Archive for the ‘Tuscany’ Category

Tuscan Ribollita – a hearty traditional vegetable, bean, and bread stew

Yesterday was the perfect day to make a big batch of comfort food – a Tuscan vegetable stew called Ribollita. We make this dish during one of the cooking classes with Chef Piero on the Tuscany food tour, but I had yet to make it at home.

You layer cooked vegetables and beans with toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic, and then let it all sit for two hours while the ingredients come to know themselves – they come together deliciously, and the dish becomes more than the sum of its parts somehow.

The full recipe is below, following the photos.

The night before, soak your beans, and then the next morning cook them for an hour or so until tender, so they’re ready to use when you want to start cooking your stew. [I grew Tuscan zolfini beans in my garden this year, so I was excited to use this classic (and hard to find) Tuscan bean in my soup. Tuscans love zolfini beans because they become soft and creamy when cooked, but retain their shape. Cannelini or another white bean of choice can be used instead of course.]

When you’re ready to make your soup, chop up several different kinds of vegetables fairly finely, and sauté them in a large pot in a generous amount of olive oil until soft (reserving some of the raw onions for later).

Chopping up the savoy cabbage

Chopping up the savoy cabbage

Sauteing the vegetables until soft

Sauteing the vegetables until soft

While the vegetables are cooking, divide your cooked beans in half, and run half of them through the food mill (or push through a fine-mesh sieve).

A food mill is still a handy tool to have!

A food mill is still a handy tool to have!

Beans ready for adding to the stew

Beans ready for adding to the stew

Once the vegetables are soft, stir in both the whole beans and the food-milled beans, as well as some water, or broth if you prefer. (The recipe called for using the bean-soaking water, but I worry a bit about doing that, gas-wise…) Bring it to a boil and let simmer for 1 hour. While it cooks, saute the rest of the raw onion, and some garlic, until soft and just turning golden.

The vegetables and beans cooking for an hour

The vegetables and beans cooking for an hour

Sauteing the rest of the onion, and some garlic

Sauteing the rest of the onion, and some garlic

While the soup is cooking, slice your stale bread, toast it, and rub it with a cut clove of fresh garlic.

Stale sliced farm-bread toasting in the oven

Stale sliced farm-bread toasting in the oven

Rub the toast with fresh garlic

Rub the toast with fresh garlic

After the stew has cooked for an hour, turn off the heat, and stir in the onions and garlic. Then you use another large pot (or in my case, the same pot after you pour the stew out of it into a big bowl), put a layer of the garlic toast in the bottom, spoon over some stew, drizzle some olive oil over and grind some fresh pepper, then another layer of the garlic toast, and repeat until all the toast and stew are in the pot, ending with stew on top.

Layering the toast and the stew

Layering the toast and the stew

All layers in!

All layers in!

Then you put on the lid and let the stew sit for 2 hours, while all the ingredients come together. After 2 hours I went to heat the stew up gently before serving, and found that all the liquid had been absorbed!

The liquid had all been absorbed in my stew! So I added a little boiling water.

The liquid had all been absorbed in my stew! So I added a little boiling water.

So I added in a couple more cups of boiling water, stirred it, heated it gently, and served. I grated fresh parmigiano reggiano over the top of each bowl, and drizzled with a good strong olive oil. It was delicious, the bread perfectly soft, and very rich and hearty tasting, yet starting with very plain ingredients.

Recipe follows, enjoy! -Jillian

Tuscan Bread, Bean and Vegetable Soup
(La Minestra di Pane Ribollita)

Serves 8

INGREDIENTS:

– 1 onion, coarsely chopped
– 2 zucchini, chopped into small pieces
– 2 celery sticks, chopped into small pieces
– 2 carrots, chopped into small pieces
– 1/2 savoy cabbage, chopped into small pieces
– 20 leaves tuscan kale (also called dinosaur kale or lacinato kale) or swiss chard, chopped into small pieces
– 2 peeled tomatoes (I used 1 small can tomatoes and their juice)
– 250 grams boiled white beans (I started with about 8 ounces (by weight) of dry zolfini beans)
– 1 kg stale tuscan-style bread (I used a hearty farm bread)
– 2 cloves garlic, plus more for rubbing on the toast
– olive oil
– salt and pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, optional
– parmigiano reggiano cheese and olive oil for topping

METHOD:

1. Soak your beans the night before, and cook them until soft, so they’re ready for use. Reserve the cooking liquid if you want to add it to the stew later. Chop the onion coarsely. Chop the rest of the vegetables into small pieces, ie, zucchini, celery, carrots, and cabbage. Place half the chopped onion and the rest of the vegetables in a large stockpot, with the dried thyme if using. Add some olive oil and sauté over medium to medium-high heat until soft and well-cooked, stirring often (about 20 minutes). Add half the cooked beans, and puree the rest of the beans by passing them through a food mill, and add to the soup also. Add 8 to 12 cups water (or broth if you prefer, or use the reserved bean cooking liquid). Bring to a boil, then cook for 1 hour on medium heat, partially covered, stirring occasionally. I also added about 2 teaspoons of salt, but the Tuscans use salt quite sparingly so only add salt to your own taste.

