Italian food is more than just a bowl of pasta. There’s so much more to it. Here are some easy Italian food recipes to bring some Mediterranean sunshine into your kitchen.
The food of Italy is some of the finest in the world. Imagine really fresh fish, caught and cooked on the same day, fresh ripe fruit, vegetables drizzled with olive oil, colourful salads, and artisan bread. Italian food is one of my favourite cuisines; it’s similar to the Maltese food that I grew up with and every dish tastes of sunshine.
Food fads may come and go (does anyone remember nouvelle cuisine in the 1980s?) but Italian food is still as popular today as when we first embraced it. It arrived in the UK at the end of the 19th century. Italian food recipes mainly come from home cooks rather than chefs and use only a few ingredients. Quality not quantity is the main priority.
The History of Italian Food
Italian food history goes back a long way, to around the fourth century B.C. It is influenced by the Romans, who brought things like spices and almonds and other ingredients from lands that they had conquered. Italian food is also influenced by many different cultures, Greek, Jewish, French, Spanish and Austrian. This provides a wonderful variety of dishes and each region of Italy has its own specialities.
In America, the influx of Italian immigrants in the 19th century gave rise to the popularity of Italian cuisine. This popularity grew rapidly until at the last count, there were 100,000 Italian restaurants in the USA.
But pasta, surely the most popular Italian ingredient, is not Italian at all; it was introduced by the Arabs in the fourth century B.C. So Marco Polo didn’t discover it after all! Pasta was made from flour and water paste, strands were wrapped around sticks, and then left to dry in the sun.
The first commercial pasta factory in the USA was built by a Frenchman called Antoine Zerega in 1848, on Brooklyn’s waterfront. More pasta factories sprang up as time went by and the dies to create different shapes got more and more inventive. The first pasta dish introduced to the American consumer was macaroni cheese. This is still a favourite today. (Although it’s not authentically Italian.)
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is one that thousands of people follow every day, not just because it includes so many fresh, delicious foods but because it’s tasty and satisfying. Italians eat a lot of vegetables and salads and the mainstay of the Mediterranean diet is still basic ingredients like olive oil, fresh vegetables, seafood and bread. Not forgetting good wine of course. Most of the wine consumed in Italy is drunk with a meal.
Italians know how to savour a meal; it’s a time for family, conversation and sharing. Compared to our hectic lifestyle here in the UK I’m sure we could learn a thing or two from the Italians. They will take a good hour or two over the main meal, allowing them to fully enjoy their food and digest it properly.
Risotto is a well-known Italian dish, dating from Milan in 1809, where a concoction of short-grain rice, stock, saffron and Parmesan cheese was first put together and became the famous risotto alla Milanese. The dish involved slowly cooking the rice by adding the stock a little at a time and allowing the rice grains to absorb it before adding more. Saffron provided colour and a gentle earthy flavour and Parmesan cheese was added for richness. The risotto was often served with another slow-cooked dish, osso buco, veal cooked with vegetables, white wine and broth.
I have made many risottos and they were all delicious. I find a risotto is a meal in itself, but if you want to serve it as a starter or side dish with a meat or fish based main course then that’s fine. Risotto lends itself to any flavours you care to add to it; shellfish, vegetables, cheese, herbs.
It does take time to make a perfect risotto and it can’t be hurried but if you’re not able to stand at the stove for an hour then risotto can be made in the oven. That way, you can leave it to cook while you do something else instead. Have a look at this recipe for wild mushroom risotto and see what you think.
Wild Mushroom Risotto
For this recipe, you will need special risotto rice, either arborio or carnaroli. Long grain rice won’t work as it doesn’t have enough starch to produce the classic creaminess of a traditional risotto. This will serve 6 people as a starter or 4 as a main course.
10g dried porcini mushrooms
225g fresh open cap mushrooms
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
175g rice (see above)
150 ml dry Madeira or dry sherry
50g Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) plus 2 extra tablespoons
Salt and pepper
First, you need to soak the dried mushrooms. Their flavour is very concentrated so you only need a tiny amount. Place the porcini into a heatproof bowl and pour over 570 ml of boiling water. Then just leave them to soften for half an hour.
Wipe the fresh mushrooms clean with some kitchen paper then chop them into quite chunky pieces. They will shrink during cooking so you don’t want the pieces to be too small. Melt the butter in a non-stick pan and when it’s sizzling, lower the heat slightly and add the chopped onion. Cook for about 5 minutes until the onions start to soften then add the fresh mushrooms and the garlic to the pan. Stir well and after 2 minutes, remove the pan from the heat.
To prepare the porcini, place a sieve lined with 2 sheets of kitchen paper over a bowl and tip in the porcini and their soaking liquid. (It’s important to strain the liquid as dried mushrooms contain dust and grit which you don’t want in your risotto.) Squeeze any remaining liquid out of the porcini and chop them into small pieces.
