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:
Olives and capers
Tomatoes (fresh and canned)
Parmesan cheese or other hard 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 more than 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.
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
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 (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
In a large pot, bring chicken stock, carrot, celery and 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.
photo credit: SummerTomato