4 Low-Cost Foods for Everyday Italian Cooking

by Vincent Scordo on 31 January 2011 5 comments
Photo: CandyBoxPhoto

I have to admit I have a few pet peeves when it comes to cooking Italian food at home. My biggest issue is with the claim that good Italian food costs too much and is time consuming to prepare.

I say "Nonsense!" and counter with a story near and dear to my heart: namely, my Italian parents' food odysey upon arriving in the United States in the 1970s. Like with many recent immigrants, money was tight in the Scordo household, and time was even harder to come by as both of my parents worked long hours. Yet food remained paramount. My mother struggled to find her native Italian ingredients, and when she did find a specialty shop, she quickly learned how expensive items like extra virgin olive oil, Parmigiano Reggiano, and quality meats and fish were in the United States.

Eventually, however, enough Italians immigrated to our region of the United States, and prices for Italian specialty foods came down. My mother also learned to bargain fiercely and often bought her food supplies in bulk and with the other Italian ladies in the neighborhood, earning deep discounts because of the quantity of food she and her friends purchased. (See also: Bulk Buying 101)

The solution to cooking great Italian at home isn't complex; it's centered on knowing which ingredients to buy, which dishes to prepare, and how to most effectively spend time in the kitchen. What follows are cheap, yet high-quality foods for making authentic and tasty Italian food at home with minimal time spent in the kitchen. Buon appetito!

Pasta

I'm sure you expected this; it's at the heart of Italian cooking. Most Italians consume pasta two to three times per week, and it's usually served as a starter for a given meal. The typical Italian pasta portion is also small by U.S. standards; one pound of pasta typically serves 8-10 people. Good quality Italian-made dry pasta can be found online for for a little under $1.50 per pound and is even cheaper when you buy in bulk. I like to keep the following pasta shapes in the house at all times: thin linguine, rigatoni, penne, and orzo. Boiling water and preparing pasta in the al dente (translated as "to the tooth") fashion is straightforward and fast. The sauce, or "condiment" as the Italians call it, can be anything from an easy tomato sauce to a bit of heavy cream and peas to extra virgin olive and thinly sliced garlic, and it shouldn't take more than 15 minutes to prepare.

Beans for Soup

Our Italian family consumes soup two times per week at least, and we refer to soup as our secret "diet food;" that is to say, it's incredibly tasty, satisfying, and low calorie. All of our homemade soups have water as a base and often include beans such as cannellini, pea, lentil, and chickpea. And, pound for pound, beans are some of the cheapest food items on the planet, especially when purchased dry. A good pot of from-scratch soup should not take more 30-40 minutes to prepare and can be the whole meal, especially when a bit of short pasta (such as orzo or ditalini) is added.

Pantry Items: Olive Oil, Canned Fish, Sun Dried Tomatoes, etc.

Yes, some of my favorite foods come in a can! Our family preserves, pickles, and cans sun-dried tomatoes as well as vegetables such as carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, and wild mushrooms. In addition to preserved vegetables, we keep lots of canned fish in oil in our pantry, including tuna, sardines, and anchovies. Canned fish is often cheaper than the fresh variety, and unless you have an excellent fish market, can be of higher quality and store longer. We like to buy and make our pantry items in bulk, usually setting aside the late summer months to preserve all of our vegetables and waiting for online sales to purchase our canned fish. Other Italian pantry staples include canned tomatoes, unseasoned breadcrumbs, olive oil, and dried oregano/thyme/rosemary. A well-stocked pantry is a huge part of eating like an Italian on a budget, just be sure to buy in bulk and make as many of the items as possible at home.

Bread

My grandfather always said that if a family has bread on the table, it will never starve. Nonno was right, and bread is the foundation of any Italian meal. Good bread is satisfying, usually cheap, and can be made at home or purchased at a local market. Bread also stores well in the freezer, can be made into tasty Italian toasts, and served with virtually any dish. Some of my favorite ways to use bread in a meal include a starter with diced tomatoes or a cannellini bean spread (this is usually called bruschetta or crostini).

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Guest's picture

I'm from a Polish background, but one thing that was similar was bread. I remember at my grandparent's house, there was always bread on the table at every meal, no matter what. Every now and then I'll randomly go get some bread with dinner, and I think it's just going back to those days.

Vincent Scordo's picture

Are there are other cheap Italian ingredients that folks keep in their pantry?

Vince

Guest's picture
Kathleen

Do you have a good recipe for cannellini spread/dip? Thank you!

Vincent Scordo's picture

Hi Kathleen,

Here's my cannellini bean spread recipe:

http://www.scordo.com/2011/01/crostini-bruschetta-or-italian-toast-recip...

and our hummus or chickpea dip:

http://www.scordo.com/2008/06/basic-hummus-recipe.html

Hope these help!

Vince

Guest's picture
Kathleen

Thanks, Vince. I'm drooling my way through the recipes on your site!