My love of Italian food is no secret, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that my D.C. kitchen is all but stocked with Italian staple ingredients. Considering items like tomatoes, basil, pasta, and balsamic, one might expect my kitchen to belong to that of an Italian grandma.
As an Italian, I have always loved the food of my heritage, so I was in gastronomic heaven during my four months living in Tuscany. Though some of my peers longed for late-night burritos, guacamole, muffins, and hamburgers, I was happy eating all the pasta, polenta, and risotto I could get. Since I lived with an Italian family, I made sure that I paid attention to my host mother in the kitchen. It was clear that Flavia did not always know what to make of me and my house-mate standing by the stove with open eyes and pens scribbling in a notebook, but she was always willing to let us in on some of her secrets.
The notebook that I scribbled all those tips and recipes in is now a fixture in my purse. I carry it with me everywhere because I use it to jot down everything from shopping lists to new ideas for cooking. This past week my shopping list included, among others:
When I left the store I had all these items (minus the tomatoes and strawberries, which I bought at the farmer’s market), and then some. In one of my favorite food magazines Every Day with Rachael Ray, there used to be a monthly feature that looked into a person’s shopping cart and analyzed their cooking/food preferences. Based on what I left the store with last week, there was no denying which cuisine reigns supreme in my diet.
Essentially, my entire kitchen is stocked with Italian ingredients. Take a look in my refrigerator, and it would seem like I was very busy with a bunch of basil and a food processor. Although I admit that I did not whip up my own batch of fresh pesto (which is on the to-do list once I can find a cheap food processor), I have two different containers of pesto in the fridge: regular basil pesto and an unbelievably satisfying sun-dried tomato from the goddess of Italian cooking herself, Giada DeLaurentiis. Perfect as spreads for panini, as sauces for a bowl of pasta, or for simply slathering on a slice of Italian bread, pesto is a very versatile ingredient for the easily bored eater.
Alongside the pesto and my every-morning-for-breakfast orange juice, I have mozzarella cheese, cheddar cheese slices, bagels (to prolong molding and staling), and butter. My cabinets continue the red, white, and green trend. Although they do not hold a candle to the pasta- and tomato can-lined shelves in my Italian great grandmother’s basement-what was the ultimate pantry-they do hold the most common ingredients that Italian cooks keep: dried pasta, balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, rosemary, and, of course, Nutella. Admittedly I am missing a few things, such as fresh garlic, Parmesan cheese, and espresso, but those ingredients are pending on my next shopping list.
The beauty of Italian cooking goes beyond the epicurean satisfaction one feels when taking a bite of the cuisine. Food from the boot is not only delicious, but it is also simple, rustic, and rather inexpensive. While I could shell out $15.99 for a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano, the grocery stores today have a decent selection of Italian products at decent prices. Dried pasta is always cheap, as are canned beans and tomatoes. Pine nuts, a pesto must-have, can be expensive, however, using them to make fresh pesto saves you the money of paying for a prepared jar of the Ligurian green paste. Store the remaining nuts in the freezer, and then you will always be ready to whip up a batch of green when the basil bunches sprout wildly.
With a kitchen stocked and my wallet left relatively unscathed, this week was the week I began modeling after Flavia and cooking like an Italian housewife. Using my last tomato from the farmer’s market, I decided a fresh tomato sauce would be a refreshing accompaniment to a bowl of pasta. Sautéed in some extra virgin olive oil and then left to simmer with some sun-dried tomatoes for added texture and flavor, the tomatoes only needed about 10 minutes on the stove. The addition of a garlic clove, as well as a dash of red pepper flakes, would have certainly elevated the dish, but based on my on-the-spot creativity, my stomach deemed it a success.
Penne with Fresh Tomato Sauce
- 1 cup of penne
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tomato, diced
- Salt and pepper
- A handful of sun-dried tomatoes, not in oil
- 2 oz. of mozzarella, diced
- A handful of fresh basil
- Bring a pot of water to a boil, salt the water, then cook pasta cooking to al-dente according to package directions.
- While pasta cooks, prepare the sauce. Dice one large tomato. Add about one tablespoon extra virgin olive oil* to a small saucepan and set over medium heat. Add tomato and let simmer. Season with salt and pepper.
- After about five minutes, add a handful of sun-dried tomatoes. Stir.
- While the sauce and pasta cook, dice up enough mozzarella to toss with the pasta, then cut a few leaves of basil. Set aside.
- During this time, the tomato should be releasing its juices to create a sauce. To increase the amount of liquid, add a ladle-ful, or two, of starchy cooking water just before draining the pasta.
- Drain the pasta and place in a bowl.
- After adding the cooking water to the tomatoes, stir and let simmer for about two minutes over medium heat.
- Turn off the heat and add in the basil. Mix.
- Toss the sauce with the pasta, and then top with the fresh mozzarella. The heat of the sauce will melt the cheese into the dish.
*Next time I would add in a clove of garlic and some red pepper flakes to heighten the flavor.