Dining out is a wonderful experience and allows you to try new things and enjoy the company of others over great food and drinks, but you don’t have to go to a restaurant to have amazing rustic Italian food, it can be made fresh in the comfort of your own home. Let’s face it, homemade is always better! Even the most inexperienced cook can prepare a family style Italian meal, though there are just a few basic techniques one should learn before they begin.
1. Sauté is the method of frying in a small amount of fat/oil. Depending on the region of Italy or Sicily animal fats are preferred over oils, but as a general rule always keep Extra Light and Pomace Olive Oil on hand. Extra Virgin Olive Oil can be used, but be very cautious when using because it has a very strong taste and can take away from the other flavors. When you sauté make sure that you use a small amount of fat/oil and the fat/oil needs to be hot before adding your ingredients. Make sure not to use HIGH heat (med. – med. high) especially if you choose to sauté with Extra Virgin because of the low smoking point the oil possesses. The smoking point is the highest temperature that an oil or fat will have before it starts to smoke and burn, which will result in bad tasting food and/or a more serious problem like a fire.
2. Roasting is another method of cooking. By roasting, you are cooking the food by dry heat. For example, think about how a Thanksgiving Turkey is cooked; dry heat is essential, otherwise it’s not the method of roasting. Make sure that your roasting pan will fit in your oven and that the oven door will close properly (important to maintain the correct temperature). The best way to roast meat such as beef, lamb, and venison is by searing the meat in a hot pan (med. high heat) with no oil. This allows all those natural juices to be trapped inside the meat letting the meat retain moisture and flavors. When searing, make sure that if using a dry rub (spice and herb mixture) that the rub is massaged really well into the meat, then place the meat fat side down in the hot pan, turning the meat to brown all sides. Please keep in mind that you are only cooking the meat for about 15- 30 seconds on each side (the time depends on how thick the meat is.); this extra little step before roasting will make a world of difference in taste.
3. Braising is just another way of cooking meat and vegetables. The technique can be difficult when applying it for the first time. Braising works best by using a roasting pan with a cover (Roasting pans offer deep area for liquid and length/width for large cuts of meat). The meat and/or vegetables reside inside the pan sitting in liquid like, chicken, beef or vegetable stock, wine, and sometimes I’ll use the broth from homemade minestrone soup (steps for this will be explained in later discussions). *NOTE: The meat should be covered about 3/4 with the liquid. Again, the best way to help keep natural juices and flavors are to pan sear the meat. Plus, since the meat will be cooking in liquid, once all sides of the meat has been browned, then you can deglaze (dissolving the small particles of sautéed meat left in a pan by adding a liquid and heat). The beauty of braising is that you can use the same pan that you sear the meat in. Just remember before deglazing that the meat must be removed from the pan, then once the deglazing process is complete you can return the meat to the pan.
4. Grilling is very popular especially in the country side of Italy and Sicily. Grilling is a wonderful method, but must be monitored often because if there flare ups (fat and juices falling on hot coals or fire from a gas grill) it will char the food. Now you will here different opinions about grilling and what type of wood is better and the topic that is debated over the most…. Gas is better than charcoal and vise versa. Well, I’m here to tell you that most of it is a personal preference, however, there are some pros and cons about both. If you want the woodsy and authentic taste of the country side then using lump charcoal might be a better choice for you. Gas is great because you can control the heat much better than charcoal especially in windy areas, but charcoal tastes better when cooking whole fish or fish steaks, wild game, and pork. This is because the meat absorbs the flavor of the charcoal mixture. When I say charcoal I mean real Lump charcoal, not the Kingsford Briquets or similar products; those are made up of saw dust and burnt wood particles along with chemicals to bond and form the briquets, they’re ok in a pinch, but not my favorite and sometimes leaves the food tasting a little funny. The best charcoal to use for uncovered meats and vegetables is lump charcoal. If you are making parcels filled with vegetables or even fish then briquets are ok to use. A good way to enhance the flavor of the food is to make a charcoal mixture made up of lump charcoal and another type of hardwood pieces or chips like Apple, Cherry, Alder, Hickory, or Maple (60%[charcoal]/40%[wood chips]). Sometimes I will use Oak, but that’s because I have a plentiful supply. Grill can be frustrating to some because starting the fire may take a few tries if you don’t use lighter fluid. I don’t like to unless its the only starter I have. A chimney starter works very well and avoids the food to absorb the taste of lighter fluid. There is one myth that I would like to dispel… Never turn meat more than once, either on the grill or in a pan. This doesn’t make it cook faster or cook any better, in fact what it does is allow the meat to cook unevenly and you run the risk of serve raw or over cooked food. Plus there are more chances for flare-ups to happen which cause burnt meat.
5. Fried foods can be deep fried or pan fried. Even though you can find deep fried foods in the Italian cuisine it is not the primary method of frying. Pan fried foods are more common and many of them are cooked in a way that’s known as shallow pan fried. A small amount of oil is used, about a 1/4 way up the pan (typically using a larger frying pan: 12″, 14″ or 16″). The food is partially exposed on top forcing you to turn it over to finish cooking. As mentioned before (Sauté section) the rule for using oils apply here as well, though I like to blend Extra light olive oil and canola oil about 50/50, high smoking point for both oils and if you are going to eat fried foods, canola oil is one of the better oils to use for health and for the pocket. If you fry chicken breast be sure to butterfly the breast so that it cooks faster and evenly, you don’t want to serve raw chicken at your dinner party!
6. Steaming is a great, healthy way to cook vegetables. I like to use a little more advanced technique called Blanching. It’s the process of parboiling or steaming, the vegetables are not cooked completely, then I place them in an ice bath and prepare to freeze them. I do this because I prepare bulk vegetables ahead time. When I need them I will remove them from the freezer and steam them or sauté them, depending on the vegetable and dish. For all of the beginning cooks, let’s stick to steaming for right now until you have the hang of it. Once steamed vegetables are drained properly you can use them for many things like side dishes, add them to an entrée or use it as a garnish for a dish. For those of you who would like to try to blanch vegetables here are a few examples of vegetables that are easier to blanch and ice bath: Broccoli, Cauliflower, Pole Beans, and Sliced Carrots. By blanching the vegetables and utilizing an ice bath, it will help to preserve the brilliant colors.
These are the more common cooking methods that will help you create a wonderful meal, whether it’s for your family or for the 10 dinner guests that are arriving tonight.
*NOTE: I find that cast iron, stainless steel, and aluminum pots and pans work great for me because that’s what I’m used to working with while on the line in a restaurant, but in you like non-stick then by all means use them if you want, just not my preference. Also, DO NOT use any copper pots and pans if cooking with acidic foods, like tomatoes and citrus fruit because it will not only ruin the pans, but will release toxic chemical into your food. The acid starts to break down the metal… Not visible to the eye, so you won’t physically see your pots melting. Just some food for thought…No pun intended!