If your forays into the kitchen often take on the flavors of Italy, you're not alone. Italian cuisine is hugely popular in the U.S. and abroad. Pizza and pasta are basic Italian dishes that can be reimagined a thousand different ways. You may like yours from the take-out joint down the street, or prefer the options available on the frozen aisle of your local market. If you're really, really lucky, your own Italian nonna (grandmother) does the honors by hand.
If you aren't fortunate enough to have an Italian grandmother to give you some pointers on making moist meatballs or prepping the best al dente pasta, we're happy to oblige. Step into our cucina (kitchen) and we'll share five essential tips that will make Italian night at your house more flavorful. We're adding a 21st-century twist: These suggestions will make meal prep quicker and easier, too.
Prepare Perfect Pasta
Italian cuisine is versatile, and nothing illustrates that better than pasta. You may think of pasta noodles as simple shapes made with flour and water, but they're actually miracles of engineering designed to complement the viscosity of different sauces and create a perfect pairing of textures in every bite. Smooth shapes are designed for use with thicker sauces because they leave more sauce on the plate. Complex shapes with ridges and dimples grab a hold of thinner sauces for a more balanced mouthful.
These simple tips will help you make perfect pasta every time:
- Use plenty of water -- Water promotes even cooking and less clumping. Plan on boiling around six quarts of unsalted water for every pound of pasta you're preparing. This will require a large pot and some time, so get the water going before you prep the other ingredients. If the water boils before you're ready to throw the pasta in, put a lid on the pot and reduce the heat to a simmer. Bringing the water back up to a boil when you're ready should only take a couple of minutes.
- Add salt -- Pasta usually tastes better with a little added salt, and the best time to introduce salt to the dish is while the pasta's cooking. When you see cooks on television add an enormous amount of salt to their pasta water, it's because only a small portion of the salt, about 10 percent, is actually absorbed.
- Don't cook pasta too long -- Perfectly cooked pasta will still have a firm mouth feel - chewy, not crunchy. Overcooked pasta tastes soggy and looks limp. Bloated, overcooked pasta will ruin the most carefully prepared sauce. The most foolproof way to determine the best cooking time for a specific pasta variety is to read and follow the package directions.
- Rinse with caution -- If you're serving cooked pasta immediately, don't rinse it. The extra starch will help thicken and enrich your sauce. The only times you should consider rinsing fresh cooked pasta is if you're serving a dish cold, or need to hold the pasta a while before serving time. In both instances, rinsing pasta in cold water will stop the cooking process and help reduce clumping.
- Consider buying fresh -- Dried pasta tastes good, but it takes a while to rehydrate. If you choose pasta from the refrigerated section of your market, you'll cut your prep time by more than half. You can also take advantage of pasta varieties like ravioli and tortellini that have the meat (or cheese) cunningly wrapped inside, saving you the extra step of adding protein to the meal.
These Italian pasta dishes are some of the best we've tried. They'll get your taste buds in an uproar:
Once you have a nice stock of different pastas, you can begin to use them in new and creative ways. Why not try preparing homemade minestrone? Minestrone is a classic Italian soup that's easy to customize. It contains pasta, beans, vegetables and meat for homemade appeal you can re-create in a few minutes and on a shoestring budget.
Find a good basic recipe like the ones below that use canned tomatoes, tomato paste and beef broth. Add mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, green beans (Italian green beans are wonderful in minestrone), spinach or any other family-friendly ingredients that happen to be lurking in your vegetable drawer. With a little grated Parmesan cheese on top and garlic bread on the side, you'll create a homemade meal in about as much time as it would take to prepare a packaged mix. The beauty of minestrone is that it's easy to create a robust broth from canned goods you can keep on hand. After that, just add some Italian seasoning, leftover meat and a few vegetables. Don't be shy. This dish is simple, wholesome and infinitely flexible. Try it once, and you'll be hooked.
