Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Italian food without cheese?

Yes!!  Italian food can still be delicious without cheese!  I think making dairy free Italian-inspired dishes really boils down to these three factors:  
  • Good ingredients: Food that tastes good on its own doesn't really need cheese to make it better.  I think restaurants and home cooks often use cheese to cover up something that wasn't really that great in the first place (like a boring jar of spaghetti sauce).  So using fresh ingredients (or at least better canned tomatoes) can go a long way.  If you are new to dairy free cooking and have the cash to spare, I'd recommend going to one of those specialty stores where you can taste different olive oils and pick one you really like.  
  • Salt and fat:  Especially when we're talking about parmiggiano regiano and pecorino romano cheeses, a lot of the flavor profile can be explained by the salt and fat content.  So if your dairy free dish tastes a little bit lacking, it could benefit from a little more olive oil and a sprinkling of salt.  
  • Getting used to it:  It took me a couple of months to get used to having pasta dishes without dairy products but for the most part I don't really notice anymore and I know it is so much healthier to leave the canned parm off of my dish.  But let's face it, there is no really good substitute for fettuccine alfredo. (There are some things I make when I'm craving that type of food.  But that's another blog post).  Most of the time I just focus on other types of Italian dishes, which can be delicious without dairy. Like this one:  

Gnocchi with Mushroom Sauce 
adapated from this website:
2 Tbsp non-hydrogenated margerine 
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
12-18 oz  fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced  
1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots
1 1/2 cup chicken stock or broth 
2 Tbsp chopped fresh sage   
3 cups baby arugula (or chopped up regular arugula)  
1 lb potato gnocchi  (find it in the pasta aisle or in the frozen section)  

1. Start boiling a pot of water for the gnocchi.  

2. Heat a skillet over medium heat and melt the margarine and oil together.  Add the mushrooms and shallots.  Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring once in awhile until they are lightly browned.  (It's ok if you don't get yours browned, if they have softened up you can just go on to the next step).  

3. Add the stock and the sage and simmer 6-8 more minutes, until the liquid has reduced slightly.  You will want to make sure it is really bubbling in order for it to reduce properly.  

4. Meanwhile, add the gnocchi to the boiling water and prepare according to the package directions.  Normally, it will be done when most of the pieces float to the top.  

5. Add the arugula to the skillet with the mushroom mixture and cook for about 2 minutes until wilted.  Then use a slotted spoon to move the cooked gnocchi into the skillet and mix everything together.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  

Serves 3-4 (but make sure you serve it with a salad or something else.  I don't t hink it would be enough food for dinner without having a side dish.)   

A note about substitutions:  If you wanted to make this a bit healthier, you could omit the margarine and use vegetable stock.  You could also use whole wheat potato gnocchi (which I did the last time we made this, maybe you can tell in the pictures).  But here's the thing, I don't think will be quite as good.  This dish is pretty simple and it's really delicious made with the exact ingredients listed above.  So maybe make it the first time as it is, then you can tweak it a bit if you want later.  

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