2. While the soup is cooking, sauté in a frying pan the rest of the chopped onion and garlic (finely chopped) in olive oil. Also toast the sliced stale bread, and rub a cut clove of fresh garlic over each slice. When the soup has cooked for an hour, stir in the sautéed onions and garlic. Arrange a layer of bread in the bottom of a deep terracotta dish or a large pot with lid. Pour a few generous ladlefuls of the soup over the bread until it is covered, plus a little olive oil and freshly ground pepper.

3. Continue to layer the bread and soup in this way until the dish is full. Cover and leave to rest for approximately 2 hours. Before serving, heat the bread soup mixture gently until hot, stirring well. (My soup had absorbed all the liquid, so before heating I stirred in a couple cups of boiling water.) Serve with extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top, as well as freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese, and put out the salt cellar so guests can add salt to their taste.

Grilled Whole Lake Trout with Garlic and Thyme

If you’re looking for a main dish that’s quick and easy to make, delicious, and makes for a dramatic presentation, whole grilled fish is a great way to go.

I was talking with the fishmonger at my local market last Saturday, and asked him what would be best to grill that night. He steered me to these beautiful lake trout, caught the day before. (When I say “whole” I just mean, heads and tails still on – the fishmonger had already cleaned/gutted them.)

Opening up and admiring the fish at home

Fish that’s very fresh has good color, shiny eyes, and firm flesh.

Stuffing the cavity with fresh thyme, crushed garlic cloves, and some sea salt

Stuffing the cavity with fresh thyme, crushed garlic cloves, and some sea salt

After admiring the fish, I stuffed each one with a few springs of fresh thyme, 2 crushed garlic cloves, and about 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt, and then rubbed a little olive oil on the outsides, just a tablespoon or so. Meanwhile I was heating the grill, and had scraped the grill grate clean with a wire brush and wiped a little oil on the grate too.

Prepped ingredients for our side dish, which was pasta with fresh pesto, cherry tomatoes, and parmigiano reggiano cheese.

Prepped ingredients for our side dish, which was pasta with fresh pesto, cherry tomatoes, and parmigiano reggiano cheese.

The trout on the grill, only about 7 minutes per side on medium to medium-high

The trout on the grill, only about 7 minutes per side on medium to medium-high

Before grilling the fish, I prepped the ingredients for our side dish, since I knew the fish cooking time would be short. Given this month’s garden bounty, fresh pesto and cherry tomatoes over pasta was the clear way to go. Years ago Elph gave me a beautiful Italian marble mortar and pestle that is fun to use, so that’s a bonus, and an encouragement to make pesto by hand rather than using a cuisinart. (When I’m making large quantities of pesto, I definitely do use a cuisinart…)

Some swear that basil tastes better and stays fresher when torn rather than cut with a knife; I have not tested that for myself, but I did enjoy using the mortar and pestle for this small dinner. I first crushed a clove of garlic in 1 teaspoon of sea salt, and then added basil and a good olive oil a bit at a time until I’d added about a packed cup’s worth of basil and a couple tablespoons of olive oil, and last added in some toasted walnuts, 1/3 cup or so. I sliced the cherry tomatoes (these are like candy right now so I used a lot, maybe 2 cups worth), and grated a cup of parmigiano reggiano.

I’d brought salted water to boil in a large pot, and when it was time to put the fish on the grill, I also put the pasta in the cooking water. This is easier to do simultaneously when you have 2 people cooking! If you’re solo you’ll probably want to stagger the cooking to prevent overcooking either the pasta or the fish.

We used a timer for 7 minutes a side for the fish, which is what the fishmonger recommended, but he also said just to test it by making a small incision in the flesh and seeing if it was flaky and no longer translucent.

It's hard to see the pasta and pesto under there, I put so many tomatoes on, but it was delicious!

It’s hard to see the pasta and pesto under there, I put so many tomatoes on, but it was delicious!

