Welcome to the next installment of my Meet the Spice Blend series, where I'm sharing the inspiration for, back stories of, and uses for my ever-expanding collection of small batch, handcrafted spice blends. Next up, let's meet Italian Countryside!!
The Inspiration and Back Story - My Year in Italy
The year was 2001. I was a 19 year old Junior at UC Santa Barbara with a double major in Dramatic Arts and Italian Cultural Studies (yep, you read that right), and I was getting ready to embark on the biggest adventure of my life - a whole year living and studying in Italy. A mere three weeks after I arrived in Bologna, home to the oldest university in Europe and (in my humble opinion) the best food in the world, the planet seemed to stop spinning altogether when terrorists attacked the U.S. on September 11.
To say it was a strange time to be a young American woman abroad would be an understatement. After a brief lockdown period, the folks at the UC Education Abroad Program determined that our program could continue. Italy was a relatively safe place to be, all things considered, although we were counseled to be careful about advertising our nationality and to take extra precautions when traveling, just in case. As such, I never put an American flag patch on my backpack that year, though I collected them from all the other countries I travelled to. And when I did travel, I told people I was Canadian. (Love you, Canada.)
All this to say that, although I ultimately had an incredible year, there were certainly times when my anxiety about the world felt overwhelming, and being essentially alone in a foreign country made that anxiety decidedly worse. I, like many, have always found comfort in food, so it should come as no surprise that what helped handle stress during this time was food and, in particular, the food culture in Italy. I explored every little cheese shop and sampled every type of cured meat imaginable. I ate my weight (and more) in gelato, pasta, and pizza. I sipped freshly pressed olive oils and tasted vinegars aged like fine wines. And don't even get me started on the wine. Let's just say I took advantage of the fact that the legal drinking age in Italy is 18, not 21. (And, in fact, it still peeves me that after returning home from this experience I still couldn't legally drink in the U.S. until the very END of my Senior year. Grrrrrr....) I learned how the cheese from one region of the country tastes different than another, just like wine. And I learned to let the incredible food purveyors I met tell me what I was there to purchase, not the other way around. These kind souls taught me words I would never learn in a text book and educated me about their food and, by extension, their country and themselves. It was exactly what I needed.
Years later, when I again found myself anxious about life and, in particular, my chosen profession as a lawyer, it was again food that saved me. I started a food and wine blog as a creative outlet and began hosting and catering small dinner parties on weekends. That eventually led me to leave my legal career and head to culinary school, which, after stints as a private chef, in catering, and in restaurants, eventually led me to where I am today (with a big ol' push from Covid-related shutdowns, of course).
Although I didn't go directly into the food industry after my time in Italy, the influence that year had on my understanding of and appreciation for food and cooking cannot be overstated. So, when I started making spice blends I knew I needed one that paid homage to my time in and love for Italy, but I didn't want it to be your typical "Italian" spice blend. I wanted it to be mine, and the only way to do that was it tie it directly to my own experience. So that's what I did.
Every time I pop open a jar of Italian Countryside I am immediately transported back to an Autumn day in one of the little villages I visited in Emiglia-Romagna (the region in which Bologna sits) or Tuscany. (All these years later I can't remember where it actually was, which also means I will never be able to find it again.) There's a chill in the air, and I'm sitting in a tiny Osteria snacking on thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma as I sip a glass of the house red out of what we Americans would consider to be a water glass. I ask the owner what I should order for dinner, and she just smiles and tells me about the gorgeous wild mushrooms her neighbor foraged earlier in the day before the morning fog lifted. She returns shortly with a plate of freshly-made tagliatelle tossed with a combination of seared mushrooms, wild boar sausage, and Parmigiano-Reggiano made silky by the addition of a splash of salted pasta water. There's a little rosemary and thyme, along with some garlic and onion, in the sausage, and the sauce is finished with a touch of black pepper. It's a symphony of flavor and aroma that I have been chasing ever since.
Flavor Profile - Italian Countryside
While you may never get to experience that exact dish that I ate on that chilly Autumn evening over 20 years ago, I do believe that this blend of dried wild mushrooms, rosemary, thyme, garlic, onion, black pepper, and kosher salt captures the rustic essence of the Italian countryside in every sprinkle. The earthy notes of dried mushrooms evoke the wild beauty of the Italian forests and hillsides while the aromatic dance of rosemary and thyme conjure images of sun-soaked fields and fragrant herb gardens, infusing the blend with a savory and aromatic depth. The gentle warmth of garlic and onion add a comforting familiarity to the blend, while the black pepper adds a touch of lively zest. And the kosher salt binds all the elements together, enhancing each little nuance. It is as close as I'll ever get to bottling up a memory.
