A girlfriend asked me recently, “what are your pantry must-haves?” Here at D.O.P. Kitchen, we are big believers in the necessity of quality ingredients to create quality meals. And the faster you can pull something out of the fridge or one of your cabinets, the faster you will have a delicious meal. With that in mind, here are some of our favorite pantry ingredients:
TOMATO PUREE or PASSATA
Our number one must have. Passata is simply the Italian word for tomato puree. It is completely different from the tomato sauce you purchase at the grocery store with ingredients added such as basil or garlic (not to mention the usual preservatives and chemicals) and it is made by cooking and straining (preferably Italian) tomatoes. The perfect base to many dishes, it doesn’t have any skins or seeds so it is quick and easy to use. Passata goes in our ragu bolognese, our baked eggs with ricotta, our meatballs with tomato sauce – it’s such a versatile ingredient, you can use it as the foundation for many dishes. On a night when we don't know what to make for dinner, this usually becomes the base for a pasta sauce with leftovers - roasted veggies, sausage, cured olives...whatever you have in the fridge.
OLIVE OIL or OLIO D'OLIVA
We know that “Trader Giotto’s” makes olive oil but that is not what we are talking about here :) If you follow along on our blog, you may have read our entry on extra-virgin oil and the importance of knowing where the olives that went into your oil were grown and processed. Good extra-virgin oil tastes completely different than most of the options you find in your regular grocery store that have probably been cut with vegetable oil or tampered with in other ways. Extra-virgin is an oil that you shouldn't cook with because you won’t taste any of the flavor properties once it’s been heated to too high a temperature. Drizzle it over fish or meat or use it in salad dressing. Whether you prefer peppery, fruity or floral notes, there’s an extra-virgin oil for you out there – and once you taste the good stuff, you can never go back. Which leads us to...balsamic vinegar.
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BALSAMIC VINEGAR or ACETO BALSAMICO
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of grapes over many, many months. It is quite expensive and should list only one ingredient on the back of the bottle – grape must. Many balsamics on our grocery shelves are just vinegar with caramel coloring added so be careful! We love to pour the good stuff over ice cream or semifreddo and on top of our steak tagliata. For everyday use, we love the “Villa Manadori Balsamico,” created by the Italian 3-star Michelin chef, Massimo Bottura.
This truly is the ultimate Italian formaggio. It is a hard cheese made from raw cow’s milk and is named after the production area in Emilia-Romagna called Parma. At the grocery store, you will see lots of imitators with the label “Parmesan” but only the authentic product can be called “Parmigiano-Reggiano.” Look for a stamp on the side of the rind of the cheese to prove that it has been inspected and determined to have aged for at least 12 months and to be of a certain quality. After grating the cheese over pasta, eggs, and our pea-mint bruschette, we love to throw the rinds into soups and let them dissolve – imparting its rich flavor into every bite.
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TOMATO PASTE or CONCENTRATO DI POMODORO
Yes, another tomato product! Tomato paste is a crucial ingredient in Italian cooking and is used to give depth of flavor to a dish. It is made by cooking tomatoes down until they become a thick concentrated product. You want to make sure to fry it for a few moments in your pan with some olive oil to cook off the “tinny” taste before combining it with your other ingredients. We use it in many of our pasta sauces, our chicken parmigiano, and our roasted vegetable panino. Again, we prefer the “Mutti” brand and we absolutely love the doppio concentrato version, which has a fruity and intense tomato flavor.
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We always have a ¼ pound of thinly sliced prosciutto in our fridge. It is perfect to put on a panino or chopped up and thrown in eggs. Prosciutto is another one of those ingredients that is seriously supervised in Italy to guarantee the product’s age-old and high standards have been met. We buy prosciutto di parma, which is super silky and has amazing flavor. Even if you’re at a basic grocery store, ask the butcher to slice you a piece to try before buying and make sure that it isn’t dried out or overly salty.
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What Italian ingredients do you keep on hand? We'd love to hear!