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For many recipes, I always recommend using genuine fontina from Vale d'Aosta because of its superb flavor, texture, and melting ability. Fortunately, imported authentic fontina is widely available in markets with good cheese departments or from gourmet vendors on the web. Be sure that you are buying DOP (Denomination of Protected Origin) fontina. It's slightly more expensive than other semi-soft cheeses, but it's well worth the cost.
Grow your own fresh basil, even if it's in just a small pot on the windowsill. It'll provide you great flavor for many of your dishes. Be sure to snip back the new shoots when they have four or five bright leaves. Also, be sure to keep the plant from flowering and it'll last for months. All you need is an ordinary sweet-basil plant like the ones at the supermarket. They will grow nicely with a bit of attention. If you're going to grow your own basil, I highly recommend taking a big batch and making pesto sauce in the late summer when basil is most abundant.
Stock is a wonderful thing to have on hand at all times and nothing you can buy at the store compares to what you'll make at home. Having stock handy is great when you want to prepare a quick soup or most sauces. I suggest that you cook up a batch of stock periodically and keep it in reserve. It stores well and can be concentrated (reduced) so that it takes up even less space. I like freezing stock in ice cube trays and keeping them in a plastic bag so I can just grab one or two quickly when I need it.
When buying rice for risotto dishes, look for shiny kernels of uniform pearly color, with no blotchiness, and a smooth surface that doesn't feel floury to the touch. Carnaroli, Arborio, Padano, and Vialone Nano are the varieties to look for. The best cooking vessel for risotto is a wide, heavy, non-reactive skillet that evenly disperses heat and allows evaporation to occur uniformly. The proper ratio of rice to liquid is 1:3-1/2. The trick to making a perfect risotto is using boiling stock and making sure to constantly stir. It's imperative that risotto be served and eaten immediately.
Roasting a Bell Pepper
Turn a gas burner on high and using long-handled tongs, place the pepper on the grates directly over the flames. Roast the peppers, turning them as necessary, until evenly blackened on all sides. Place the peppers in a bowl, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let stand until cool enough to handle. With your fingers, peel the skin from the pepper. Pull out the stems and empty out the seeds and juices.
Garlic-infused olive oil is a very handy thing to have in the kitchen. You must be careful though due to the slight chance that any uncooked garlic left to steep for too long can be a breeding ground for botulism. If you are concerned, make the oil with blanched or roasted garlic. To make the infused oil, add 3 thickly sliced cloves of garlic to each cup of extra virgin olive oil. Let steep for 2 to 3 hours. Strain the oil and discard the garlic if you're not using it immediately. Keep the oil in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
Minestra is the Italian word for a soup that's been made heartier by the addition of either pasta or rice. Keep in mind that when adding a starch to a soup you may need to include additional water or the starch will absorb a good amount of your broth.
You may make the soup ahead of time but don't add in the rice or pasta until just before you serve it; otherwise the rice or pasta will overcook and become mush.
You'll find that many of my recipes call for bay leaves. They lend a nice aromatic flavor to dishes. Dried bay leaves are more common in restaurants although you can use fresh, too. Some fresh bay leaves do tend to have a slightly bitter flavor however. Add whole bay leaves to a dish at the start of cooking, and be sure to use them in stocks and braising liquids especially. Be sure to take them out once your dish is finished cooking.
I much prefer fresh rosemary over dried. This is an herb where I feel it's almost essential to use fresh. It has a wonderful pine fragrance that is lost to some extent when dried, and a good amount of flavor is lost as well. Add rosemary to stews or use it with a variety of roasted meats — it goes very nicely with lamb.
Kosher salt is the salt most commonly used in professional kitchens. A lot of home cooks often ask, ''What's the difference? Does it taste so much better?'' The answer is surprisingly, ''No''. Many chefs like kosher salt because of its large, coarse granules, making it much easier to apply. Some will argue that they can taste the difference between kosher and table salt, but if you can, it's negligible. The only main difference is the size, like I mentioned, and the fact that it doesn't contain iodine which may help it dissolve easier.
You will find that many of my recipes that call for this sheep's milk cheese from central and southern Italy. Pecorino is very brittle with a sharper flavor than other grating cheeses. Use it in place of or in combination with Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it is also good with olives, sausages, and red wine.
Information provided by Lidia Bastianich.
Lidia Bastianich has contributed significantly to America's burgeoning appreciation for Italian cuisine over the past two decades through her cookbooks and television series. Now she wants to bring some of her kitchen into the homes of her loyal fans.
Lidia has combined the beauty of Italy and the functionality of her own cooking style to create Lidia's Kitchen, a cookware and tabletop extravaganza for the home. The shapes and designs reflect Lidia's own favorites, and allow for easy family-style serving.
Lidia has created the line with simplicity in mind, while keeping a keen eye on aesthetics and functionality. Durable and affordable, Lidia's Kitchen collection includes wonderful serving pieces, cookware, platters, and accessories that bring a taste of Old World charm to your home.
Information provided by Lidia Bastianich.