How do you learn to cook? How do you approach a new cuisine? Usually there is a number of basic ingredients that keep coming back in the recipes you’re going to make. Have them at hand, know how to use them, when and in which proportions, learn to combine them and you’ll handle brilliantly this new cuisine.
This post was inspired by the 23rd episode of our podcast, Cooking with an Italian Accent, where I explored a Tuscan pantry, my Tuscan pantry, and the countless recipes you can make with the staple ingredients.
A few years ago, I introduced here on the blog the concept of building a cooking repertoire: once you define a number of recipes that you love, that are reliable and express your true soul as a cook, work on your pantry.
Stock it with the essential ingredients to cook your favourite recipes and to improvise, store your food so that you can control quantities and expiring dates, browse through the jars, bags and cans often, not to leave anything behind.
These are the ingredients – or, better said, the ingredient categories – that for me are essential for my daily cooking, from basic seasonal recipes, when mixed with fresh vegetables, meat or fish, to traditional dishes to the most improvised meals.
1) Extra virgin olive oil
Of course. I could not start from anything else. A top-quality bottle of extra virgin olive oil is still one of the best gifts I can receive.
How many bottles do I keep in my pantry?
Well, there’s the extra virgin olive oil I use for cooking: it is an average good quality, 100% Italian, often organic extra virgin olive oil. On a side note, remember that you can cook, braise, fry with extra virgin olive oil.
If you are interested to learn more about it, you can read this post from the blog archive Why is extra virgin olive oil good for you? or listen to the 24th episode of Cooking with an Italian accent, In conversation with: Frantoio Pruneti about Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Along with the extra virgin olive oil I use for cooking, I always keep an excellent extra virgin olive oil: it might be a local one, or an olive oil from a producer I know and love, or maybe a DOP or IGP olive oil, either from Tuscany or from other parts of Italy. I am especially fond of extra virgin olive oil from Sicily and from Puglia, or from Liguria when it comes to baking with it. Every region, or even area and town, produce a different extra virgin olive oil, so it would be worth planning a grand tour of Italy through its best extra virgin olive oil.
I also keep in my pantry an organic vegetable oil – sunflower or peanut – that I generally use for frying when I do not want to use extra virgin olive oil. It is not for a matter of health, as I repeat, feel free to fry with it. It is rather a matter of taste: sometimes I prefer a more neutral oil for my fried food.
I use a sunflower oil also when I make torta di ceci, a chickpea cake from the Tuscan coast, a recipe which is a perfect example of the kind of food you can make just by using ingredients from your pantry. Add seasonal vegetables like cavolo nero, spring onions or zucchini flowers and it becomes a respectable meal.
Speaking of fat as a cooking ingredient, in the past they would also have lard (that we call strutto, don’t get confused with lardo, which is a delicacy!) to fry and preserve food. Read more about the difference in between lardo and strutto here.
Butter is not so important for Tuscan cooking,. Today I’m talking about cooking, not baking, as in that case there would be another list of ingredients, and butter would have a predominant role. But when it comes to cooking, there aren’t many recipes where butter is fundamental. Just imagine, I often make risotto sautéing the finely minced onion in extra virgin olive oil rather than in butter.
But even in Tuscan cooking there are a few recipes where I cannot do without butter: when I dress ravioli or gnudi with brown butter and sage, for example, or when I prepare my chicken liver spread. In this case, butter, anchovies and capers are essential ingredients.
Speaking of the importance of the ingredients you keep in your pantry and of how you combine them, do you know that you can tell where you are in Italy, according to how you prepare your tomato sauce?
Tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and garlic are typical of the South of Italy, Tuscany included, while tomatoes, butter and onion are typical of the North of Italy. Of course, it is not a dogma, as then you enter into the insidious territory of family traditions, but as a tule of thumbs, it works.
Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce is made with canned tomatoes, butter and onion. Then, there is another Marcella, my grandmother, nonna Marcella. She makes her tomato sauce with extra virgin olive oil, tomatoes and garlic. But she might use a knob of butter just to round the flavour of a pasta al pomodoro, along with grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Italy is surrounded by the sea, so we have always had plenty of salt to preserve our food: our prosciutto, pork cheek, the old pecorino cheese, but even tomato paste, they are all cured and preserved with time and salt. Smoked charcuterie, like the delicious spek I used in this apple and cheese salad, belongs to the North East of Italy, where strong is the influence of the German countries and cuisines.