The fish were done in 14 minutes flat. Yum.

The fish were done in 14 minutes flat. Yum.

We enjoyed plating the fish whole and eating them that way. We poured a little olive oil over each fish and squeezed fresh lemon juice over too, and gave each another sprinkle of salt and pepper. You eat one side by lifting the skin up off the meat, with the backbone facing away from you on the plate, and then sliding the meat gently down toward the plate with a fork. It slides cleanly off the bone, but you just pay attention to make sure you don’t get the occasional stray bone. And then turn it over and eat the other side. And don’t forget the cheeks! Tiny and fun to eat, just down from and a little behind the eyes. We could taste the thyme and garlic in the fish.

A wonderful summer meal; it made me feel like our back deck was perched up in Tuscany or Sicily. Enjoy!

Pork Tenderloin with Plum Chutney

The plums have just stared coming in to the markets, and I was in the mood to make a dish that reminded me of Tuscany, so this pork tenderloin recipe using fresh herbs, pancetta, and plums was just the thing. It was slightly fussy to make in that you tie it up with string, but that only took a few minutes, and the results were so worth it! Full recipe follows at the bottom of my description.

First, the herb rub for the tenderloin. I did not have herbes de Provence, so I improvised, using some fantastic herbs from Tuscany, as well as from my garden.

My herbs-de-provence substitite - fennel and thyme flowers from Tuscany, plus fresh basil and savory from my garden.

My herbs-de-provence substitite – fennel and thyme flowers from Tuscany, plus fresh basil and savory from my garden.

Minced rosemary added in too, and then mixed with a good olive oil

Minced rosemary added in too, and then mixed with a good olive oil

After rubbing the tenderloins with the olive oil and herb mixture, I draped them with the pancetta, and tied them with cotton string as best I could. It didn’t take that long.

Laying the pancetta onto (and under) the herb-rubbed tenderloins.

Laying the pancetta onto (and under) the herb-rubbed tenderloins.

Tenderloins and pancetta tied up with string!

Tenderloins and pancetta tied up with string!

I covered the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight. And then I made the plum chutney. I had four very ripe black plums, which peeled easily without having the blanch them.

First you cook the shallot with the brown sugar and spices.

First you cook the shallot with the brown sugar and spices.

Then you add the plums and simmer for a few minutes.

Then you add the plums and simmer for a few minutes.

It was surprisingly easy to make a really tasty chutney. I put it in the fridge over night too. Pulled it out the next day and rewarmed it a little bit while I grilled the tenderloins.

The chutney, ready to eat

The chutney, ready to eat

The tenderloins on the grill, you brown them first and then cook over lower heat.

The tenderloins on the grill, you brown them first and then cook over lower heat.

The cooking time on the tenderloins was pretty short; definitely use a meat thermometer.

The cooked tenderloins, resting for a few minutes before slicing.

The cooked tenderloins, resting for a few minutes before slicing.

Dinner - with some beet greens and chard, and a wild rice and brown rice mix. Delicious!

Dinner – with some beet greens and chard, and a wild rice and brown rice mix. Delicious!

It was a fantastic meal, and a festive-looking one so great to make for a dinner party. And even more so because the things that take the most time can be done the day before. Recipe follows, enjoy! -Jillian

RECIPE

Pork Tenderloin with Plum Chutney
(original source: Bon Appetit, slightly modified)

INGREDIENTS:

Plum Chutney
– 4 ripe red or black plums (I used black plums)
– 1 tablespoon olive oil
– 1 large shallot, sliced lengthwise
– 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
– 1/4 cup sherry vinegar or apple cider vinegar
– 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
– 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
– 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated peeled
– 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
– 1 bay leaf
– kosher salt

Pork
– 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced
– 4 teaspoons herbes de provence OR some other combination (such as fennel flowers, thyme, savory, basil)
– 4 teaspoons olive oil
– 2 pork tenderloins (about 2 lbs)
– kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
– 16 thin slices pancetta, about 8 oz, or prosciutto

METHOD:

1. PLUM CHUTNEY
Peel plums, if desired. (Mine peeled easily but you could try dropping them in boiling water for a minute if yours don’t.) Halve and pit. Cut into 1/2″ wedges.Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until shallot begins to soften, about 2 minutes. Add brown sugar, next 6 ingredients, and 1/4 cup water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in plums. Cover and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until fruit is soft and juices have thickened, 20–25 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Let cool slightly. DO AHEAD: Chutney can be made 1 week ahead. Cover and chill. Rewarm slightly before serving.

