10 Essential Ingredients of Italian Cooking

By: Jessica Migala

The Italians know how to eat. Perhaps that's because the ingredients they use are fresh, flavorful—and good for you, too. Traditional Italian cuisine follows the Mediterranean pattern of eating—it focuses on simple, whole, natural ingredients, making it one of the world's healthiest diets. Research suggests that the benefits of a Mediterranean-style eating pattern may include improved weight loss, better control of blood-sugar levels and reduced risk of depression. Eating like an Italian is also delicious and means stocking your pantry with the foods you need to whip up a meal that tastes amazing and just happens to be packed with health-boosting and disease-busting properties. Pick these 10 staples up, pour yourself a glass of wine (it's on the list!) and get cooking.

Eat Up: Healthy Italian Recipes

1. Olive Oil

Olive Oil

Recipe to Try: Herbed Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Finishing an Italian dish with a glug of good olive oil is practically required. If not only for the peppery punch, then also because it may help keep your ticker healthy. For every 2 teaspoons of extra-virgin olive oil you eat when following a Mediterranean-style diet, your risk of cardiovascular disease drops by 10 percent. Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), as well as vitamin E and other healthful compounds that reduce inflammation and prevent arterial plaques from forming, researchers say. Even better: the oil is linked to better insulin sensitivity, blood sugar regulation and blood pressure. That is one heart-smart food.

2. Canned Tomatoes

Quick Chicken Parmesan

Recipe to Try: Quick Chicken Parmesan

Fresh tomatoes are great, but canned can make a meal come together quickly, and that's often the X factor when you're committed to eating well. Tomatoes get their vibrant red hue from the powerful antioxidant lycopene. As one study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine mentions, tomatoes may help protect against certain cancers (like prostate), heart disease and osteoporosis, and may act as a potent anti-inflammatory. The best part: cooking (and canning) those tomatoes makes more of this lycopene available to your body. You can feel good every time you dig into sauce.

3. Pasta

Spaghetti with Broccolini Pesto

Recipe to Try: Spaghetti with Broccolini Pesto

Don't fear carbs! One 2016 study found that pasta eaters in Mediterranean populations were more likely to have a lower BMI and waist circumference and, unsurprisingly, were also more likely to consume more of the Italian staples on this list, like olive oil, tomatoes, garlic and cheese. Cooking your pasta al dente (meaning firm) is another bonus. That style, which gives pasta a bit of a bite, is lower on the glycemic index. That means it may help slow the rate of carbohydrate absorption, blunting your blood sugar response. Although they're not classically Italian, you can also opt for whole-grain versions for 7 grams of fiber per serving, which is more than one-quarter of what women are advised to get per day. If traditional pasta doesn't seem to fill you up, consider trying pastas made with peas or beans, which enhance its protein content.

4. Garlic

Spaghetti with Garlic & Clam Sauce

Recipe to Try: Spaghetti with Garlic & Clam Sauce

There's no shame in a little garlic breath. The pungent bulb has a long history of being used for its medicinal properties. For one, it contains a compound called allicin, which has been found to help blood vessels relax (so blood can flow through freely), prompt blood vessel formation and prevent blood platelets from clumping together. Garlic's compounds have more perks: they can stall the growth of cancer cells to protect against cancer, and reduce blood glucose levels to reduce the risk of diabetes, per a 2014 research review.

5. Mushrooms

Garlic-Rosemary Mushrooms

Recipe to Try: Garlic-Rosemary Mushrooms

Whether you love porcini or portobello (or something in between), mushrooms are a must-have to add to sauces. Known for their hearty, meaty texture and savory umami flavor (the fifth taste that boosts satisfaction), they're a surprising source of protein. One cup of cooked, sliced portobellos offers 5 grams. At about 40 calories per cup, they can be added to dishes as a worthy replacement for meat to reduce total calories. What's more, mushrooms are a good source of minerals like the antioxidant selenium, blood-pressure regulating potassium, and B vitamins that keep your nervous system functioning properly and your skin and hair strong. One consideration: microwaving and grilling actually come out on top as the best cooking methods for mushrooms, in terms of maintaining their nutrients, according to research in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition.