Even though our Tuscan bread is typically bland, sciocco, we are quite generous when it comes to using salt in cooking. Or at least, I am. During my cooking classes, everyone laughs at the size of my drop of olive oil and pinch of salt, so I started defining them an Italian drop of olive oil and an Italian pinch of salt, which I usually make using three fingers, not two.
I’ve always felt ok in using the needed amount of salt in food, but after reading Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat, I feel even more empowered to use salt, when needed, and in the right amount, not only to give flavour, but to make a dish.
Which kind of salt do I use?
Fine sea salt for cooking, coarse sea salt for the pasta water, both unrefined and from Sicily. Then I have a precious jar of Maldon salt, a wonderful flaky sea salt from England, which I buy by the bucket on Amazon, that I use to finish a dish, as a tomato salad or chocolate cookie.
Then, I always have a jar of my mum’s Tuscan rub salt on my kitchen shelf, made with salt, black pepper, sage, rosemary and garlic. And this brings me to the third category, herbs and spices.
3) Herbs and spices
We do not use many spices in Tuscan cooking: black pepper is definitely the most used, from curing the prosciutto to sprinkling over cannellini beans or chickpeas. Nutmeg, one of the most loved spices in the Renaissance times, which at that time was worth more than gold, is still used especially when you are making gnocchi, béchamel sauce, and with spinach. It is mainly used for savoury dishes, though. Just imagine the surprise the first time I felt so brave to use nutmeg in a pumpkin pie.
Along with black pepper and nutmeg, I use also juniper berries for game meat, fennel seeds (or dried fennel flowers) for pork, aniseeds for some old-fashioned cakes. Obviously, I have a well-stocked spice cupboard – zaatar and coriander seeds being my favourite ‘foreign’ spices – that I use when I feel like experimenting.
So, what about herbs?
In the Tuscan cuisine, we have a sacred triad: sage, rosemary and garlic, which we use for roasted meat – from a whole roasted chicken to roast beef, from stuffed turkey breast to porchetta -, fish, but also focaccia. I am partial to nepitella, calamint, too, especially with mushrooms, eggplants and artichokes.
When it comes to herbs, we usually use fresh herbs, never dried, with only one exception: oregano. People in the South of Italy can be very specific when they talk about oregano. When I go to Salento, in Puglia, to visit Tommaso’s family, I always buy dried oregano at the market. They invariably ask me from which coast I want my oregano, from the Ionian Sea or from the Adriatic Sea, as it has a completely different aroma and temperament.
I inherited the southern love for dried oregano from my granddad Biagio’s family. He was from Basilicata, a tiny region in between Campania and Puglia, and I find it listed often in the ingredient list of the typical recipes of that part of Italy, like in this onion bread.
4) Dried beans
If you browse through my pantry, you would always find a bag of dried cannellini beans, but sometimes also borlotti beans, or red beans from Lucca, or fagioli del purgatorio, smaller and creamier than cannellini. If I feel like splurging on my supplies, I would treat myself to a bag of fagioli zolfini, zolfini beans, the most delicate, creamy and expensive beans from Pratomagno, near Arezzo, in Tuscany. They are known as zolfini as their yellowish colour reminds that of sulphur, which is zolfo in Italian, hence zolfini.
Along with beans, I feel the urge to stock my pantry with dried chickpeas and lentils, even though beans are definitely the most used pulses in my family.
After an overnight soak, I simmer the beans on the lowest flame for about 2 hours – sometimes more, sometimes less, it depends on the beans – until buttery and soft. Then I simply drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. I usually cook a large batch of beans that lasts for a few days: I make salads with them, soups, or typical recipes like fagioli all’uccelletto.
When we make pizza, or bake bread in our wood burning oven, I always cook a pot of beans. After my dad removes all the coals from the oven, after having baked bread or a cake, at the end of the day I stash in the oven a pot of dried beans – no soaking required in this case – with plenty of water. I keep them in the oven overnight to cook. In the morning, you’ll find the creamiest beans you have ever tasted, they only need a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and salt.
Now, let me be honest, and human.
Nothing beats dried beans, baked in a wood burning oven or soaked overnight and simmered with herbs and garlic, true, but in my pantry, I always keep jars of cooked beans and chickpeas. I buy Italian, and when possible organic, pulses. They saved more than a dinner with an impromptu hummus with raw vegetable sticks, pasta e fagioli or, a classic, a tuna and bean salad.
I could not imagine a pantry without flour, could you? But which kind of flour?