2. PORK
Stir rosemary, herbes de Provence, and oil in a small bowl. Rub all over pork; season with salt and pepper. Wrap pancetta slices around pork and tie at 2″ intervals with kitchen twine to hold together. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. (NOTE: I did this a day ahead and I think it improves the flavor to sit overnight with the herb rub on it.)
If using a charcoal grill, build a medium-hot fire; push coals over to 1 side of grill. If using a gas grill, heat all but 1 burner to high. Grill tenderloins over hot part of grill, turning frequently, until a crisp brown crust forms on all sides, 8—10 minutes. Move tenderloins to cooler part of grill to gently cook through; cover and cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the middle of each loin registers 145°, 15—20 minutes longer. (NOTE: we only needed to cook it 10 minutes, check after 10.) Transfer tenderloins to a cutting board. Let rest for 10 minutes. Slice thinly and serve with plum chutney alongside. (We served this with a brown-and-wild-rice mix, and some steamed chard/beet greens. Delicious!)

Pasta Carbonara

Every once in a while in winter time, I crave Pasta Carbonara – a simple dish that relies heavily on the use of high-quality ingredients.

Courtesy of Zingerman’s Mail Order, I had some excellent guanciale just waiting in my freezer, from La Quercia, an artisanal meat-curing company in Iowa. As well as some Parmigiano Reggiano from Zingerman’s Deli. (On our Tuscany food tour, we visit the tiny cheese maker who makes this Parm Reg that Zingerman’s Deli carries!) And, local free-range eggs from the farmer’s market. With some sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and our favorite brand of dried pasta, I was ready to roll. Recipe follows the photos. Enjoy!

Browning the guanciale

Adding the onion and browning

Parmigiano Reggiano with free-range eggs

Adding salt and pepper and then whisking

Stirring it quickly in to the cooked pasta and guanciale mixture

And eating immediately! A large serving of a good salad helps balance out the richness.

Pasta Carbonara
(recipe modified from Epicurious.com)

INGREDIENTS:
5 ounces guanciale (unsmoked cured hog jowl), or pancetta
1 medium onion, finely chopped (note, some recipes skip onion and only use garlic)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (note, some recipes skip garlic and use only onion)
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 large eggs
3/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, finely grated
1/3 cup Pecorino Romano cheese (or use all Parm Reg)
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped, optional garnish

DIRECTIONS:
Cut guanciale or pancetta into 1/3-inch dice, then cook in a deep 12-inch heavy
skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until fat begins to render, 1 to 2 minutes. Add
onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is golden, about 10 minutes. Add wine
and boil until reduced by half, 1 to 2 minutes.

Cook spaghetti in a 6- to 8-quart pot of boiling salted water until al dente.
While pasta is cooking, whisk together eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano
(if using), 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small
bowl.

Drain spaghetti in a colander and add to onion mixture, then toss with tongs over
moderate heat until coated. Remove from heat and add egg mixture, tossing to
combine. Serve immediately on warm plates.

Tuscan Countryside Dinner Recipes

In May 2012, Peggy Markel, our Tuscany food tour partner, came to Ann Arbor and cooked up a wonderful Tuscan dinner, together with the chefs at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. There were 4 courses, and 4 wines.

Peggy at the Tuscan Countryside dinner at Zingerman’s Roadhouse

All the wines were Tuscan of course – one white, two reds, and a dessert wine

Some menu highlights:
Antipasto: Finocchina Salume – Tuscan fennel seed salame, and, Crostino di fegato – Chicken liver pate on toasted Tuscan bread (freshly made by Zingerman’s Bakehouse). Primo Piatto: Ribollita – a bread, bean, and vegetable soup with Tuscan Kale. Secondo Piatto: Arrosto di Maiale con Sale Aromatico – Roasted pork loin with aromatic salt. Contorno: Patate arrosto con rosmarino – roasted potatoes with rosemary. Dolce: Percorino staginato con miele di castagno – aged Pecorino cheese with chestnut honey. And more!

The Ribollita got rave reviews. The bean used was the famed Tuscan Solfini bean – it’s creamy and tender yet holds its shape

Slices of the roast pork and vegetables. You can see the green of the aromatic salt in the middle, which added a lot of flavor

The Ribollita was a big favorite, for sure. Here are the recipes for the Ribollita, the Tuscan Aromatic Salt, and the Roast Pork, enjoy!