Add the porcini to the pan with the onion and fresh mushrooms and put the pan back on the heat. Cook over a low heat for about 20 minutes.
Add the rice to the pan and stir so that it gets thoroughly coated in the butter. Add the Madeira or sherry followed by the strained mushroom soaking liquid. Season with salt and pepper and stir, then transfer it to an ovenproof dish with a capacity of about 1.5 litres. Place into a preheated oven, gas mark 2/150C/300F and cook for about 20 minutes.
Sit in the grated Parmesan then continue cooking for a further 15 minutes. Use a vegetable peeler or the side of a box grater to shave strips from the 50g of Parmesan. Serve the risotto on warmed plates with the shavings of Parmesan scattered liberally on top. This is nice with a well-chilled glass of chardonnay or pinot grigio.
*To make this risotto extra special, try drizzling it with truffle oil. It’s quite expensive but as you only need very little it goes a long way.
Slow Cooked Beef Brisket Ragu
This is a delicious variation on the traditional bolognese sauce; instead of being made with ground beef, it’s made with brisket. This is a cut of beef that requires long, slow cooking but the reward is soft, melt-in-the-mouth meat and a wonderful flavour. If you can’t get hold of brisket, use braising steak or shin of beef instead.
500g beef brisket, cut into chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
120g diced pancetta or smoked bacon
1 large onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed or grated
400g tin chopped tomatoes
125 ml red wine
150 ml beef stock (a cube is fine)
2 dried bay leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper
Heat a tablespoon of the oil in a large, non-stick pan. When it’s very hot add the diced beef and pancetta or bacon and lower the heat slightly. Turn the beef with tongs to ensure even colouring. You’re aiming to brown the beef chunks all over and crisp up the pancetta at the edges. Remove from the pan and onto a plate. Set aside.
Heat the second tablespoon of oil in the same pan and add the onion and carrot. Fry over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes, then lower the heat and add the crushed garlic. Fry for a couple of minutes then add the tin of tomatoes and the beef stock. Use the wine to rinse out the can of tomatoes and add to the pan. Bring to the boil then lower the heat to a simmer and tip in the beef and pancetta. Season with salt and pepper, add the bay leaves and sugar, stir well and put a lid on the pan.
You can either leave the ragu to cook on the hob on a very low heat or you can transfer the pan to a low oven, gas mark 3/170C/325F. Both methods will give the same results. Just make sure your pan is oven proof.
Check the ragu after a couple of hours and stir well. Replace the lid and continue to cook for another 2 hours. Test the meat by taking a piece out, putting it onto a plate and pulling it between two forks. It should fall apart easily. If it doesn’t, cook for a further 30 – 45 minutes and test again.
Serve the ragu ladled over a plate of tagliatelle or pappardelle. Grate over some Parmesan and garnish with fresh thyme.
Gnocchi with Butter and Sage
Gnocchi is very popular in Italy. They’re little dumplings made from mashed potato and flour and are quick and fun to make and cook. They can be served with lots of different sauces but this is a simple one, just good butter and fresh sage. Serves 2.
300g floury potatoes, such as King Edward
1 small egg, lightly beaten
100g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
100g salted butter
1 tablespoon fresh sage, leaves only
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
30g Parmesan, grated
Salt and pepper
Peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks. Place them in a saucepan, cover with cold water and add some salt. Bring to the boil then cover with a lid and cook for about 15 – 20 minutes until tender when pierced with the point of a knife.
Drain the potatoes in a colander then tip them back into the pan. Mash well, making sure there are no lumps. Add the flour and egg, season with salt and pepper and turn the potato out onto a floured surface. The flour will help to prevent the dough from sticking. Knead lightly, just squeezing it with your hands to bring it together into a ball. Don’t handle it too much or the gnocchi will be tough and chewy.
Cut the ball of dough in half and roll each piece into a long, thin sausage shape, using your hands. Don’t worry if it looks a bit uneven, as long as the length of dough is roughly the same thickness all the way through. Cut the lengths of dough into small pieces with a sharp knife, about 2.5cm in size. Use a fork to press ridges into the gnocchi as you go. The ridges will hold the butter sauce. As you cut the pieces off place them on a clean tea towel which has been sprinkled with flour.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. When it’s boiling, add the gnocchi carefully so that the boiling water won’t splash on your hands. I just gather up the corners of the tea towel and tip the gnocchi into the water so that the towel protects my hands. Boil for about 2 – 3 minutes; they are cooked when they float to the surface.
Melt the butter in a non-stick pan and heat until it’s sizzling. Add the finely chopped sage leaves (discard the stalks) and fry them in the butter for a few seconds. Add the gnocchi to the pan and stir well to coat them with the herb butter.
Serve on warmed plates, drizzle over the olive oil and sprinkle with Parmesan. A glass of sparkling Prosecco is perfect with this.
