Kosher Salt

Kosher salt is a type of coarse-grained salt that I like to use for salting pasta water or water used for cooking noodles.  It has more flavor than plain iodized salt, and you don’t need as much of it to season the water.  I also use kosher salt for salting meat, fish, salad, and vegetables.  However, I prefer using sea salt when finishing dishes.

Tofu

Tofu is a curd made from mashed soybeans that is typically used in Asian and vegetarian cooking.  I did not begin using tofu until I came to the United States and sometimes incorporate it since my daughter does not eat meat. 

There are three types that I find in the market – soft, medium, hard.  I like the soft one, as it’s creamy and more moist, like cheese.

Tortillas

Tortillas are thin, flat pancakes of cornmeal or flour that are eaten hot or cold with a savory filling.  In Spanish cooking, tortillas are actually thick omelets made of potatoes and other vegetables that are cut into wedges and served. 

When making sandwiches, the Mexican tradition inspires me.  I use store bought tortillas and look for ones that have the least amount of ingredients.  When choosing gluten free, I like the texture and taste of the chickpea tortillas. (This is what I use for my Hummus Quesadillas).

Chickpea Spread

Chickpea spread (more commonly called “hummus”) is a thick paste or spread made from ground chickpeas, sesame seeds, olive oil, lemon and garlic.  Hummus was made originally in the Middle East. 

Although you can use store- bought hummus for your recipes, look for a brand with few ingredients and not too much garlic.  When I have time, I like to make it with an Italian twist – and call it Basil Puree. It’s the star ingredient in my Hummus Quesadillas.

Arugula

Arugula is a cruciferous vegetable and a cousin of broccoli, cabbage, and kale.  In the supermarket, you might find “baby arugula”, which farmers harvest early.  As the arugula ages, the leaves become more peppery, spicy and even bitter.  Wild arugula tends to be the most pungent. 

For my Hummus Quesadillas, I prefer the rocket or sylvetta variety, but any will work.  In fact, my kids prefer the baby arugula since they don’t like bitter greens.

Almonds

This nutritional nut is used quite a bit in Sicily, and the U.S. produces a large number of almonds now.  I love the almonds from Avola, Sicily when it’s possible to find them.  Another good quality almond is the Marcona from Spain.  When you buy almonds – or any other nuts – make sure you don’t see any nut crumbles in the bag; those nuts are old!

Tomatoes

My Tomato 101 suggestions are simple. 

For Sandwiches:  I prefer a large, meaty beef steak for my sandwiches when they are in season.  However, a good substitute for beef steak tomatoes are vine-ripened tomatoes, which are available all year round.

For Salads:  I love any heirloom tomatoes during the height of the summer season for my salads.  When not available, I look for the reddish-brown Kumato tomato, which I tend to find all year round.  When I cannot find Kumato or heirloom tomatoes, I look for smaller tomatoes for my salads, which tend to be sweeter.  For example, the Campari, Sweet 100, and Greenhouse Grown small tomatoes make great salads. 

For Sauces:  For tomato based sauce, I like the plum tomatoes.  When in season, I prefer the ones from New Jersey.  When not in season, I make my sauces with the famous San Marzano tomatoes, imported from Italy.  The best quality San Marzano tomatoes in cans are whole.

San Marzano tomatoes:  My father grew the sweetest cherry tomatoes in his garden in Sicily, and my parents harvested those tomatoes to make the most undeniably delicious tomato sauce that was carefully bottled, stored and used throughout the rest of the year.  I don’t have my father’s garden, nor his green thumb, so I typically make my sauce from canned San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. 

The San Marzano tomatoes are meaty and sweet and contain very few seeds.  I add them straight from the can to the skillet to make delicious tomato-based sauces.  I do have my favorite brands and encourage you to taste and choose your favorite.  If for any reason you cannot find your favorite or the product is not as sweet as you would like it, you can add a pinch or sugar or a small drizzle of honey while cooking the sauce to help it along.

Cherry Tomatoes: These glossy red and sometimes yellow tomatoes are smaller than most tomatoes and are often enjoyed in salads.  My father grew loads of cherry tomatoes, and I love to use them in salads and made into pasta sauces.  One quick cut down the middle results in a burst of flavor to many dishes.

Peperoncino

Peperoncino refers to several thin-walled, medium sized hot peppers used often in Italian cooking.   They are grown in the Calabria region of southern Italy, and the pepper is fruitier and spicier than a typical red chili. 

The peperoncino flakes are easy to find and keep well in the spice rack and are added to certain Italian dishes to add heat and flavor.  You can also find the powdered versions in some specialty shops which tend to be quite spicy.  In Calabria, it is typical to add this ingredient to many of their local dishes.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is Italy’s liquid gold.  I suggest keeping two olive oils in the house – a lower quality, less expensive olive oil for cooking and a special extra virgin olive oil that you can use to dress salads, finish your soups, pastas, main courses and more. 

Remember that extra virgin olive oils will vary from region to region.  When you begin to find your favorite, remember that stronger, more piquant olive oils work better drizzled on meat while lighter, more delicate oils will complement your seafood and lighter vegetable dishes. When you saute or pan fry a delicate meat or fish, I often opt for a good quality vegetable or canola oil.