La Minestra di Pane Ribollita (per sei persone)
(Tuscan bread and vegetable soup, for six people)

INGREDIENTS
1 onion, 2 zucchini, 2 celery stalks, 2 carrots, 1/2 of a savoy cabbage, 20 leaves of black cabbage (also called Tuscan kale or Dinosaur kale) or swiss chard, 2 peeled tomatoes, 250 gr boiled white cannellini beans (or solfini beans if you can get them!)(keep the cooking water), 1 kg stale Tuscan style (unsalted) bread, 2 cloves of garlic (optional), extra-virgin olive oil: as required, salt and pepper, 1 teaspoon dried thyme (optional).

METHOD
Chop the onion coarsely. Chop the rest of the vegetables into small pieces ie. zucchini, celery, carrots and cabbage. Place half the chopped onion and the rest of the vegetables in a large stockpot. Add the olive oil and cook until brown. Add half of the cooked beans. Then, puree the rest of the beans by passing them through a food mill and add to the soup, together with the cooking liquid. Cook for 1 hour on a medium heat. At the end of the cooking time, saute in a frying pan, the rest of the chopped onion and garlic (finely chopped) in olive oil. Add to the vegetable soup, stirring well. Toast the sliced stale bread; Rub some garlic over each slice and arrange a layer of bread in the bottom of a deep “terracotta” dish. Pour a generous ladleful of vegetable soup over the bread plus a little oil and pepper. Continue to layer the bread and soup in this way until the dish is full. Leave to rest for approx. two hours. Before serving boil the bread soup mixture, stirring well and serve with extra-virgin olive oil.

Sale Aromatico
(Tuscan aromatic salt)

INGREDIENTS
Equal amounts of fresh: rosemary, sage, thyme, sea salt, garlic.

METHOD
Chop finely all together. It can be used immediately or dried out and preserved in a jar for several weeks. This salt mix (in addition to chopped black olives) is used for stuffing various meats: pork, turkey, chicken, rabbit, veal, etc.

Arrosto di Maiale con Sale Aromatico
(Roasted pork loin with aromatic salt)

INGREDIENTS
Pork rib roast, garlic, rosemary, sage, sea salt, red onion, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, carrots, celery, white wine

METHOD
Cut pork roast away from the bone. Trim the fat from the roast.
Make the “Sale Aromatico” (see previous recipe). Cut 5 slits into the roast – 1 inch and 2 inches deep, add stuff the sale aromatico into the cuts, and place a sprig of rosemary into each cut also. Tie the roast with string. Place Olive oil into roasting pan and roll roast in the oil. Also put ribs into the pan and cover with oil. Place in the oven at 350 degrees for 75 minutes. In 45 minutes add 1 cup of white wine, place back in the oven. Add vegetables to the pan in the last 15 minutes. Peel carrots and cut into 2-3 inch pieces. Cut celery into 2-3 inch pieces. Quarter red onion.
Salt and pepper to taste.

Enjoy!

Northern Italy Meets Georgia – Squash Risotto with Pecans

Last weekend I made two dishes for dinner that had Italian origins, but I doctored them with an American ingredient or two: Squash Risotto with Pecans, and Chard with Currants and Pecans. Both recipes called for pine nuts, which I did not have, but, I had plenty of pecans on hand. And the chard recipe called for raisins; I only had currants, but it was a fine substitute. The full recipes are at the end of the post.

Risotto ingredients

The squash cooked with fresh sage

Since I was going to be stirring the risotto fairly often, I wanted to prep most of my ingredients first. (And I find that makes for a smoother cooking experience anyway.) Once the ingredients were prepped, first thing was to cook the squash in a small saucepan with fresh sage and a little salt, and then sprinkle it with a bit of sherry vinegar.

Coating the risotto grains with the oil, before adding any liquid

Adding boiling broth, about a half a cup at a time

While the squash cooked, I started in on the risotto. First, sautéing onions until very soft, then adding the raw risotto and coating the grains well. And then adding the boiling broth a bit at a time.

Adding the cooked squash, when the risotto is almost done

Sautéing the chard

After about 20 minutes, when the risotto was almost done, I added in the squash. And meanwhile, I also did the chard, which was super-easy – sautéing a little garlic, then adding in the chopped chard and stirring until wilted, and then adding the currants and the chopped toasted pecans at the end.

