Expand your Italian cooking horizons by growing your own herbs, and finding new uses for parsley, basil, marjoram, and other herbal seasonings.
Prior to my first trip to Italy in the 1980s, Italian vegetables had meant mostly zucchini and tomatoes to me. The herbs were garlic and basil, and Italian cuisine was primarily pizza and spaghetti. Now I know that, while these items are Italian, they make up only a small part of the cuisine—and are mostly from southern Italy. I learned about marinated vegetables—bright red peppers and sweet onions with fennel, all bathed in olive oil and herbs. I came to love deep-fried cardoons and to savor bagna cauda, a vast range of raw vegetables dipped in cream and olive oil flavored with anchovies and garlic. I consumed loads of pesto and memorable salads made with endive, tangy arugula and radicchio.
I returned from Italy filled with enthusiasm and, already missing the food, determined to track down the vegetables and herbs I had seen and learn how to grow and cook them. A love of gardening is part of the Italian heritage. When I wrote my book, The Edible Italian Garden, if you wanted to experience the rich spectrum of tastes of true Italian cooking, you needed to plant a garden. Today, you can find many Italian specialties at farmers markets and well-stocked grocery stores. For all those that you can’t find, my book will teach you how to grow all the Italian plants you desire.
Basil: Sweet and spicy basil is used in such great quantities that it’s almost considered a vegetable in Italy. The aromatic leaves are used fresh in bruschetta, pesto, soups, sauces and salads. It is sometimes tucked in sandwiches instead of lettuce. To many it is the only accompaniment for fresh, ripe tomatoes. Basil is best used fresh or preserved in oil.
Parsley: There are two major types of parsley—the curly one (mainly used as a garnish) and the tall, flat-leafed type, rightly called “Italian” parsley, which is the preferred culinary parsley in Italy because of its deep flavor and sweetness. Parsley’s refreshing, peppery flavor is compatible with most herbs. Soffritto is a common Italian combination of onions, celery, carrots and parsley that is sautéed with a little olive oil to become the base for numerous soups, sauces and meat dishes (similar to French mirepoix). Parsley is best used fresh, though it retains flavor when blended with olive oil or water and frozen.
Sage: Fuzzy, gray-green sage is a pungent culinary herb used primarily in northern Italy as a seasoning for poultry, stuffings, sausages and fish, as well as in soups, cheeses, saltimbocca (veal wrapped in sage and prosciutto), tomato sauces and roasted potatoes. Try the famous Tuscan dish fagioli al fiasco—white beans baked with sage and garlic in a glass flask tucked into some hot embers. Sage dries well, but the oils tend to get rancid. For long storage, refrigerate or freeze.
Rosemary: Potent rosemary grows wild in areas of Italy and has a mellow, resinous flavor heavily associated with Mediterranean cooking. Its leaves can be harvested anytime, indoors or out. Some hardy varieties, such as ‘Miss Jessup’s Upright’ and ‘Tuscan Blue’ have straight, woody stems that you can use as barbecue skewers. Rosemary is most associated with meat dishes in Italy. It also lends its pinelike flavor to marinades, soups, focaccia, pizza and roasted potatoes. Use a sprig of rosemary to brush marinades or oil on meats. Preserve rosemary by drying or preserving in vinegar.
Thyme: French thyme, Thymus vulgaris with its gray-green leaves, is the most commonly used culinary thyme in the Italian kitchen, where it is quite versatile. Like parsley, thyme is used in combination with other herbs to add complexity to a dish. It can be used in soups, salad dressings, stocks and in marinades. Thyme leaves can be dried, or preserved in vinegar. Thyme is wonderful freshly picked, though stripping the leaves off the stems can be tedious. Simplify the process by drying the stems until just brittle and then gently rubbing them between your palms to remove the leaves.
Garlic and rocambole: Regular garlic and rocambole (a richly flavored garlic with large, easily peeled cloves that is also known as Italian garlic) flavor many Italian dishes, from marinated olives to most pasta sauces. Two classic dishes feature garlic prominently: agliata, a sauce made of garlic, bread crumbs and olive oil, and served on mushrooms or grilled vegetables; and bagna cauda, or farmer’s lunch, a sauce made with cream, anchovies and garlic and served with vegetables and bread for dipping. You can rub garlic on toasted bread and drizzle it with olive oil for an antipasto, put it on pizzas, use it in salad dressings, soups, stews and to flavor sautéed vegetables. Whole heads can be roasted in the oven. Cut papery tops off the head, place the head on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes or until tender. Squeeze flesh out of cloves and spread on bread or use in dressings and vegetable dishes.
Capers: Capers are shrubby, tender perennials with edible flower buds. They can be grown outdoors in the warmest regions of the United States. Obtain plants from a specialty mail-order nursery, and look for a spineless variety. When harvesting for pickling, pick flower buds just before they open. Caper flower buds are salted or pickled and used to add flavor to hors d’oeuvres, stuffings, sauces, vinaigrettes and salads. Sprinkle them over pizzas and sliced tomatoes or add them to pasta sauces. To salt capers, first dry them in the sun, then layer them with rock salt. Before using, soak the salted capers for half an hour or so to remove the salt.
Nepitella: This mellow mint with a hint of oregano has small gray-green leaves and sprays of tiny lavender to white flowers. Also known as mentuccia, it has been used by generations of Italians to flavor mushrooms and many other vegetables, such as artichokes, eggplants, potatoes and zucchini. Nepitella may be difficult to find in the United States unless you grow it yourself. You can find varieties at specialty garden nurseries or online; try Nichols Garden Nursery. (Note: Pregnant women should avoid nepitella and other members of the calamint family.)
Reprinted from The Edible Italian Garden by Rosalind Creasy.