Zuppa Toscana - Tuscan Soup: Recipes from Italy's Tuscany central region!

The Italian pantry

By stocking your kitchens with a few basic ingredients, you will be ready to prepare many Tuscan and Italian recipes. These days, most major grocery stores carry many items imported from Italy, so spend some time looking and see what you can find. Other sources for those necessary ingredients would be Italian specialty stores in your area, or possibly you may consider online ordering.

High-quality ingredients are essential to Italian cooking: the better your olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese, the better the simple dishes will be.

In most good Italian kitchens, you will find most if not all of the following items in the pantry:

OLIVE OIL - One of the essential ingredients of Italian cooking, olive oil is used not simply as a cooking oil but for the flavor it adds to a dish. For this reason, it's important to use only extra-virgin olive oil -- it has the most flavor. If you splurge on any one item, I would suggest you buy the best you can find.

DRIED PASTA - Use pasta imported from Italy such as Barilla and De Cecco. Generally, any imported pasta products made from semolina flour are good choices. For egg pasta, avoid the "fresh" pasta sold in refrigerated cases. Either use homemade or buy the dried noodles packaged in nests.

TOMATOES - When fresh, ripe tomatoes are not available, use good canned tomatoes (unless the recipe specifically calls for fresh). Choose whole, peeled tomatoes rather than chopped or crushed. Use imported Italian San Marzano tomatoes if you can find them; they're the best.

ONIONS AND GARLIC - Generally, white onions for cooking and red onions for salads and dishes that do not require cooking because they are milder. Garlic is used, but it is not generally an overwhelming presence.

PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO - Only cheese that is produced in a limited area surrounding Parma according to strict guidelines may be sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's a cheese of incomparable flavor, texture, and richness that make it not only an excellent grating cheese but also one of the world's great table cheeses.

CHEESES - Cheeses are also important for Italian dishes. There are so many varieties but the most commonly used include Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino Romano, mozzarella, ricotta and provolone.

LEGUMES - In our house we generally have on hand dried cannellini beans, borlotti beans, ceci and lentils to use mainly in soups.

CORNMEAL - Use a medium textured cornmeal for polenta. Keep it in a tightly closed container, and it will last for months. I also use cornmeal to dust my pan when making pizza, and to add texture to some of my baked goods.

RICE - Arborio is the most common rice used in making risotto, but other varieties, such as Carnaroli or Vialone Nano which are just now becoming available in America, are perhaps even better. One characteristic they all share is a translucent, starchy exterior that melts away in cooking to give risotto its distinctive creamy consistency.

BALSAMIC VINEGAR - There are a variety of different balsamic vinegars. Depending on its age, it can be extremely expensive. You can use an inexpensive one for salads, as long as the quality is good.

ANCHOVIES - Although I'm not an anchovy fan, I keep a jar packed in oil in my fridge to add a special zip to certain dishes. You can also find anchovy paste in a tube, which is milder in taste and is quite convenient.

DRIED PORCINI MUSHROOMS - Look for packages that have large slices of whole mushrooms. They add a wonderful rich flavor to risottos, pasta sauces, and stews, and can infuse cultivated white mushrooms with their robust flavor. Although they can be an expensive item, a little goes a long way, and if kept in an airtight container, they'll keep for a long time. Keep the water used to rehydrate them. Strained, it will add a depth of flavor to many soups, sauces and stews.

CAPERS - You can find two types of capers. The smaller ones that are pickled in vinegar, and the larger ones that come packed in salt. The larger ones are very flavorful, require rinsing of the salt before using, and tend to be a little more difficult to locate. A few chopped capers can add a punch of flavor to dishes that seem to need just a little something.

OLIVES - Both the black and green varieties are good, if packed in brine and imported from Italy even better.

HERBS AND SEASONINGS - Generally fresh herbs are preferred in everyday cooking, but it is also important to keep dried oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage available. Whole black pepper to be ground at the moment of use, sea salt and red pepper flakes are also important seasonings to have on hand.

FLOUR - We usually have both an all-purpose flour for making pasta and pizza dough and bread flour for cakes and desserts. Semolina flour is also very useful.

Although these are the bare basics to have in an Italian kitchen, stocking these basic staples in your pantry will ensure that you are ready to begin cooking Tuscan and Italian recipes. All you'll need to add is a few fresh ingredients and you'll be all set to prepare your Tuscan and Italian dishes that will impress your friends and family.