Versatility in the Kitchen - Italian Countryside
Italian Countryside is basically magic in a jar. Use it whenever you're craving a little vacation in Tuscany... or at the very least anywhere you want a little punch of umami. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Pasta Perfection: Add a little Italian Countryside to your favorite pasta sauce recipe. It will infuse your sauce with the rich aromas of rosemary, thyme, and wild mushrooms, elevating a simple dish into a gourmet delight.
2. Roasted Vegetables: Toss your favorite vegetables – think potatoes, carrots, zucchini, and bell peppers – with a drizzle of olive oil and a generous dusting of Italian Countryside before roasting. The blend's herbaceous notes and umami from the mushrooms will add depth to the roasted flavors.
3. Savory Soups and Stews: Add a teaspoon or two of Italian Countryside to your homemade soups and stews. The blend's herbal and earthy elements will create a comforting depth of flavor, transforming even the simplest broth into a hearty culinary experience.
4. Grilled Meats: Whether you're grilling chicken, pork, or steak, rub a bit of the spice blend onto the meat before cooking. The blend's aromatic herbs and spices will form a delicious crust when seared, enhancing the overall taste of the meat.
5. Homemade Breads: Incorporate Italian Countryside into your bread dough for a flavorful twist. Whether you're baking focaccia, baguettes, or dinner rolls, the blend's rustic profile will infuse your bread with a tantalizing aroma and taste.
6. Marinades: Create a marinade by combining olive oil, white wine or balsamic vinegar, and a tablespoon of Italian Countryside blend. Coat your proteins – like tofu, chicken, or fish – in this marinade for a few hours before cooking to infuse them with the blend's complex flavors.
7. Homemade Pizza: Sprinkle the spice blend over your homemade pizza before baking. Its combination of herbs, mushrooms, and savory notes will transform a regular pizza into an Italian culinary experience.
8. Elevated Omelettes: Whisk Italian Countryside blend into your egg mixture before making omelettes. The mushrooms, garlic, and herbs will add a layer of sophistication to your breakfast or brunch.
9. Flavored Butter: Mix a bit of the spice blend into softened butter to create a delightful herb-infused butter. Spread it over bread, melt it on grilled foods, or use it to finish off dishes with a burst of flavor.
10. Superior Snacks: Toss some freshly roasted almonds in a bit of Italian Countryside or sprinkle it on popcorn for a delicious and addictive snack.
These suggestions offer just a glimpse of the versatile ways you can incorporate the Italian Countryside spice blend into your home cooking, adding a touch of Italy's rustic charm to your meals.
A Bite of Good Recipes that use Italian Countryside
Looking for some more concrete guidance on how to use Italian Countryside? Check out these A Bite of Good recipes!
Mushroom Triple Threat Toasties - A perfect appetizer for the mushroom-obsessed like me.
Creamy Weeknight Pasta with Sausage and Mushrooms - I still haven't managed to recreate that perfect pasta dish I told you about above, but this one is pretty amazing.
Extra 'Shroomy Mushroom Risotto - Did I mention I love mushrooms?
Lentil, Kale & Sausage Stew - No mushrooms here (other than those in the Italian Countryside blend), just LOTS of warm and fuzzies in food form.
Short Rib Sunday Sauce - The sauce for which Sundays exist.
Skillet Pizza with Eggplant and Sausage - Mix up your pizza routine with this fun and flavorful combination. Oh, and this is going to be your new favorite way to use that cast iron skillet of yours.
Winter Squash and Sausage Mac & Cheese - One can never have too many grown up mac & cheese recipes, and this one is on regular rotation in my kitchen during the cooler months.
Magic Quiche - This make-ahead, hash brown-crusted quiche is EVERYTHING your brunch dreams are made of. Try the mushroom and cheese version with some Italian Countryside.
Mushroom & Spinach Lasagna - Another make-ahead wonder. This is one of my all-time favorite comfort meals.
Ready to get your own Italian Countryside? Get it here.