More than lasagne: diversifying your Italian repertoire

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Pizza and pasta may now be staple foods in the average British household, but there’s a lot more to Italian cookery than a spag bol or a margherita.

If you’re serious about Italian cookery, it’s time to put down the jar of shop-bought tomato sauce and start making your own from scratch. Even making pasta isn’t as hard as you might think. They key is keeping it simple, and staying as authentic as you can to true Italian flavours. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Classic Italian ideas for your recipe binder

One Italian classic that’s best made from fresh ingredients is minestrone. Minestrone is now so popular in tinned or cup-a-soup form that many people have even forgotten its Italian origins. Look for a good recipe, like this one from Delia Smith, which is packed with vegetables, tomatoes and a good helping of pasta. Delia uses macaroni but any shape will do, as will short-grain rice if you’re out of pasta. To make the soup go further, you can also add a tin of beans – like borlotti or cannelini beans – or leftover meat.

Another fantastic traditional Italian recipe that’s rarely seen outside restaurants in Britain is cannelloni. Cannelloni is a large tube-shaped pasta that is stuffed with filling and baked in tomato sauce and bechamel (white sauce). A popular meat-based filling for canneloni is beef, but an excellent vegetarian alternative is spinach and soft cheese. This spinach and ricotta cannelloni recipe from Jamie Oliver is simple and delicious. And if you can’t find dried cannelloni tubes in your local supermarket or Italian deli, try rolling up fresh lasagne sheets into tubes instead and reduce the cooking time.

And when it comes to desserts, you’re spoiled for choice. Tiramisu may be tantalising and quintessentially Italian, but it’s hard to beat a good panna cotta. This set-cream dessert is now widely available ready-made but a homemade panna cotta is special, provided you give it enough time to set. The Guardian’s how to make the perfect panna cotta recipe demystifies the process, and the addition of buttermilk gives the treat a lovely tang. Serve with some tart berries on the side; raspberries are ideal.

The best Italian cookbooks

Much of Italian cooking is intuitive and once you have mastered a taste for the basic ingredients – like olive oil, basil, fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and lemons – trying new and adventurous recipes will be easier. However, it always helps to have a cookbook in your kitchen for reference. Jamie’s Italian is a wonderful introduction to Italian cookery, with simple and tasty recipes – his lemon sherbet, made with fresh lemon juice and mascarpone, is particularly delectable.

Elsewhere, Marcella Hazan’s seminal 1970s tome The Classic Italian Cookbook is a must-read for cooks who want to learn the art of traditional recipes, and Antonio Carluccio’s Simple Cooking is a fantastic addition to the culinary canon by a great Italian chef. At the other end of the scale, Nigellisima – Nigella Lawson’s most recent Italian-inspired cookbook – has some very modern Italian-British combinations. Her recipe for spaghetti with Marmite, for instance, seems completely incongruous but tastes very good.

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