Squash risotto with pecans, and chard with currants and pecans

Both dishes were ready at the same time, I served them immediately, and topped the risotto with some grated Parm Reg. Very yummy! Recipes follow, enjoy,
-Jillian

Squash Risotto with Marsala, Sage, and Pecans
(a modified recipe that originally appeared in Bon Appetit)

INGREDIENTS:
– 4 tablespoons olive oil
– 1 2.5 to 3 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, about 6 generous cups
– sea salt
– 1 tablespoon fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
– 1 tablespoon Sherry wine vinegar
– 2 onions, chopped, about 3 cups
– 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth, good quality
– 1-1/2 cups arborio rice (I used carnaroli, which is another kind of rice)
– 1/4 cup Marsala or medium dry sherry
– 3/4 cup pecans, toasted
– Parmesan cheese, shaved

METHOD:

1. Heat 2 T oil in heavy large nonstick skillet over high heat. Add squash, sprinkle with sea salt and saute until beginning to brown, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add chopped sage and cook until just tender, stirring often, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle Sherry wine vinegar over, toss to incorporate. Transfer squash to plate and wipe skillet clean.

2. Heat remaining 2T oil in the same skillet over high heat. Add chopped onions, sprinkle with sea salt, and saute until onions are soft and beginning to brown, 6 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until onions are soft and deep golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the broth to a simmer in a saucepan. Cover and keep warm over low heat.

3. Add arborio (or carnaroli) rice to onions in skillet. Stir until rice is slightly translucent, about 4 minutes. Add sherry, stir until absorbed. Add 1 cup warm broth mixture, stir until almost all liquid is absorbed, about 3 minutes. Continue adding broth mixture by 1/2 cupfuls, stirring almost constantly, until rice is just tender but still firm to bite and risotto is creamy, this should take about 15 to 20 minutes. Then add the squash, and cook another few minutes, so about 20 to 25 minutes total. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the toasted pecans. Transfer squash risotto to plates and top with shaved parmesan if desired.

Swiss Chard with Currants and Pecans
(a modified recipe that originally came from Peggy Markel’s Tuscan kitchen)

INGREDIENTS:

– 1/4 cup chopped pecans
– 2 tablespoons olive oil
– 1 pound swiss chard, large stems removed
– 3 garlic cloves, minced
– 3 tablespoons currents, soaked and drained
– salt and pepper

METHOD:

1. Toast the pecans in the oven for a few minutes at low heat.

2. Cut chard into 1-inch pieces. Heat oil in large skillet, add garlic and saute until golden. Add chard and saute until wilted. Add currants and pecans and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Tuscan fennel and radicchio salad

Tuscan fennel and radicchio salad

I will always associate fresh fennel with Tuscany. This is Insalata di Finocchio (fennel) e Radicchio. Radicchio is bitter, so make sure you have enough fennel, and cut the fennel so the pieces aren’t too long – it does not bend so gets hard to eat if it’s too long. Also next time I make it I think I’ll add a little lemon juice to the dressing, to give it a little more bite, and I added chopped pecans at the end, which went very well.

– 1 orange
– 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
– 1 tablespoon fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
– 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
– 2 tablespoons olive oil
(I’d also add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice)
– 1 large bulb fennel, trimmed, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
– 1 medium head radicchio, thinly sliced
(I added some chopped pecans)

Using a sharp paring knife, cut a 1-inch-wide strip zest from orange, avoiding white pith. (The recipe did not specify how long of a strip, so I think I used a strip about 2 inches long, since I like the bitter zest flavor.) Thinly slice the zest lengthwise into strips. In a small saucepan of boiling water, blanch zest 30 seconds, then drain. Squeeze 1/3 cup juice from remaining orange. in a large bowl, whisk together juice, mustard, parsley, salt and oil. Add fennel and radicchio, toss to combine. Sprinkle with the blanched zest.
Serves 4. Original recipe courtesy of La Cucina Italiana magazine.

Roasted Red Pepper Crostini

I was looking for an easy party appetizer using some of the sweet red bell peppers I still had from my garden, so I flipped through several Italian cookbooks I have and found the idea to make a roasted red pepper crostini (it may have been from a Faith Willinger Tuscan cookbook).

First, you need to char the outsides of the red peppers. I had about a dozen peppers, and I used an outdoor gas grill, which worked great. Then I put them in a paper bag, and closed it up tightly for a few minutes until the peppers had cooled down. Then I pulled off the peels with my fingers – from what I’ve read its important to NOT put the peppers under running water when you do this – you lose some of the tasty flavors that way.

Once I had prepped all my peppers, I prepared the other ingredients for the marinade – about 10 cloves of fresh garlic, also from my garden, which I sliced very thinly.

The first two of my roasted and peeled red bell peppers.

Garlic is nicely strong at this time of year.