Without getting too specific or geeky about flour, I stock several different varieties of wheat flour: more and less refined, stoneground, from 00 (the most refined, which I usually do not like) to whole wheat. I choose a strong one for bread (with a high percentage of proteins), and a weak one (with a low percentage of proteins) for shortcrust and biscotti.
Usually I buy flour in bulk online from a mill in the North of Italy, so I stock also farro, rye and durum wheat flour, which I use for bread, or durum wheat semolina, which I use for pasta along with a type 0 wheat flour. I also keep a jar of chickpea flour, too, to make torta di ceci.
As for the chestnut flour, I keep it in the freezer, as it is a very perishable flour. It is a traditional flour, known also as farina dolce, sweet flour, used to make necci, castagnaccio, and, in small quantities, in pasta and biscotti. It used to be a staple ingredient for the cucina povera of the mountain areas of Tuscany, yet in these days, it’s hard to find good quality chestnut flour – it shows up just in select supermarkets, and it’s very costly.
If you are interested to know more about chestnuts and chestnut flour, you can read this article I’ve written for Dievole: Chestnut Recipes and Traditions in Tuscan Cuisine.
Last but not least, in a Tuscan pantry you usually find also corn flour, farina gialla, yellow flour, for polenta, even though it is not as common as in the north east of Italy. I tend to buy a local ancient variety from Garfagnana, formenton 8 file, which is less refined and so tasty.
I’ve talked extensively about the Tuscan love for bread, but it’s worth mentioning it again, as it is among the staple ingredients of my pantry, in its three stages.
It has been the staple ingredient of Tuscan cooking for centuries. Since our bread is made without salt, it is the perfect complement to our salty prosciutto or pecorino Toscano. My grandmother still eats everything with bread, fruit included.
In the recent years, I started making my own sourdough bread, until it became a soothing ritual. Once a week I bake three whole wheat sourdough loaves: one usually disappears immediately within the first day, when it is still warm and fragrant, with a crunchy crust and a mellow crumb. One is quickly sliced and frozen, for the weeks when I do not have time to bake. The last bread keeps well for a few days, sliced and slightly toasted, for breakfast or dinner, enjoyed until the last crumb.
Stale bread is the real staple ingredient of Tuscan cuisine. There are so many recipes that belong to the Tuscan cucina povera where stale bread is the undisputable star. Think about pappa al pomodoro, panzanella, acquacotta or ribollita. We talked extensively about bread and stale bread in the Tuscan food culture in the third episode of our podcast, listen to it here.
I can’t live without home-made breadcrumbs, made from stale bread. I use these coarse and flavourful breadcrumbs to stuff meat, like this Christmassy roast chicken, to roast vegetables in the oven with capers, Parmigiano and herbs, to sprinkle, toasted, on pasta, to give substance to meatballs and meatloaves. Sometimes I let the bread go stale just because I need another batch of breadcrumbs.
Eggs are another ingredient I have to have in my pantry. Traditionally we do not eat eggs for breakfast, even though I might have them once a week in the morning, as they fill me up and I can work until lunchtime without being hungry.
In more than a school trip my packed lunch was a panino with a frittata, made in the morning and immediately stashed in between two slices of bread by mum, so that the oil and the warmth of the frittata could soak up the bread and meld the two ingredients in the best packed lunch ever.
Tommaso and my dad just built a chicken coop, so finally we’ll have again our fresh eggs. Now we have 5 chickens: two livornesi, all white, that will lay white eggs too, two tosca, the typical red chickens from Tuscany, and a black and white one. I cannot wait to have my own eggs! Still undecided on how to use them, though.
8) Charcuterie and cheese
Nowadays we tend to keep our cheese and charcuterie in the fridge, but in the past, when every family in the countryside would slaughter a pig at the beginning of winter, prosciutto, salame, cured pork cheek and lardo were kept in the pantry and frugally consumed through the following months.
Same for cheese, often bought fresh and then aged in the cellar. Here it was often pecorino, sheep milk cheese.
I’m probably influenced by those old times, but in my pantry, or fridge, I tend to keep a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano or aged pecorino, that I use for pasta, or to nibble on when peckish, a hunk of prosciutto, that we slice from time to time when we need it, and some cured pork cheek, to add flavour to my dishes.
9) Canned tomatoes
Even though tomatoes are definitely more typical of a Southern cuisine, my family has always preserved tomatoes during summer for the winter. Tomato puree, la passata, and tomato sauce with celery, carrot and onion, la pomarola, but also canned peeled tomatoes, i pelati, and tomato paste, concentrato di pomodoro, something we tend to buy now, as it takes forever to make it.
