Table Talk with Giada De Laurentiis

A love of food runs in the family for this Italian cooking enthusiast.
Cindy Hatcher

Some might say Giada De Laurentiis was born with a wooden spoon in her mouth. The popular hostess of the Food Network's Everyday Italian and Behind the Bash comes from a long line of Italian food lovers, including her grandfather, movie producer Dino De Laurentiis. An early childhood in Rome introduced her to the tastes of Italy that eventually led to instruction at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, a stint in the kitchen at Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills, and the creation of her own catering company. These days, you'll still find De Laurentiis taking inspiration from her family as she preps her latest cookbook, Giada's Family Dinners.

What is your first food memory?
My grandfather owned gourmet food stores called DDL Foodshow in New York and L.A. in the 1980s. I still remember the first time I walked in one when I was 12. It was a revolutionary store then, with ingredients that were exotic here at the time, like fresh prosciutto and provolone. I loved seeing the smiles of the patrons and the amazement on their faces. I had been cooking since the age of five, but this was the first time I realized I wanted to do something in the food business.

Have your shows changed the way you cook at home?
I love to go wild experimenting with different gourmet ingredients and styles of cooking, but most nights involve simple ingredients and big flavor. I enjoy cooking Asian and Indian food, since they're flavors I didn't grow up eating.

What's the most essential ingredient in your kitchen?
You're probably thinking I would say garlic or olive oil, but for me, it's lemons. I use their juice or zest to bring out the flavors of almost everything I make. Lemon juice is fat free and full of clean flavor, and it's especially useful for lighter dishes. You can also use it as a substitute for the crispness of white wine in a recipe, if you prefer not to use alcohol.

Any tips on how to put a meal on the table quickly? One of the most important things is having a well-stocked pantry. Twice a month I go to the store in search of staples like garlic, onions, canned tuna, canned beans, dried pastas, jarred tomato sauces (just make sure the first ingredient is tomatoes, not sugar!), frozen peas and spinach, chicken stock, capers, and herbes de Provence―the basics that will enhance a dish and bring a meal together in a hurry. Then, once a week I purchase fresh produce and meat. I find it's easier to pick up one or two things than to be overwhelmed by tracking down every single ingredient in a recipe.

Is there one dish you rely on when time is of the essence?
If I'm craving pasta, my favorite is farfalle with turkey sausage, mushrooms, and peas. In the time it takes to cook the pasta, my meal is done.

Some Italian foods can seem indulgent. Any tips for how to make dishes more healthful?
Italian cooking relies on fresh vegetables, but I like to use even more than a recipe might call for. Roasted vegetables give off so much flavor, and they can keep a dish interesting. Plus, they're filling. You can enjoy what you eat and not overeat. It is possible―and a lot of fun.