta course, and potatoes used as a vegetable rather than as a staple source of carbohydrates. There is also the ubiquitous antipasto of sausages and cheeses. The types of sausage and cheese may be local, but nonetheless they are all cold cuts and cheese served on a plate before the pasta course. There are also rules common to almost all Italian cooking, such as not pairing cheese with seafood, or lemon with tomato sauce.
Having said all that, there are regional cuisines, and restaurants tend to be specific to a region. A restaurant serving dishes from too many regions would not be popular with Italians. There are also many foods associated with specific localities. Among the best-known examples are pizza with Naples, saffron risotto with Milan, Austrian-type dumplings with Trentino, balsamic vinegar with Modena, fiorentina steak with Toscany, polenta with Venice, prosciutto and Parmesan cheese with Parma, ragù with Bologna, pesto with Genoa, truffles with Umbria, sheep's-milk cheese with Sardinia, and chocolate with Perugia.
But of course nowadays you can find the ingredients to make what you want everywhere in Italy. Even if I must say that we like to eat seasonal vegetable and fruits, fishes, meats and cheeses that are coming from as close as possible from our regions. Fresh and seasonal are two very important basics for us Italians.
And we are proud of our dishes, so you will see that the Italians love to eat also at home traditional dishes: I’m from Venice and all dishes with rice, like risotto, are all from the northern regions. And this is for the simple reason that we had a lot of water and rivers on the north and the rice is and was easy to grow. And in my family we always eat a lot of risotto, indeed!! I will take you with future blogs to the different regions and I will share with you the different ingredients and regional recipe.
Every Italian region has also a tradition of its own with regard to Carnival, Easter, Christmas, and other holidays. Most foods prepared for them are sweet, but there are some savory dishes as well.
Some of the best-known New Year's dish that has become popular now in all Italy is lentils with cotechino or zampone (both pork sausages, the former stuffed into a pig's foot). The lentils represent coins and thus richness. But also Croccanti are brittle caramel and almond candies, which, molded into various shapes, decorate the center of the table at New Year's dinner and Torta della Befana , a fruit tart with a bean hidden inside (whoever finds the bean is crowned king or queen for the day) and is traditional for the Feast of the Tre Re Magi.
For San Giuseppe Day, on 19 March, sfinge (called zeppole in Naples), fried dough seasoned with honey of Saracen origin, is very popular in Sicily.
For the feast of San Giovanni on June 24th, tortelli filled with greens and ricotta are traditional in Parma. Amatriciana, a pasta sauce of bacon and tomato, is traditionally served on the Sunday following Ferragosto (Assumption Day). Bigne di Giuseppe (fried doughnuts) filled with cream or chocolate are eaten for Father's Day in Rome.
Carnival is a holiday full of food symbolism. Martedi’ Grasso is literally Fat Tuesday, and the term Carnevale derives from Old Italian carnelevare (removal of meat). Both of these are major celebrations to initiate Lent, a period when Italians deprive themselves of some favorite food or other pleasure. Quaresimali, for example, are hard almond cookies prepared especially for Lent. Pizza del giovedi grasso, two circles of pizza with a filling of pork, cheese, eggs, and lemon, is served on the last Thursday before Lent. Maritozzi (raisin buns) are traditional for Lent in Rome. And of course Frittoe or frittelle, fried dough sprinkled with powder sugar are typical of Venice and very popular for Carnival in my family.
On the Amalfi Coast and throughout much of the South, there is migliaccio di polenta, a casserole of polenta, sausage, and cheese. A delicious dish that my paternal grand mother could made like no other!!
In Abruzzi, the made a Carnival dish of crepes in broth with Parmesan. Carnival is also an occasion for simple fritters: chiacchiere in Lombardia e crostoli in Venice, cenci in Tuscany, and frappe in Rome may sound quite different, but they look and taste very similar—fried crunchy pastry strips sprinkled with powdered sugar. Sanguinaccio ,literally, "Blood pudding” is a chocolate dessert served at Carnival time around Naples. This is the only cakes I have never dare even to try…but I saw people eating it and liking it. So up to you to try it!!
Every Italian region has its own tradition with regard to Christmas sweets as well. Instead of fruitcake, there are a variety of fruit breads. In Liguria there is pandolce, made with candied fruits, nuts, and flavorings. In Tuscany there is panforte, also called panforte di Siena, a hard, flat concoction popular since the thirteenth century. This characteristic sweet, made of toasted nuts stirred into hot honey caramel, has many virtues, including the fact that it can be stored for long periods of time.
And since the 1950s, panettone (literally, "Tony's bread") has become popular all over Italy at Christmas time. The custom of consuming panettone, especially during the year-end holiday season, spread from Milan throughout Italy. There are many variations, however. Pampepato is a Christmas cake from Ferrara made with pepper, chocolate, spices, and almonds. My dad best friend’s and colleague in the Police was from Ferrara and I remember eating this delicious cake during Christmas dinner as a child. And In Rome the Christmas cake is pan giallo, a fruit-and-nut cake, originally made with saffron, thus its name, which literally means yellow bread. Another delicious cake that reminds me my Christmas at my paternal grand parents!!
