Introduction to Italian Food
Italy has 20 regions, each with its own specialty dishes and cooking styles. A common factor across every region is the use of fresh products. From the far north regions to the southern shores, fresh food is the key to great tasting dishes. Italian recipes are handed down from grandmothers to the next generations. Many recipes are surprisingly simple, so you do not need to be a culinary expert to cook up great Italian dishes at home.
Traditionally, the preparation of Italian food is as much of a part of the feast as the actual meal. Kids can join in on the cooking fun by washing produce, measuring ingredients, stirring, and more. Children who get involved in preparing their food are more likely to eat it.
The basic ingredients to keep on hand for preparing healthy Italian dishes are:
• Olive oil
• Olives and capers
• Whole Grains
• Tomatoes (Fresh and Canned)
• Parmesan cheese or other hard cheese
• Mozzarella cheese
Common Herbs and Spices in Italian foods:
In addition to fresh basil and Italian parsley (flat-leafed variety), oregano, thyme and marjoram are commonly used in Italian dishes. Lemons grow throughout Italy and are also used to enhance many Italian dishes.
Cheese is a great source of calcium which is an important mineral for healthy teeth and bones. Italy produces over 400 varieties of cheese. The most well-known Italian cheeses are mozzarella and parmesan. Here are some of the lesser known but equally delicious Italian cheeses to look for in your local market:
• Asiago – made from cow’s milk and available fresh or aged. Fresh Asiago has a smooth texture and can be melted on sandwiches. Aged Asiago has a texture and flavor that is similar to parmesan and can be used in soups, sauces, salads, and pastas.
• Gorgonzola – made from cow’s milk and aged in a process much like blue cheese. Gorgonzola can be purchased in block form or crumbles. It makes a great addition to pasta and pizza. It also works well as an appetizer or snack with sliced apples and pears.
• Mascarpone – Mascarpone is a rich, creamy cheese made from cow’s milk. It is the main ingredient in the dessert, Tiramisu.
• Pecorino Romano – a hard, salty cheese made from sheep’s milk. It has a sharp flavor and is used to flavor sauces and pastas.
• Provolone – a semi-hard cheese made from cow’s milk. The flavor can range from mild to sharp depending on aging. Provolone is a great cheese for sandwiches and melts.
• Ricotta – Although commonly known as a cheese, Ricotta is made from the whey of sheep, cow, goat or buffalo milk and is not produced in the same way as cheese. It does not contain casein and can be eaten by people with casein sensitivity. Ricotta is used in lasagna, stuffed shells and many Italian desserts.
Bambino Gourmet: Creamy Pesto Sauce
Pesto is a staple in Italian cooking. Traditionally made with basil, olive oil, crushed garlic, pine nuts and parmesan cheese, variations include sundried tomatoes, red bell peppers and nut free options. The word “pesto” means to crush or pound using a mortar and pestle. The flavor of Pesto may be a little too strong for tiny taste buds. This recipe is the perfect way to begin the introduction of this delicious sauce.
1 cup milk
1 cup mascarpone or cream cheese
2 Tbsp. pesto sauce (store bought or homemade)
In a small sauce pan over medium heat add all the ingredients. Stir frequently and do not let the mixture boil. After 2-3 minutes mixture will become smooth. Remove from heat and pour sauce into a 2-cup measuring cup. Let cool for 10 minutes. Pour the creamy pesto sauce into your So Easy Baby Food Trays, cover and freeze until ready to use.
Remove a sauce cube from the freezer, defrost and add it to mashed or pureed foods. Here are a few suggestions for delicious creamy pesto meals:
• Mashed potatoes with pureed cauliflower, peas and white beans with creamy pesto sauce
• Pasta with chopped chicken and broccoli with creamy pesto sauce
• Flaked whitefish (such and tilapia or catfish) and mashed rice with creamy pesto sauce
Toddler Treat: Italian Wedding Soup
What says “valentine” more than a wedding? Italian Wedding Soup is a classic Italian-American dish with a great mix of vegetables, pasta and tiny meatballs. Its name comes from the fact the meat and vegetable taste great together – they are a perfect marriage!
