Italians have a passion for food. Good food. They’re driven by a passion for quality ingredients — much more so than just about any other culture, including the French. The majority of Italians have backyard gardens where they grow their own tomatoes, herbs, peppers, greens, squashes and eggplants, mostly open-pollinated heirloom varieties passed down in their families for use in their everyday cooking. They protect their precious food culture with strict labeling laws and vehement opposition to genetically modified crops. For most Italians, home cooking is considered one of the finest pleasures in life — not a chore at all. To spend an afternoon or an entire day in the kitchen preparing a meal is actually quite ordinary, and oftentimes it’s a family affair.
Italian food in general does not really exist. Each region in Italy — from Piedmont and Liguria to Le Marche and Sardinia — has different seasonal produce, regional specialties, food customs and celebrations. Thus, this menu is Italian “inspired” and uses many garden specialties. A farm dinner of any origin should not be complicated; at the heart of it is fresh garden produce in season, and the simple beauty of those flavors. It’s never overdone or over-adorned. Italian cooking is synonymous with farm cooking: Use what you have on hand, and make it all from scratch.
The Italian farmhouse dinner isn’t just about food, though. It’s also about feeling and infusing the Italian spirit for life into the food and festivities. Encourage conviviality and love to be as much a part of the dinner as the food. Relax and enjoy the evening with conversation, laughter, and joy — don’t rush through it as we Americans oftentimes do. Forget today’s stresses and tomorrow’s worries, and enjoy this day for all that it is. You have shelter. You have food. You have friends and family. La vita è buona (Life is good)!
Prior to the main course, enjoy a light repast of wine, Castelvetrano olives soaked in extra-virgin olive oil with fresh or dried herbs like thyme and rosemary, an assortment of charcuterie, ciabatta bread for dipping into olive oil, and a bowl of cherry or grape tomatoes from the garden, served with a little dish of sea salt. Set out toothpicks, napkins and some pit bowls, and let the evening begin.
Here are some great vegetable varieties to grow for Italian cooking: The Italian Kitchen Garden.
Karen K. Will is editor of Heirloom Gardener magazine, and co-author, along with Editor-in-Chief Oscar H. Will III, of Plowing With Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions (New Society Publishers, 2013).
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