Primarily an agrarian society, with the exception perhaps of the automobile industry, Italian food has for long depended on the use of fresh, local ingredients for every day meals. A dish could be as simple as a freshly picked courgette, gently roasted in an oven, lightly drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, flavoured with a mild garlic rub and seasoned with a little salt. Such simple preparations allow the full flavours of the ingredients to burst through in every bite. Eaten with a hunk of freshly baked bread and accompanied by a glass of young, local wine, every meal becomes one fit for a king!
Simple and unpretentious cooking is perhaps the hallmark of Italian food. Touched by many other cultures over the years, including Arab, Grecian and French influences, Italian food today represents a refined cuisine that nonetheless represents honest food without putting on many airs.
A.D. Singh, restaurateur of note and one of the few who appear to have ‘cracked the code’ remarks, In the Italian food scene there are two interesting developments; one being the availability of good quality Italian food in many different formats and not just high end dining. The second draws attention to the growth of Mediterranean restaurants that incorporate Italian but offer food from across a much wider canvas. Singh does however feel that the dining majority want pizza and pasta for most part while an ever growing segment of discerning diners seek authenticity and higher quality ingredients.
The simple nature of Italian food however, isn’t necessarily represented by the many Italian restaurants that dot the city. Fast food chains peddling pastas clogged with starchy, oily sauces or pizzas stuffed with processed cheese aren’t helping things either. Given the commercial nature of their presence, one can understand restaurants tailoring their products to suit local tastes. This recipe, overhead at a local supermarket, imparted by a lady instructing another in the making of pasta, explains why we find suspect Italian food at most restaurants. Make a bhuna masala with garlic, tomatoes and onions, add a spoon each of pizza sauce and pasta sauce, mix with boiled pasta, season and sprinkle red chili powder over.[box type=”info”] Appetizers from Heaven
Antipasti follow the same traditions as the rest of Italian food – the use of simple, local and fresh ingredients. An age old Italian practice, antipasti is found in mentions as early as the first century CE, when Marcus Gavius Apicius recommended dishes such as ham with figs, eel marinated with rosemary and songbird tongues for use as antipasti in his cookbook, considered to be the earliest surviving collection of Italian recipes. Here are a few antipasti that are ridiculously simple to make but end up as delightfully tasty pre-dinner tidbits.
- Slices of grilled aubergine, flavoured with garlic and slight drizzle of balsamic vinegar topped with a splash of extra virgin olive oil.
- Insalata Caprese di Bufala, perhaps the most well known Italian salad in the world, is also one of the most simple dishes to replicate in your kitchen. Snowy white sliced, fresh, mozzarella and sliced, succulent tomatoes tossed with leaves of fresh basil, freshly cracked black pepper and topped off with a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil.
- Crostini (little toasts, in Italian) are part of the antipasti club and are small slices of toasted bread topped with any number of toppings such as meats, cheese or perhaps a tapenade made of olives, anchovies, capers and olive oil. Finely chopped or pureed, tapenades make excellent toppings and are best when freshly prepared. Did you know crostini and its cousin, bruschetta are said to have originated in medieval times when Italian peasants would use slices of bread as plates, then eat the plate too? This practice isn’t only restricted to Italy and was prevalent in England too, where the bread-plates were called Trenchers; perhaps a part of the history of the term Trencherman. Interestingly, the city of Florence takes credit for the origin of Crostini, which can be as simple as a piece of toast, rubbed with tomato and garlic, then drizzled with sea salt and olive oil. [/box]
Olive oil, a commodity that a couple of decades back was mostly used for massaging infants and children, has found its way into the kitchen, thanks to tireless efforts by various agricultural bodies, restaurants and other related agencies. Quite a desirable presence in the kitchen today, mainly for it’s healthy nature, most olive oils are healthy though all aren’t equally suited for use with Indian food. The highest quality begins with cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil or EVOO that is quite flavourful and used with salads, as a garnish or as a dip. Contrary to popular belief, extra virgin olive oil can be used for deep frying though due to its lower smoke point, it is necessary to regulate temperatures carefully. Going through a series of different oils, all blends of virgin olive oil and other refined oils, we reach Olive Pomace Oil, that much maligned oil that most self respecting gourmets wouldn’t allow in their immediate vicinity. Granted Olive Pomace Oil doesn’t have any of the lovely flavours present in EVOO, but did you know the structure of this oil is nearly the same as EVOO… and therefore has nearly identical health benefits? Sure, it can’t be used as a table oil as EVOO can, but its higher smoke point makes it perfect for use with Indian cooking without losing much of its healthy nature.[box type=”info”] Retail Grades of Olive Oil
Many different grades of olive oil exist in the market, the composition of which is sometimes a mystery. Note that these are different from manufacturing grades. Even in retail grades, the list goes beyond Olive Pomace Oil, which are not recommended for consumption. Olive oil grading is a strictly regulated process with the following gradations:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes from virgin oil stock, must contain 0.8% or less acidity and must taste superior. Usually not cooked with, EVOO is used as salad dressing, a dip or as a table garnish among other possible uses.
Virgin Olive Oil too comes from virgin oil stock, must contain 1.5% or less acidity and must taste superior. It is used in much the same way as EVOO.
Pure Olive Oil or simply olive oil labelled products usually are a blend of virgin olive oil and other refined oils. They do not have as much flavour as EVOO.
Olive Pomace Oil is oil extracted from the remnants of the olive oil production process, has neutral flavours, a high smoke point that makes it suitable for deep frying and has health benefits comparable to EVOO as per some sources, depending on the method of extraction used.
Lampante Oil, graded below Olive Pomace Oil isn’t suitable for human consumption and is used industrially. The name comes from history; it was used in the past to fuel oil lamps!
You’ll find the term ‘Cold Press’ used on labels to describe high quality olive oil. It indicates the oil wasn’t heated over a certain temperature, typically 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold press method ensures the oil retains higher levels of nutrients and isn’t degraded much. [/box]
This concludes part two of my series on Delhi’s Italian Connection. Part III comes up tomorrow!
Overhead photo: Tortellini with Duck Confit and Balsamic, Italia