6. Dried Oregano

Tuscan Spice Rub

Recipe to Try: Tuscan Spice Rub

What is a good wood-fired pizza or red sauce without the wafting aroma of oregano? Even though you may simply sprinkle on this herb, a little goes a long way. While all herbs contain disease-fighting antioxidants, they are more concentrated in dried form. What's more, out of all herbs and spices, dried oregano is one of the top sources of these healthful plant compounds. It's practically like eating a salad. One phytochemical in particular, rosemarinic acid, has been shown to inhibit proteins that drive up inflammation. More than that, loads of research suggests that using herbs can help you lower your sodium intake, a good thing since too much salt can lead to bloating and tax your heart. One study found that using herbs and spices helped people cut about 1,000 mg of sodium from their diet daily.

7. Balsamic Vinegar

Hasselback Tomato Caprese Salad

Recipe to Try: Hasselback Tomato Caprese Salad

Not only does balsamic vinegar supply a rich, sweet tang to dishes, but it has some health perks, too. Balsamic, which originated in Italy, must be aged for 12 years to be considered an official balsamic vinegar of Modena. (Some varieties can be aged for 25 years.) The vinegar is rife with bioactive compounds like catechins that fight free radicals in your body and reduce oxidative stress, which speeds up aging and boosts inflammation levels that can lead to chronic diseases. And, adding a dash of vinegar to your meal supplies acid that can aid digestion and lower your blood sugar response. All good things when you're getting up after a bowl of pasta.

8. Parmesan/Grana Padano

EatingWell's Eggplant Parmesan

Recipe to Try: EatingWell's Eggplant Parmesan

Who knew cheese was good for your heart? Both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano have star billing in Italian cooking, and both are very similar: hard, grainy cheeses with a nutty taste. Turns out the fermentation required to turn cow's milk into a rich cheese produces peptides that act in similar ways as ACE-inhibitor medications (which help relax blood vessels). In one preliminary study in 2016 from Italian researchers, people with high blood pressure who ate about an ounce of Grana Padano cheese per day for two months benefited from greater reductions in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels compared to those in a placebo condition. Go ahead and stir it into creamy risottos, sprinkle it on finished pasta, or enjoy a bite or two plain.

Related: 5 Reasons Cheese Is Actually Good for Your Health

9. Wine

Wine

Ideal for sipping while you stir, but great for cooking with, too. When you add it to your bubbling sauce, the alcohol cooks away, leaving behind loads of flavor; wine also deglazes the cooking pan to help all those yummy bits on the bottom incorporate into the dish. No doubt you've heard about the heart-healthy benefits of wine; those are real, thanks to both its alcohol content and the polyphenols like resveratrol that may improve cholesterol levels and safeguard blood vessels. But health experts have always advised moderation. More is not better in this instance, and despite all of wine's potential benefits, drinking too much alcohol has been linked to raised risk of breast cancer and other diseases. Do like the Italians do, and enjoy a glass with loved ones around the table.

10. Capers

Lemon-Herb Salmon with Caponata & Farro

Recipe to Try: Lemon-Herb Salmon with Caponata & Farro

You've probably seen these little green buds (they are gathered from a shrub and then are pickled) adorning your dish. Capers actually offer a wallop of antioxidants that counteract potentially cancer- and heart-disease-causing compounds that are released when you digest meat, according to research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Aside from that perk, they're also a low-cal way to liven up any dish. One tablespoon contains just 2 calories and a ton of flavor. They are salty: that 1 tablespoon contains 9 percent of the recommended daily sodium limit. That can be a good thing. Used sparingly, they can help replace some of the salt in a dish while adding a unique pop of briny deliciousness. If you're really watching your salt, rinse your capers before adding them to your dish to reduce sodium even more.

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Related:
7-Day Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan
8 Ways to Eat Mediterranean for Better Health