By Andrew Hind
Spring has arrived. The warmth of the sun, the gurgling of water cascading down streams, the pleasing melody of a bluebird first thing in the morning and the crystal blue sky above add a bounce to one’s step. It’s an invigorating, exciting time of year. Our appetites change with the seasons, and come spring we begin looking for foods with fresh ingredients, foods with more color and taste than what we’ve been eating all winter, perhaps something a bit more exciting to match the exuberance that naturally swells within us as days warm.
In that light, Italian cuisine is perfect for springtime. Italian cooking is about fresh ingredients, naturally enticing tastes and smells, passion for food and life, and of course, it’s about family and tradition. What could be more in keeping with the flavor of the season?
If your sole exposure to Italian cooking is a night at the Olive Garden, you’re missing out on a lot and you likely have a skewed perspective of what Italian food is all about. Italy may be known as the birthplace of spaghetti and meatballs and pizza, but the country’s gastronomic gifts to the world don’t end there.
“Italian food is far more varied that pizza and pasta. That’s just the North American view of the culture,” says Andreas Drechsel, the sous-chef at The Rosseau in Minett. Classically trained in European kitchens, Drechsel knows a thing or two about Italian cooking. As a result, he’s perfectly at home in Teca, the resort’s authentic Italian bistro which, with its dimmed lighting, elegant décor, and food prepared the traditional Italian way, was named one of Where Magazine’s Top Ten New Restaurants in Canada in 2009.
“Think about it: Italy is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea on three sides, so seafood would naturally be a part of their cuisine. And it is! Fish and seafood is a typical dinner in Italian homes,” Drechsel says, with obvious enthusiasm. “If you want to cook fish, try salmon or pan-fried black cod.”
Italians also love meat dishes. Interestingly enough, while veal is a staple on Italian-American menus, it’s not really all that common in Italy. Far more frequently seen is beef or lamb. As a traditional side, consider artichoke and green beans.
But no authentic Italian meal is just a single dish. Italians love to linger over long, multi-course meals, with a different wine for each course and lots of time to leisurely sip it.
“Start a party with an antipasto, or appetizer. The perfect choice is bruschetta, a classic Italian appetizer. Its origin goes way back to a poor country where you used what you had and made sure there was no waste. Bruschetta was a way of using old bread; grilled, with some olive oil and topped with tomatoes, it was a simple and practical meal,” says Drechsel, as his hands deftly whip up a few samples to show how quick and easy they truly are to make. Less than five minutes later, the mouthwatering appetizers are ready to eat.
“Bruschetta are very versatile, you don’t have to limit yourself to tomatoes. The key is to use natural ingredients and those that grow in the Mediterranean, such as figs, olives, artichoke, shrimp, calamari salad, and so on. And the best thing about them is they are so easy to make it allows you to keep your company fed while you work on other courses.”
Following the appetizer one usually has a soup, such as minestrone, or a salad, perhaps Caesar or arugula. In North America, pasta is generally considered a main, but not so in Italy. Typically, there would be a hot pasta dish as well, known as primo, or ‘first course’. This could be agnolotti in artichoke sauce, gnocchi, or even the old staple, spaghetti and meatballs. Here’s a tip: you really don’t need oil when cooking pasta. It’s a bit of a myth that oil helps stop the pasta from sticking together. Instead, just use a lot of boiling water in a big pot, add salt to season, and make sure to stir now and then. If you want, use a bit of extra-virgin olive oil to dress the pasta once it’s cooked.
It’s also worth noting that olive oil should be consumed within a few months of being opened; we tend to keep it around far too long, and as a result it begins to ferment. If you use your oil only rarely, consider investing in an earthenware oil jar. The opaque exterior protects the oil from light, and thereby slows the fermentation process.
After the meat or fish main course (‘secundo’ in Italy), it’s time to serve dessert. Again, there are traditionally two courses involved. The first is some fruit and a cheese platter. When you’re putting together a cheese platter, balance is everything. Pair two strong, rich cheeses with two soft, mild ones, and of course no platter is complete without some real Parmigiano. After clearing the fruit and cheese, its time for dolce (which translates to ‘sweet’), a selection of pastries and cakes.
But an authentic Italian meal isn’t just about what you serve; it’s also about how you prepare it.
“Italian food is all about using fresh ingredients. You want fresh vegetables, whenever possible, freshly made pasta, and good quality meat or fish,” says Drechsel. “Also, fresh herbs are important for getting that vibrant flavour. We keep an herb garden here that includes herbs commonly used in Italian cooking, such as parsley, rosemary, oregano, lemon balm, and thyme. It doesn’t require much work and the benefits are obvious.
“Italians have a pride in ancestral recipes, so their cooking is about traditional, old-fashioned food,” Drechsel continues. “So don’t over-think it. Keep the food simple. Make the ingredients work and allow their flavors, aromas and colours to stand on their own. Spaghetti and meatballs, for example, is a classic Italian meal. Use fresh tomatoes for your sauce, make the meatballs using fresh meat, and keep the presentation simple.”
Finally, if you want to truly eat like an Italian, serve dinner in the afternoon. In North America, we typically skip breakfast or grab something on the run, have a sandwich or fast food for lunch, and then sit down late at night for a heavy, indulgent dinner. Europeans do it differently. Their largest meal is lunch, following by a light dinner that doesn’t weigh on your stomach while you sleep. Drechsel explains Europeans have an expression that explains their eating habits: breakfast as a king, lunch as an emperor, dinner as a poor man.
The sun-kissed Mediterranean flavours of Italian food are delicious at any time of year, but never more so than in spring. You can almost taste the oncoming summer when you bite into a tomato-shrouded bruschetta or a savour pasta sauce infused with fresh herbs. Mangia!