But my favorite sweet for the holidays is Pandoro (literally gold bread). It is typically from Verona and it is traditionally shaped like a frustum with an 8 pointed—star section.
It is often served dusted with vanilla scented icing sugar made to resemble the snowy peaks during Christmas.
Some more recent Pandoro have a hole cut into its bottom and a part of the soft interior is removed and the cavity is then filled with chantilly cream or vanilla gelato.
With my mom we used to make the Pandoro Christmas tree with Nutella, my favorite, or with Jam and mascarpone cheese. The shape of Pandoro lends itself to a beautiful Christmas-tree style presentation. You have tocut the bread into 4 or 5 horizontal slices. Place the largest slice on a serving plate and spread with Nutella, jam or mascarpone. Place the next largest size slice on top with the points of the star between the points of the size below it. Continue up to the top. You to sprinkle the points with sugar or place halves of candied cherries on each point. The Pandoro Christmas Tree is beautiful as a centerpiece for a Christmas brunch or buffet and delicious to eat!!. To serve, you have remove each slice and cut into halves or quarters.
Another of my favorites sweets around Christmas is torrone a nougat confection, typically made of honey, sugar, and egg white, with toasted almonds or other nuts, and usually shaped into either a rectangular tablet or a round cake. And this is my mom’s favorite!!
In Naples women prepare for the arrival of Christmas with delicacies made of pasta di mandorla, marzipan and with struffoli, tiny pieces of soft pastry formed into balls, fried, coated with honey, and sprinkled with bright and colorful candied sugar and pieces of candied fruit peel. Sicily has cuccidatu or bruccellato, a ring-shaped cake stuffed with dried figs, raisins, and nuts, and spiced with cloves and cinnamon.
Christmas also provides its share of savory specialties. In many homes, fish is the preferred main course for Christmas Eve dinner. In Lombardy, stuffed turkey and tortelli (similar to ravioli) filled with squash and crushed amaretto cookies are traditional for Christmas, while in Bologna tortellini (small, hand-pinched, filled ring-shaped pasta) is traditional for Christmas Day.
Papassine is a traditional Sardinian sweet for all occasions—Easter, Christmas, and All Saints' Day, for example—made with dried fruit, lard, orange, and eggs.
January 6 is traditionally considered the end of the Christmas holiday. It is the twelfth night of Christmas and is often called the Epiphany or L’Epifania in Italian. According to tradition, this is the day when the three wise men or the Magi visit Jesus in the manger. It has also developed into a family holiday in Italy where children are given candy and treats if they are good and coal if they aren’t. These goods are delivered by an old woman on a broomstick known as La Befana.
In addition to bringing treats for kids, La Befana usually brings traditional desserts to the table for adults. January 6 is a national holiday in Italy so many people take the opportunity to have a big, traditional family meal as well.
In the Veneto my region the meal generally ends with a delicious piece of La Pinza veneta. It’s made with cornmeal, it is a very dense cake with raisins and figs. And it has been since the first time I tasted one of my favorites sweets in the world!! My grandfather Ruggero was a baker and now two of my uncles are too…so a lot of fresh and delicious Pinza Veneta in my house all the time!!
And it’s almost Easter and a large variety of foods are made to celebrate Easter,as well from soups to main dishes to sweets, with egg as the dominant ingredient. Pancotto, for example, is bread soup containing butter, oil, salt, cheese, and egg, and is a traditional Easter dish in Lombardy. Brodetto is an eggand-lemon soup made at Easter in Florence. An Easter torta (cake) can be sweet or savory. Torta Pasqualina, for example, is an Easter dish from Liguria traditionally made with thirty-three sheets of very thin pastry, to symbolize each year of Christ's life. The sheets are filled with greens, artichokes, ricotta, and hard-boiled eggs. I have made it several time with my mom….a lot of work but it’s worth it! Delicious!!
Pizza can also be savory or sweet. Pizza di Pasqua ternata is a sweet Easter pizza topped with preserved fruits and nuts from the Umbrian town of Terni. I also love the Ciambella or brazedela, which is a ring-shaped, traditional Easter breakfast bun in Emilia-Romagna. In Naples, Easter is celebrated with pastiera, a type of ricotta pie.
But it’s for sure the Colomba Pasquale (Easter dove) the most popular bird-shaped Easter cake. And something also that is never missing in my family on Easter time together with a big chocolate eggs for every member of the family as well!! They are meant for children but we love to break them open and see what surprise we find in it…and eat the delicious chocolate as well for days to come!!
We love to eat in Italy for sure and we have so many delicious recipes to choose from. From north to south everything you eat is delicious, light and so tasteful. Fresh ingredients are very important and we keep it light using row oil of oil. And if you are wondering how the Italian stay slim while eating all this food: the secret is to eat carbs, like pasta and risotto, for lunch with some vegetable, and meat or fish with vegetable for dinner!
Small portion but full of taste! That’s the way we like it!!
So we don’t have to deprive our self of the taste of the great Italian food but just be smart with the combinations of food and the size of it!!
Buon Appetito and stay tune for my next week blog that will take you the smallest country inside Italy: The Republic Of San Marino!!