Hi, Carrots ‘n’ Cake readers! My name is Lia and I write about cooking, my visits to restaurants in NYC + Boston and food politics over at my blog, Lia’s Cucina. A lot of the recipes I make are Italian-inspired, not only because my family comes from Italy and I love Italian food, but also because it is a simple, healthy, economical and absolutely delicious way to cook. A way to make real Italian cooking truly accessible is with a well-stocked pantry. When I have these things on hand, I know a great meal is never far away.
Pasta: Of course you need pasta in an Italian pantry! I prefer whole wheat for the extra fiber and staying power. Pasta is my favorite vehicle for a great meal — you can basically add any flavor combination you like to pasta and you’re bound to have something delicious. Stock up on your favorite shapes and sizes.
Arborio rice: This is the rice that risotto is typically made with. Risotto gets a bad rap for being difficult to make, but once you’ve mastered the basic recipe (which isn’t hard!), you’ll be a pro at changing up the ingredients and making all different kinds of risotto.
Polenta: Similar to risotto, polenta is known as hard to make. It’s not! You can top this with basically anything — sauteed vegetables, tomato sauce, etc.
Farro, barley and/or quinoa: Though quinoa is not typical in Italian meals, like farro or barley, it is incredibly healthy and a perfect grain for mixing into salads. Try it with sauteed vegetables and a vinaigrette made from lemon juice + zest, grated garlic, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, olive oil, salt + pepper.
Lentils: They don’t require any pre-soaking so they are great for adding to salads or even pasta dishes.
Canned tomatoes: Making your own sauce with the help of store-bought canned tomatoes (pureed, diced, etc.) is so simple and delicious that you might never want pre-made sauce again! My favorite tomatoes are San Marzano, but since they’re expensive I get them only once in awhile and use cheaper brands the rest of the time.
Tomato paste tube: Many recipes call for this to thicken sauces, soups or stews.
Pesto: I love to make my own pesto but sometimes jarred is just the easier option. Downside: can often be expensive and have a long ingredient list.
Chickpeas: I prefer canned because I think they’re easier. Give them a good rinse off before using in pasta, salads or soups.
White beans: Same deal as chickpeas.
Tuna packed in olive oil: This has a lot more flavor than tuna packed in water and is a fabulous addition to pasta or salad.
Sardines: Similar to tuna, sardines are a great add-on. They’re also packed with nutrients.
Breadcrumbs: I like to use a mixture of panko and Italian for the best flavor. Use them to bread eggplant or chicken — or even better — as a flavor/texture layer to pasta.
Extra virgin olive oil: You don’t need to buy a really expensive bottle for it to be “good,” but don’t skimp on this one either! It’s the fat used in the majority of Italian cooking.
Balsamic or red wine vinegar: A flavorful and healthy way to top a salad along with olive oil.
Crushed red pepper flakes: Such an amazing flavor agent. Even if you don’t love spicy food, just a sprinkle of this can really maximize the flavor of a dish.
Dried oregano, basil, thyme + rosemary: For me, buying the herbs required for the recipes I make can be really expensive since I often struggle to use up a $2 bunch of rosemary. If you have dried on hand, you don’t have to worry about this predicament. My must-have fresh herb for cooking, however, is basil.
Garlic: Always, always, always have this on hand! If you think you have “nothing” to eat, but you have garlic on hand, you can usually make something great with your other pantry staples. Check out my posts on garlic soup
and spaghetti with spinach and garlic.
Lemons: I love to use lemon juice/zest to brighten the flavor of different dishes. Lemon is also a key ingredient in the vinaigrettes I make. Double points if you’ve got a Microplane for the zest!
Parmigiano-Reggiano: Though this technically does not belong in the pantry, this cheese is a must-have in any Italian kitchen. Put it on basically anything — pasta, soup, salad — to add a layer of flavor and texture. The way to know that it’s authentic Parm is to look at the rind. It should look like this:
Here’s a recipe that you can make almost entirely from the pantry!
Pasta e Fagioli
- 1 package small pasta (ditalini, orzo, orecchiette, elbows)
- 1 can tomato sauce
- 3 cups water (or chicken or vegetable stock)
- 1 can white beans, drained and rinsed well
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper (more if you like it spicier)
- 1/4 teaspoon of oregano
- Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated, to taste
- salt + pepper, to taste
- fresh basil (optional)
Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook until tender, 2-3 minutes. Add the garlicand heat through, about 1 minute.
Add the tomato sauce, water, beans, oregano and salt (and fresh basil if you have it). Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease to medium and simmer until beans are tender, 10 minutes. Add the pasta and cover until pasta is al dente, 8-10 minutes.
Add crushed red pepper and ground pepper to taste.
Serve soup along with grated Parm and a drizzle of olive oil (along with fresh basil if you have it).
Thanks, Tina for the fun opportunity to write for CNC! Come visit over on Lia’s Cucina!