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Five Unknown or Underrated Italian Ingredients

Chef Anne Burrell shares her favorites, and quick ways to use them.

Anne Burrell is the blonde, spiky-haired executive chef at New York City's Centro Vinoteca, a modern Italian restaurant and wine bar. Perhaps best known for assisting Mario Batali on Food Network's Iron Chef America, Burrell has extensive experience with Italian food. After training and cooking all over Italy, she worked as sous-chef at Lidia Bastianich's New York restaurant, Felidia, before joining up with Batali. Now, at her own place, she serves Italian small plates with innovative twists, like mortadella transformed into a luscious pâté with crunchy pistachios on top. Here, she describes her five favorite lesser-known or overlooked ingredients and shares easy ways to use them:

Fregola

"These little pasta balls from Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy, are baked in the oven so they get a roasty, toasty flavor. They're larger than North African couscous, each about the size of a small pearl. I love the feeling of rolling them around in my mouth. At the restaurant, I use fregola in the bottom of our acqua pazza, a seafood soup with a piece of skate on top. First, I blanch the fregola and then keep it in the refrigerator. When we get an order for the dish, I sauté it with scallions, calamari, bay scallops and rock shrimp and serve it in a lemony white wine broth. Fregola is also great in other soups or served like a risotto."

Bottarga

"Bottarga is dried and pressed mullet or tuna roe that's grated over all kinds of dishes to punch up the flavor. I like to grate it over my spaghetti with olive oil—poached tuna, tomatoes and fennel. It is slightly fishy and gives food a sense of the ocean. I think it's a great ingredient to use whenever you want an extra hit of saltiness. I prefer the mullet bottarga to the tuna, because it's a little less fishy—plus, it's a beautiful orange color, while the tuna is a bit more gray."

Fennel Fronds

"When people cook with fennel, they often just use the bulbs. I look for fennel with the tops still attached, because I love to use the wispy fronds as a garnish, as I would any herb. I also like to tear off the fronds and throw them into salads by the handful to add a burst of herby freshness. And fennel stalks, even though they're woody and you wouldn't want to eat them whole, have so much flavor. I add the stalks to stocks, chopping them up and sautéing them with the onions, carrots and celery before adding the water."

Day-Old Bread

"Italians are so into their bread. Bread goes with everything in Italy. I like to use day-old rustic Italian bread in unexpected ways. The agliata sauce that I serve with my fried cauliflower wedges seems like the garlic-mayonnaise known as aioli, but it's actually bread-based. I soak the bread in water and then puree it with vinegar and oil. No one would ever know that it's not mayonnaise. I also use the bread to make crumbs for all of my little fried small plates and, of course, in panzanella, the famous Italian bread salad. I hate when panzanella gets mushy, so I leave on some of the crust, which helps it retain its chew."

Celery

"People use celery in salads and soups, but it's rarely the star. I shave celery with a peeler and soak it in ice water overnight to get curly, swirly pieces that are crunchy. I toss the shaved pieces with the celery leaves and a bright lemon vinaigrette. It's great next to really rich dishes; right now, I serve it with braised oxtail cakes. Most people throw out the celery leaves, but I treat them like herbs. They add a such nice saltiness to salads."

Published September 2007
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