Make Meatballs in the Sauce
Few things inspire as much passionate debate as the best way to make Italian meatballs. These spheres of goodness can transform tomato sauce into something almost profound. There can be problems, though. Meatballs are time consuming and messy to make. If you've gone over to the dark side and purchased prepared meatballs, you probably already know that they often lack the moist, tender texture of homemade meatballs. Is there a secret to quick, tasty Italian meatballs? There sure is. Italian cooks who love meatballs but hate mess avoid the frying or baking process altogether. They use lean meats for their meatballs, and cook them right in the sauce.
Before you recoil in horror, think about it for a second. The meat juices -- we said juices, not fat -- get incorporated into the sauce for extra flavor, and there are definitely fewer dirty utensils in the sink at the end of the meal. The meatballs stay super moist, too. Give it a try; you won't be sorry.
The Italian meatball recipe below has great flavor and texture. It also uses lean ground beef. You can either bake the meatballs according to the directions or plop those luscious morsels right into your simmering sauce. If you add them to the sauce, put a lid on the pot and continue simmering for around 35 minutes. (The cooking time is based on 1-1/2 inch diameter meatballs.)
Use Quality Cheese
Cheeses like Parmesan and Romano add layers of flavor to your Italian cooking. It's tempting to go the easy route and use prepared, processed Parmesan (the stuff in the convenient shaker) or just skip the cheese altogether. The fact is, though, that even a little Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese mixed into your sauces, soups and other dishes will result in a more flavorful, authentic finished product. This doesn't have to be a hassle. Both these cheeses are low in moisture and can last a long time in your refrigerator. You can freeze them, too, even after grating. If you go the freezer route, you'll have instant access to a quality Italian cheese that'll defrost on your countertop in a few minutes. What could be easier (and tastier) than that?
Get Creative with Pizza
Pizza is arguably the king of popular Italian cuisine. It also has the advantage of being portable and, thanks to the many price wars among the major pizza restaurant chains, relatively inexpensive. If you've ever been inspired to make your own pizza, there are lots of ways to create a custom made pie.
The easiest option is to choose a basic frozen pizza and then add some of your own ingredients like extra mushrooms or bell peppers. You can also buy a prepared pizza shell, or refrigerated pizza dough, and craft a pizza from the crust up. These are pretty foolproof options.
You can get much more creative on pizza night, though. For a pizza appetizer, or for a cute kid's pizza, use half an English muffin as the crust, brush on some pizza sauce and add cheese. Place the muffin halves on a cookie sheet and broil them until the cheese melts. Using a half-loaf of French bread as a crust has merit, too. It makes for a soft, deep dish pizza that has gourmet appeal. Just slice the loaf lengthwise, brush on the sauce and load it up. Bake your French bread pizza in the center rack of a moderately hot oven for about 15 minutes.
Let's face it, making your own pizza is never going to be as easy as calling your neighborhood pizzeria for last minute delivery. Throwing together a pizza every once in a while can be fun, though. In 20 years, long after the kids are grown and gone, those create-a-pizza extravaganzas on family night may turn out to be the best times you ever spent in the kitchen -- more than worth the extra minutes and a few scorched potholders. Here are a few to try:
You may need new ways to spice up your pasta to keep things from getting boring. Try these new recipes to spice up your pasta.
- Chow. "The Basics: How to Make Italian Meatballs in Sauce." (11/18/11). http://www.chow.com/food-news/55510/the-basics-how-to-make-italian-meatballs-in-sauce/
- Chowhound. "How do you cook your meatballs?" 10/22/2007. (11/18/11). http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/453444
- Davidson, Alan. "The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press. 1999.
- Good Housekeeping. "Make Perfect Pasta." (11/18/11). http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/recipes/cooking-tips/cook-perfect-pasta
- Green, Aliza. "Starting With Ingredients." Running Press Book Publishers. 2006.
- National Pasta Association. "Cooking Tips." (11/18/11). http://www.ilovepasta.org/cooking.html
- National Pasta Association. "Pasta Shapes." (11/18/11). http://www.ilovepasta.org/shapes.html
- The Nibble. "Pasta Glossary." 2009. (11/18/11). http://www.thenibble.com/REVIEWS/MAIN/pastas/glossary.asp