Italian Cooking Basics
- The best ingredients are not necessarily the most expensive – make use of good, high street fruit and veg shops rather than wasting money at high end supermarkets as you will get the same quality for a lot less. If you do buy luxury ingredients – caviar, truffle and so on – just remember that less is more. You don’t want to lose the essence of the overall dish by overpowering it with one dominant flavour, even if it’s very luxurious.
- Use the right pan. You don’t need to buy into any silly gadgets – or even a garlic crusher – they won’t enhance your cooking. Having a good griddle pan on the other hand is life changing.
- Season during cooking. You want to cook the salt into your food, so season meat, fish and veg before they hit the flame to make a really well-seasoned piece of seabass, rather than seabass with salt sprinkled on top. The same goes for soups and purees as well – season your ingredients during frying, boiling or roasting, rather than adding salt to your blender.
- Use herbs and spices according to your preference. It’s true that in some recipes they can be overpowering, but it’s about the best marriage of herb and protein: I’ve been known to put up to a kilo of rosemary in a single litre of sauce, and I use bay leaves to excess in most of my cooking.
- Make a good sofrito. There is no secret to a good battuto, sofrito or mirepoix – whatever you want to call it – just use a sharp knife so you don’t bruise you onions (remove the first three layers to use for stocks) and if possible use Italian celery as it has a superior taste to any other celery I’ve eaten.
Start the sofrito cooking process with a pinch of salt as this helps to break down the vegetables, keep an eye on it and be patient while you let it sweat over a minimum heat with the lid on. Try not to open the pan too often as you don’t want to lose the steam from the vegetables. Patience is key: never add raw sofrito to a ragu as it will make the whole dish taste of raw onion. I usually cook my ragu and sofrito in 2 separate pots and add the soft sofrito to the ragu at the end so the flavours are not lost.
- Use the right amount of sauce. I’m a fan of sauces, condiments, whips and dressing as they are a great way to add flavour and are fun to make, but with pastas and risottos I want to taste the pasta and the rice. For me, the sauce is as much a vehicle for the pasta as the other way around.
- Taste while you cook. This may sound obvious but it’s so important it’s worth saying again: taste while you cook.