Baked Sea Bass with Garlic and Rosemary
This is another quick dish to make. It cooks in under 20 minutes and the garlic and rosemary give the fish a wonderful, subtle flavour. If you can’t get hold of sea bass, try using sea bream instead which has a similar taste and texture. Serves 4.
4 whole sea bass, about 400g each
10 sprigs of fresh rosemary
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled and cut in half lengthways
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large lemon, halved
Salt and pepper
Get your fishmonger or the fish counter in your local supermarket to clean and gut the fish for you. (If leaving the head on makes you squeamish ask them to remove it. It won’t make any difference to the flavour of the dish.)
Place the fish on a chopping board and use a sharp knife to cut into the skin and flesh diagonally, two or three times on each side. The cuts should just go through the skin and flesh but not all the way through to the other side.
Push 3 sprigs of rosemary and 4 halves of garlic clove into the cavity of each fish. This will flavour the fish as it cooks and makes your kitchen smell wonderful.
Push the remaining sprigs of rosemary into the slits in the fish on one side only. Leave the ends sticking out so that they release their aroma as they cook. Place the fish into a shallow roasting tin, drizzle all over with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Bake in a preheated oven, gas mark 6/200C/400F for 20 minutes. It’s done when the flesh of the fish has turned white and the skin is crispy.
Serve with a salad and new potatoes and a lemon half to squeeze over.
If you love turkey but need inspiration for more ways to cook and serve it then try this easy recipe. You can use chicken instead of turkey and replace the Parma ham with Proscuitto if preferred.
4 medium turkey breasts, about 300g each
4 slices of Parma ham, cut in half widthways
16 fresh sage leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
180 ml Marsala or sweet sherry
Salt and pepper
Place the turkey breasts on a chopping board and cover them with a layer of clingfilm. Use a rolling pin to flatten them out to the thickness of a pound coin (about 4mm) but don’t get carried away and bash them too hard or they will break apart.
Cut the breasts in half widthways to give 8 pieces. Season with a little salt and pepper, lay a piece of ham on top and add 2 sage leaves. Pin the ham into place with a wooden cocktail stick.
Heat the oil and 25g of butter in a non-stick pan and when sizzling, add the saltimbocca, ham side down. Lower the heat and cook for just 2 minutes then turn them over and cook for 2 – 3 minutes on the other side. Transfer to a plate, cover with foil and keep warm in a low oven.
Turn up the heat under the pan and pour in the Marsala or sherry. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up all the bits of turkey and ham left in the pan and cook for 5 minutes until the liquid has reduced. Stir in the other 25g of butter and taste to see if it needs any more seasoning. The ham will already be quite salty so be careful about adding any more salt.
Return the saltimbocca to the pan and heat gently, turning once. Lift from the pan onto warmed plates, allowing 2 per person, and remove the cocktail sticks before serving. Mashed potato is good with saltimbocca as it soaks up the lovely sauce. Some lightly cooked green beans would also be a nice accompaniment.
Asparagus and Ricotta Cheese Tarts
These savoury tarts are very common in Italy, especially in the Northern regions. Ricotta is a mild, soft, creamy cheese and it goes well with asparagus. The tarts have a lovely fresh taste and just need a simple salad to accompany them. Serves 2 as a light lunch.
200g ready-rolled puff pastry
150g ricotta cheese
25g Parmesan, finely grated
8 asparagus spears
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
Salt and pepper
Remove the pastry from the fridge 30 minutes before you need to use it to allow it to come up to room temperature. Carefully unroll the sheet of pastry and place it on a chopping board covered with non-stick baking paper. Cut the pastry sheet in half to form 2 rectangles, about 16cm x 12cm. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with baking paper to prevent sticking.
Using a small, sharp knife cut a border around both pastry rectangles, about 2.5cm in from the edge. Don’t cut all the way through, just score a shallow line. This will rise up and form a border to hold the filling. If you like, you can use the same knife to make criss-cross patterns in the edges of the pastry to give a lattice effect. But that’s optional.
Bake the pastry in a hot oven, gas mark 6/200C/400F for about 15 minutes, until risen and tinged pale gold in colour. Remove from the oven and press the centre of the tarts with the back of a spoon to push the risen pastry back down and make a level surface for the filling. Leave to cool slightly.
Mix together the ricotta and Parmesan cheeses and the lemon zest and season with salt and pepper. Trim the asparagus to fit in the centre of the tarts and divide the cheese mixture evenly between the tarts. Level with the back of a spoon and lay the asparagus spears on top. Put one with the tip facing towards you, the next one with the stalk end facing you then repeat with the other asparagus spears. (See image above.)
Drizzle with the olive oil and bake for a further 20 minutes. Sprinkle with chives to garnish and serve hot or at room temperature with a crunchy salad.
I hope that you enjoy trying these recipes. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.
If you love Italian food and adore pasta see this post for some authentic Italian pasta recipes.
For more Mediterranean food see this post on the food of Malta
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