A bottle of tomato purée solves a quick dinner if you make a pasta al pomodoro with a shower of grated parmigiano Reggiano, or uovo al pomodoro, when you fry a couple of eggs in tomato sauce.
Tomato paste is my grandma’s secret ingredient, that she uses for ragù, soups and stews.
10) Dry pasta
Last but not least, pasta. You can’t even imagine how many times I have been asked if we Italians eat only fresh pasta made from scratch. In our family tradition, fresh pasta is made from scratch when there is something to celebrate, for Christmas or a Sunday gathering with relatives and friends. On the other occasions, we all buy dry pasta – without feeling guilty! – choosing the shape that best suits a certain seasoning or sauce.
Opening the pantry door and finding some packs of pasta waiting for you is reassuring, it means that in less than half an hour you can cook a good meal, choosing those ingredients that will become the dressing of your pasta inspired by tradition, creativity, seasonality or simply by what you have in your pantry and in your fridge.
These are the basic ingredients we can find in many a Tuscan kitchen, though I am probably a pantry enthusiast, and I feel a primordial urge to stock my pantry with the best produce of every season, too.
So, when I open my pantry, I see also bags of sugar, baking powder, cocoa powder, good dark chocolate, anchovies preserved in salt, or in oil, tiny capers, almonds, walnuts, canned tuna, sun dried tomatoes, raisins, dried mushrooms, especially porcini, home-made jams and marmalades, several jars of giardiniera, which is my collection of summer pickled vegetables preserved in extra virgin olive oil, baby artichokes in oil, home-made cured olives.
Now I am curious. How’s your pantry? Are there ingredients you can not do without? Do you cook by simply picking ingredients from it?
Improvised meals from the pantry
All these ingredients help me to improvise a meal when I’m late, when my fridge is empty, when I have some improvised guests, when we’re unusually hungry for lunch and we eat also what I had planned to have for dinner.
This way of cooking, picking ingredients from the pantry, mixing and matching the flavours, is simple, satisfying, liberating, creative.
You can’t even imagine how many tuna salads with hard boiled eggs, delicious plates of pasta, frittata but also sweet treats I’ve made just by marrying some of the ingredients in my pantry.
In the 23rd podcast episode, I shared a recipe for pasta with anchovies, capers and breadcrumbs. Today I want to share another one of my favourite pastas, made with some ingredients I always keep in my pantry, and that you should have, too.
A recipe. Pasta with tuna sauce
Nothing fancy here, just good home cooking, or a recipe that students on a budget really love. While I was slowly stewing the white onion in olive oil, I realised this is the way my mum cooked for all her life, and how she still cooks, relying on a bunch of staple ingredients from her pantry: pasta, eggs, tuna, prosciutto, rice, frozen vegetables.
They would grant her a filling meal for us even when she would come back home late from work. Cooking is her least favourite activity, but she managed to feed the whole family, day after day, avoiding pre-cooked meals, just by fishing out basic ingredients from her pantry: this is probably why I am now such a pantry enthusiast.
This is one of her Sunday dressings for pasta, something I prepare now as a weekly meal. Your favourite pasta – I like short ones with a hole to collect the sauce, like penne or tortiglioni – a can of good quality tuna, a can of tomato sauce – my favourite brands? Petti and Mutti –a white onion, the heat of a chili pepper, and obviously extra virgin olive oil and salt. I am sure these are all basic ingredients you keep in your pantry, so why don’t you give it a go?
Pasta with tuna sauce
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ½ white onion
- chili pepper
- 150 g (1 cup) drained canned tuna
- 400 g (1 2/3 cups) tomato purée
- 350 g (3/4 lb) dried pasta
- Thinly slice the onion and collect it in a small pot. Add the olive oil, some crushed chili pepper and a good pinch of salt. The salt will help you stew the onions without burning it, as it will extract moisture from the onions.
- Stew the onions on low flame until soft and translucent, for about 5-8 minutes.
- Break down the canned tuna chunks with a fork and add it to the onions.
- Cook the tuna with the onions for a couple of minutes, stirring often, then add the tomato purée. Stir well, season with salt, then cook on the lowest flame for about 10 minutes, until thick and shiny. Set aside.
- Put a large pot of water on the stove and bring it to a boil. When the water is boiling, salt the water and add the pasta. Stir and cook following the packaging time until al dente.
- Drain the pasta and dress it with the tuna sauce. Toss thoroughly and serve immediately.