Popular Vegetables used in Italian Cooking
Italians use many vegetables in their cooking, making it not only flavorful but one of the healthiest cuisines. There are some regional differences in the vegetables used in Italian cooking. The South is much warmer, with a much longer growing season, therefore southerners use vegetables that thrive under hotter conditions, like tomatoes. This is the reason dishes with red sauces are more popular in the South than the North. Other popular Southern vegetables are eggplant and broccoli raab. In the North, vegetables that thrive in cooler temperatures and less sunlight are more popular; head cabbages, black leaf kale, cardoons, and radicchio.
The following are some of the more common vegetables popular in both Italy and America.
Eggplant is a versatile vegetable and used in a variety of Italian dishes.
It is one of the most prominent staples of Southern Italian cooking. When raw it can have a somewhat bitter taste, but when cooked, becomes tender and develops a rich, complex flavor. Pick eggplants when they have reached their full size and their skins are still a glossy purple. Once the exterior becomes dull purple, the eggplant is over-mature. Salting and then rinsing the sliced eggplant will soften and remove much of the bitterness. Eggplant discolors quickly when sliced, therefore you can rub it with lemon juice to prevent browning. Also, cooking it in enamel, glass, or stainless steel will prevent discoloration.
Zucchini is a small summer squash, also commonly called Italian squash. It is a wonderful, sweet vegetable that looks similar to a cucumber. It can either be yellow or green to light green, and generally has a similar shape to a ridged cucumber, though a few varietes are round or bottle-shaped.
Unlike the cucumber, it is usually served cooked - often steamed, boiled, grilled, stuffed and baked, or fried. I think zucchini is best when quickly cooked so it retains its firmness and flavor. Two to four minutes is all it takes to cook a zucchini to perfection, with additional cooking it falls apart into watery mush. It is best picked when young and not more than 8 inches in length. You do not need to remove the skin before cooking, it is delicate and can be eaten. Although it is a vegetable, because of its sweetness, zucchini makes a delicious sweet, quick bread.
Tip: an easy way to remove the seeds is to first roll the whole zucchini on a hard surface with your hands to apply pressure over the zucchini and loosen the seeds. Then slice the zucchini in half and scoop out the seeds with a spoon.
Greens (spinach, kale, chard, endive, escarole, chicory, etc). There are many greens that are flavorful, easy to prepare and loaded with nutrients. These greens are a part of the Italian diet and an easy way to incorporate nutrition into the American diet. Italians often cook their radicchio or endive, but they are also excellent raw in salads for a quick, easy side dish with dinner. Chicory and endive can be cooked in soups or with beans to add nutrition and flavor.
Onions are a key vegetable in many Italian dishes just as they are in many other cuisines. A popular Italian variety of onion is the cippolini (chip-oh-LEE-nee). These round, flat Italian onions are about one to two inches in diameter and are easily found in the fall. They are usually pale yellow but can be a light brown. They are a sweeter variety of onions and their small, flat shape makes them wonderful for roasting. This variety of onion is delicious caramelized whole.
Hot peppers are used in Abruzzese cuisine; one of the few regions of Italy that uses hot peppers which they call diavolino or "little devils." Italian hot peppers are generally known as peperoncini (little peppers) and can be found in glass jars in any grocery store. I think Italian sandwiches are not the same without some peperoncini!
Sweet bell peppers are used throughout Italy and are popular in America as well. These peppers are readily available from local farmer’s markets in the summer and add color, flavor and nutrition to any dish – both cooked and raw.
In selecting bell peppers, you should pick ones that are firm and feel solid. Don't buy peppers that feel soft, look wrinkled, or have spots and signs that they are old. In terms of color, bell peppers are all green when young, becoming red, yellow, purple, or other colors as they ripen. Red and yellow peppers have the sweetest taste, while the green bell peppers have the strongest flavor.
Broccoli Rabe is a wilder member of the broccoli family and has small, fairly loose florets intermingled among the leaves of the plant. Unlike the broccoli most Americans are familiar with, broccoli raab is much leafier and the entire plant is eaten. Broccili rabe is quite bitter raw, therefore is usually served cooked. Look for young, vibrant green plants, with fresh leaves and abundant florets that are green rather than yellow. It can be found in some grocery stores in the U.S. but is usually available from specialty grocery and markets.
Asparagus is a very popular vegetable in Italy. Italians have been enjoying asparagus since Roman times. The thin varieties are best lightly steamed, while the thicker stalk varieties are excellent oven roasted or grilled. Brush with olive oil, season with salt, pepper and any other herb you like before cooking.
Fennel is a vegetable with a slight licorice taste and is excellent with seafood. Both the greens on the top and the white bulb can be eaten. It goes well with pasta, as a side dish with meats and works especially well with seafood.
Artichokes - There are a few different varieties of artichokes, and the variety commonly used in Italian cooking is the Globe artichoke - a species of thistle.
The edible part of the plant is the base of the artichoke head. It is eaten as a vegetable and is harvested well before any fruit develops. This variety of artichoke was first brought to California by Italians in the 1880s, and continues to be farmed mostly in California today. The artichoke can be cooked and eaten by itself, or the hearts can be cooked and added to many dishes.
How to prepare and cook artichokes.
Mushrooms and Truffles can add flavor to just about anything.
Mushrooms and Truffles
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