What is it about the south that real Italian food is so hard to find? I'm talking about family-owned Italian restaurants that have been in business 50+ years, whose traditional recipes come straight from the old country. Sorry, but chains like Carraba's, Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden just don't cut it. This is painfully clear when you ask for Italian dressing and they give you some white, mayonnaise-based crap . . . gross! There is no such thing as 'creamy Italian dressing' in my book. (And guess what, there is nothing from Italy called "Alfredo sauce" - completely an American invention, probably by Shoney's)
Although traditional Italian is just oil and vinegar, Italian family restaurants improved on that theme with a tradition of making their own great dressings by adding garlic and spices. Now you can have that Italian dressing with great garlic and herb flavor but you must have the tools and #1 is: the mortar and pestle (photo). So, here's how you do it, it takes less than 5 minutes:
Basic method -
- Get one or two pealed cloves of fresh garlic and a few teaspoons of Kosher salt or coarse sea salt and put them in the mortar.
- Grind with pestle until garlic and salt become a paste.
- Add fresh extra virgin olive oil and Italian spices (basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary).
- Grind some more, infusing the oil with the garlic and spices.
- Add red wine or balsamic vinegar, grind some more and presto, you're done.
Variations - for a more Mediterranean flavor, add lemon juice instead of vinegar. For a summer salad (like spinach with pear, died cranberries and nuts) add orange juice and a few drops of sesame oil. For spicy marinades, grind hot pepper in with the mix. Add honey for a sweeter dressing. You can also grind raw peeled ginger with honey and sesame oil, add rice wine vinegar for a great Asian dressing. The possibilities are endless, but you gotta have the mortar and pestle.
The bottom line is - the only way to prepare garlic is to grind it into a paste with a mortar and pestle. It is the best way to completely infuse the olive oil with the flavor of Italian spices and garlic. Garlic presses, minced, or smashed garlic just isn't as good. And stay the hell away from pre-pealed, and/or pickled garlic. It has to be fresh. Speaking of fresh, try Penzey's for great quality spices. Good spices make a difference.
This is from a guy who lives on salads... happy, healthy and flavorful eating!