And I picked fresh oregano leaves until I had about a half a cup.

Then, I cut the peppers into strips lengthwise, discarding the centers and seeds of course. Next, I took a round glass tupperware dish with deep sides, and I started layering. First a layer of the roasted pepper strips in the bottom. Then I sprinkled with a little sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and some fresh oregano leaves, and some of the sliced garlic. Then I repeated with more layers. Once all the peppers were in, I poured in enough extra-virgin olive oil to cover. (You’ll want to use a really good oil.)

And then, patience! It’s supposed to marinate ideally for two days in the fridge (covered), and then you let it come to room temperature before serving. I had only made this one day ahead of the party, but it still tasted great. I bought a couple baguettes, and some salted rice crackers for a gluten-free option. I sliced the baguettes but decided not to toast them. Just before the party I arranged pepper strips on a slice of baguette or a cracker and put them out on a platter. They were delicious! I had some leftover and I’m still enjoying them, I think they’ll last quite a while in the fridge.

Marinating the peppers

The final dish, in the front left and rear right, together with some other appetizers.

Tuscan Tomato and Bread Soup – Pappa al Pomodoro

Another recipe from Ari, for all us tomato-lovers. -Jillian

To quote Calvin Trillin, “. . . pappa al pomodoro, (is) the bread-and-tomato soup that is somehow missing from most of the supposedly Tuscan restaurants in America.” He wrote that a number of years ago, but in rereading his quote, I think it still holds true — for some reason this soup rarely shows up on restaurant menus (at least ones that I’ve seen). It is really good, and rereading this bit, I think I’m reminded how good it is. In fact, I’m probably going to go ahead and make some in the next day or so — it’s really that good. In our part of the world there are only about eight weeks a year when it’s worth making and those eight weeks are now!

If you aren’t familiar with Pappa al Pomodoro, it’s a great and exceptionally easy to make Tuscan tomato and bread soup. Like most of the foods I love, it relies on great ingredients — good tomatoes, excellent Tuscan olive oil, fresh garlic, and good bread. Like all good country recipes, there are hundreds of variations, so every book you look in and everyone you talk to is going to give you a slightly different version. But if you’ve never made it, here’s the simple overview:

Chop a couple cloves of fresh garlic and saute in a lot of olive oil slowly ’til it’s soft (you can also add some chopped onion if like. Or the sun-dried organic garlic from the Mahjoubs in Tunisia is great as well — very sweet and very good). Lightly seed four or five good-sized tomatoes and then cut into chunks. (Actually, I recommend roasting the tomatoes to char their skins first, a tip I learned from Judy Rodgers excellent “Zuni Cafe Cookbook” – just roast over an open flame as you would bell peppers, cool slightly then slide off any charred skins.) Add the tomatoes to the oil and garlic for 10 or 15 minutes, enough to cook the tomatoes but not so much that you turn them into a dense paste.

Then cut about the same amount of leftover bread as you did tomatoes (Rustic Italian, Paesano or Farm bread would all work well). Add it to the pot along with a bit of broth or water. Simmer for another fifteen minutes. The soup should be pretty thick, the texture of a hearty bean soup. Add a good dose of chopped fresh basil, some sea salt and black pepper to taste. Turn off the heat, cover the pot and let stand for about ten or fifteen minutes so that the bread absorbs the liquid.

When you’re ready to serve, give the soup a quick stir. Be gentle so that the bread maintains its shape and texture — there should be chunks of bread in the soup, not breadcrumbs. The texture of the soup should sort of resemble a very loose bread pudding almost. Ladle it into warm bowls then pour on a very generous ribbon of full flavored fruity olive oil — the oil is one of the key flavors so the bigger more interesting the oil you choose the better the soup will be. If you want you can make a “cross” on the soup with the oil on each bowl before serving as they do in Tuscany. To my taste, the more oil the better.

Serve with sea salt and pepper and a nice green salad and you’ve got a pretty great meal. -Ari

Grits versus Polenta – What’s the Difference?

Ever wondered what the differences are between grits and polenta? Ari did  – please read on for what he found out. -Jillian

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What, you would be right to wonder, is the difference between polenta and grits? Even the most casual observer can tell the two have a lot in common. Both are made from ground dried corn. Both are boiled with water and salt ‘til they become thick porridges. Both take a long time to cook. Both evoke strong memories and big emotional eruptions in people who grew up on them.

