When you hear the words "Italy" and "vegetables" you probably think tomatoes — maybe because tomato sauce is one of the most brilliant inventions since, well, ever. But Italy grows an incredible variety of vegetables, including some, like corn, that Americans generally claim as their own.
Here's a rundown of some of the produce that makes Italian cuisine so incredible, with suggestions for ways to combine flavors that can take your own cooking from good to great. Get ready for a crash course.
But first, one important lesson: Seasonality is everything in Italian cooking, and that's particularly true with produce. If it's not for sale right now at your local farmer's market, think twice before using it.
Olive oil is as indispensable to Italian cuisine as pasta, so it makes sense that olives are a key crop. Whole olives add a salty zing to recipes like puttanesca sauce. And olive oil is used for just about everything, from drizzling on bread and soups to sautéing meats and vegetables. For a fast dinner, mix extra-virgin olive oil with a little anchovy paste and toss with pasta and the veggie of your choice. OMG that's good.
Italy grows thousands of different types of wine grapes. You've probably heard of Montepulciano and Sangiovese but the lesser-known varieties, like Vermentino and Nebbiolo, are just as amazing. Perk up meat sauces or fish dishes with a little wine (and then save some to drink with your meal). Or roast whole grapes alongside sausage or pork to add a bit of sweetness.
Didya know that sugar beets (grown mainly to produce sugar) are one of largest crops in Italy? Garden beets have a longer history in Italian cooking. You can roast 'em, flavor with balsamic, and use in salads or sides. Instead of tossing the greens, try sautéing them in olive oil and garlic. It's not only a great way to establish your Italian bona fides, but a tasty way to get a vitamin boost.
Italy is filled with groves producing limes, lemons, oranges and cedro. Ced-what? In English, these large, lemon-like fruits are known as citrons, and they are sweeter than lemons. Italian cooks shave the pith (the white stuff around the fruit) into thin strips to use in salads and on top of bruschetta. You can also use the zest in risotto.
Figs have been grown in Italy for centuries. Pair this jewel-like fruit with cheese (Gorgonzola or goat work well) or prosciutto for a sweet-savory Mediterranean snack. Or eat them in a green salad along with another fruit, like pears. They also work as a topping for an epic white pizza with prosciutto and mozzarella.
The north of Italy grows the most corn, some of which ends up in polenta, gnocchi, fresh corn salads and even corn gelato (yes, that is a thing). Or combine corn with pasta: Sauté kernels with tomatoes, ricotta or mascarpone and a little parsley, and toss with linguine or shells. You're welcome!
They may be synonymous with Italy now, but they didn't even exist there until explorers discovered them in the New World and brought seeds back to Europe. Since then, of course, tomatoes have changed the game for everything from pasta sauces to soups. But nothing will rock your world like a simple dish of sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, amped up with just a little olive oil and balsamic.