2 quarts (64 oz.) Chicken Stock
1 Carrot, diced
1 Celery Stalk, diced
½ cup Ditalini Pasta (or small-shaped pasta)
1 pound Ground Pork
½ tsp salt and pepper
¼ cup Italian-Style Bread Crumbs
¼ cup Parmesan Cheese
1 cup Cut Green Beans (fresh or frozen)
1 (15 oz.) can Chick Peas, rinsed and drained
In a large pot, bring chicken stock, carrot, celery and ditalini pasta to a boil. Turn heat down to medium and simmer for 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the meatballs. Combine ground pork, bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper in a bowl. Form mixture into ½-1-inch meatballs. Drop the meatballs into the simmering soup and cook for 5 minutes. Add the green beans and chick peas and cook an additional 5 minutes.
Serve with bread or homemade muffins. Italian Wedding Soup can be frozen in small portions for terrific warm-up lunches or after school snacks.
Family Italian Valentine’s Day Dinner Menu
Lemon Caper Baked Salmon
Garlic Parmesan Potatoes
Strawberries & Banana Cream
Heart-healthy salmon is a delicious mildly-flavored pink fish. It’s a perfect choice for a Valentine’s Day dinner menu. We’ve baked this salmon with the wonderful Italian flavors of capers and lemons. A mayonnaise mixture applied to the salmon keeps it moist while baking and the bread crumb topping offers a nice crunchy texture.
The baked salmon accompanied with flavorful garlic parmesan potatoes, steamed asparagus and a dessert of strawberries with banana cream makes a colorful, healthy Italian-inspired family meal.
Lemon Caper Baked Salmon
1 lb. Salmon fillet, skin removed
2 Tbsp. Mayonnaise
1-2 tsp. Capers
1 tsp. Lemon Zest
¾ cup Panko Bread Crumbs
Preheat Oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and spray lightly with cooking spray. Wash salmon under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Slice salmon into 4 serving pieces (for smaller children, cut a serving piece in half for their portion).
Mince capers and add them to a bowl with the mayonnaise and lemon zest. Mix well. Brush both sides of the salmon pieces with the mayonnaise mixture.
Pour bread crumbs onto a plate. Working one piece at a time lay each piece of salmon into the crumbs and press gently. Turn the salmon over and press again. Place the crumb coated salmon on the baking sheet.
Once all of the salmon pieces are breaded and on the baking sheet, place the sheet in the oven on the highest rack (closest to your broiler). Bake 10 minutes. Turn broiler on high and allow the bread crumbs to brown (watch them closely, so as not to burn them). Remove the baking sheet from the broiler.
Garlic Parmesan Potatoes
1 lb. 4 oz. Mini Yellow or red Potatoes
1 can (14 oz.) Chicken Broth
3 Tbsp. Butter
1 Tbsp. Italian Parsley, chopped
1 Garlic Clove, minced
1-2 Tbsp. Parmesan Cheese
Fresh Ground Pepper and Salt, to taste
Wash potatoes and place in a large saucepan with the chicken broth. If broth does not cover potatoes, add water until potatoes are covered. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, turn down heat and simmer for 15 minutes until a fork slides easily into the potatoes. Remove from heat. Drain off the broth leaving the potatoes in the pan. Add the butter, parsley and garlic to the plan. Cover and set aside to let the butter melt.
1 lb. Asparagus
Butter, Salt and Pepper, to taste
Snap ends off the asparagus spears and discard the ends. Wash the asparagus under cold water. Steam the asparagus for 3-4 minutes (stovetop or microwave) until fork tender. Add butter, salt and pepper, to taste.
PLATING AND SERVING:
This dinner is best served plated. Plating food (serving portions on dinner plates) instead of serving family style (putting serving dishes on the table) is a recommended healthy eating habit. It can help prevent overeating or choosing too much of one food and not enough of another. Plus there will be fewer dishes to wash.
It is simple to plate this dish for serving. Line up your dinner plates on the counter top and follow these steps:
• Salmon: Using a flat spatula, place a piece of salmon on each dinner plate
• Potatoes: Place a serving of potatoes on each dinner plate next to the salmon
• Asparagus: Place a serving on each dinner plate
• Drizzle the butter mixture over both the salmon and potatoes. Sprinkle potatoes with parmesan cheese. Serve with lemon wedges.
Berries N’ Banana Cream
The heart shape of sliced strawberries is a festive ending to a Valentine’s Day Dinner. A layer of banana cream below the strawberries is a delicious sweet surprise.
1/3 cup Ricotta Cheese
1 tsp. Lemon Juice
1 Banana, peeled and sliced
2 Tbsp. Milk
2 Tbsp. Honey
1½ cups Strawberries, rinsed and sliced
In a food processor or blender, combine all the ingredients except the strawberries. Puree until very smooth (about 2 minutes). Serve on a dessert plate with banana cream under strawberry slices.