1. Grind

In general—and this is a generalization—traditional grits are much more coarsely ground. Polenta is pretty frequently more finely ground. I say traditional grits because the commercial stuff is far more finely done and doesn’t really count as grits for me. Even coarse ground polenta is going to be much finer than medium stone ground grits. “Why?” would be a very logical question to ask, but I don’t really have any good explanation for why Italians would have ended up with a finer grind than Southerners. If you have one, email me and let’s see what we can figure out.

2. Lime or No Lime

There was historically another technical difference in the production of grits and polenta. That is, up until the early years of the 20th century. Until then it seems clear that grits—like most dried corn products in the Americas—were made from dried corn that had been cooked with quick-lime or wood ash, then re-dried and later ground. While polenta was also made from maize, Italians never adopted the North American tradition of first curing the corn. This had some influence on flavor and texture, and a lot of impact on nutrition. So, historically, the two really were different—if related—versions of the same sort of dish. “Corn cousins,” I suppose you could call them.

Much to my dismay, this difference seems to have pretty much passed into history, somewhere along around the 1920s or ’30s. American mills apparently stopped curing the corn for grits, and went straight through from fresh to dry to ground, i.e, grits. I should tell you that this change came as something of a shock to me. Since every book I’ve ever read on the subject says that grits are cured first with the quick lime to make them into hominy, then ground, I confess I was confounded and frustrated when I discovered that this change had taken place and that I hadn’t known about it. It’s my own fault of course. If you believe in anything too much, you’re going to go astray at times. And much as I love books, just because information is in print doesn’t make it right.

3. Perspective

Interestingly, the historical relationships with the people who relied, respectively, on grits and polenta, were pretty much polar opposites. Basically, it’s like this. Corn has been here in the Americas for millennia. African and European immigrants (some arriving by force, others by choice) came later. In Italy, the people were there for ages, the corn came only after Columbus made his now famous trip.

In the Americas, grits were grounded; it was the people who proved transient. Our ancestors came to a continent where corn was often considered a god, and was also the centerpiece of many a meal. It’s we—Americans of non-North American origin, not the corn—that are the aliens, late arrivals who developed their own version of what was already well known to natives.

Polenta, on the other hand, is an American interloper on the scene of Italian cuisine, arriving only in the 17th century, thousands of years after the seeds of good eating had long since sprouted on the boot shaped peninsula. There, the people stayed put and polenta arrived at their doorstep.

4. Cultural Connotations

Most modern Americans really only know polenta from its relatively recent appearance on restaurant menus; few feel all that strongly one way or another. Generally, we either like it, or, at worst, we ignore it. But for many northern Italians, on the other hand, polenta carries an enormous emotional charge. Italians seem to be to have sort of a strange love-hate relationship with polenta in much the same way that the Irish often disdain English influence, yet have clearly adopted all sorts of British routines into their daily lives.

For some, polenta is really the height of good eating. In Paula Wolfert’s Grains and Greens, she quotes a Venetian cab driver, who proudly states: “Polenta is our bread. We cannot imagine a meal without it.” But for others, polenta conjures of images of abject poverty. In A Tuscan Kitchen, chef Pino Luongo writes that, “Tuscany was so poor that bread became the food of the rich and polenta the food of the poor.” Polenta was more drudgery than delight. In Carol Field’s In Nonna’s Kitchen, Lina Vitali, who grew up in the Valtellina, says that poor people: “. . . lived on polenta. They ate polenta boiled with goat’s milk in the morning. They ate polenta with butter and salami, or polenta with a salad of cicoria for their other meal. I lost track of how many ways polenta could be made in Valtellina.” Polenta is so much a part of Italian culture that it even serves as food for prejudicial humor. Southerners (who eat pasta not polenta) refer to Northerners as “polentoni,” literally, “ big polentas,” the Italian equivalent of country bumpkins.

Grits, in contrast, seem to cross class and cultural lines. Southern grits stories focus on family, not on extreme poverty they way Italian accounts of polenta do. Regardless of race, religion or economic origin, almost everyone reminisces about them. John Taylor, one of Carolina’s premier cooks and culinary historians: “Rich people here always ate grits. If you look at plantation journals and big fancy dinners in 1820 their fancy meals were mimicking European court food. But I can guarantee you there was a pot of grits in the kitchen.”

So what’s the difference now?

Ironically, in our own times, polenta has been picked up as a darling of good eating, while grits still get relatively little attention. Polenta, in modern day America, is perceived as a sign of cachet, not poverty. To my point of view, if you’re not self-conscious about your cooking, go with grits. If you want to impress someone, make a pot of polenta. Either way, enjoy! – Ari