For this installment of my food-focused mini-series, andiamo in Italia! Italian cooking is so familiar to many of us in the U.S. that Italian dishes are probably among the first things we think of when coming up with vegetarian meal ideas. At my parents’ house this summer, they cooked almost nothing but pasta for me. In my own cooking, obviously, I have a lot more variety–but some form of pizza or pasta is on the menu weekly at my house. (This is especially true since I purchased a pizza stone. Everyone who loves pizza should have one of these; I love the crisp, bubbly crust that I get when cooking on stoneware.)
So what can I tell you about Italian vegetarian cooking that you may not already know? Well, although there are some religious restrictions on meat eating in the Catholic church that may have led to the development of a varied cuisine rich with seafood and vegetarian options, economics also has a lot to do with Italian food. While the legend of Marco Polo importing pasta from China is untrue (pasta probably originated in ancient Greece or the Middle East), pasta became popular with sailors and the lower classes because it could be made in large batches (i.e., when ingredients were available), dried, and stored for long periods of time. Other vegetarian dishes were also likely developed for reasons of practicality: mushrooms grow wild throughout Italy, and polenta is a well-known peasant food made from simple ingredients (really simple–cornmeal and water) that has caught on for many vegetarians. Remember, for centuries Italy was a fragmented country with principalities constantly at war and lots of families barely getting by. When you’re forced to survive and economize, you make do with what you have. And while the poor were making due with creative calories, the wealthy were importing new spices from around the globe. The marriage of high and low cuisines can create dishes that are elegant but simple: The first margherita pizza was made in Naples in 1889 for Italy’s Queen Margherita with just a simple flour dough, herbed tomato sauce, and cheese topped with tomato and basil.
If you really want to embrace Italian cuisine, think outside the pasta box. For tonight’s Italian dinner, I decided to make a risotto. Risotto can be intimidating, but really it just takes a little time and attention. I used 1.5 cups of medium-grain rice, about 4 cups of vegetable stock, 3 tbsp. of butter, 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, and 1/2 cup of white wine (on loan from my roommate, given how I’m on the wagon and all). Beyond that, you can add whatever you want to your risotto. Tonight, I had a variety of veggies to use up so mine included most of an onion, an ear of sweet corn, half a carrot, and a crown of broccoli.
To start, melt 2 tbsp. of butter in a very large pot over medium heat. In another, smaller pot, heat the broth to a low boil. Then add the rice to the pot of butter (I also added the onion here) and saute for a few minutes. Add the wine if you so choose, and cook while stirring for a few minutes until the wine is almost absorbed. At that point, start adding the vegetable broth a little at a time. If you have a ladle, about 1 ladle of broth every 3-4 minutes will keep you going until all the broth is absorbed. You will basically spend 20 minutes adding broth as needed (a new ladle every time the rice starts to get dry), stirring, and repeating the process. Just mind that you don’t get burned by the steam! After 20 minutes, you should have rice that is cooked al dente. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese and 1 tbsp. butter (aka, more good stuff). The result will be creamy, brownish, lightly toasted rice grains that taste like deliciousness. At this point, add in any other toppings you like. I boiled my broccoli, carrots, and corn separately, and it turned out great. The rice had a bit of salty flavor, so the sweet corn complimented it wonderfully. This recipe also made about 4 servings, so I’ll have plenty for later!
If you want more great Italian meal ideas, check out Giada de Laurentiis’s Everyday Italian or search her recipes at the Food Network web site. This recipe is a take-off on her risotto. While not everything she makes is vegetarian, she has a lot of great vegetarian meals and things that can be easily modified for the budding vegetarian gourmet. Enjoy!