A Taste of Tuscany


Essentials of Tuscan Cooking

Eggplant Crostini

Tuscany (Toscana) is probably one of the most beautiful and scenic regions of Italy and the most popular places to visit, known for its rolling hills, mesmerizing sunsets,  rustic landscapes, vineyards, farmhouses and olive groves. I have not had the opportunity to visit there yet, but I love the cuisine and it’s first on my list when I plan my next trip to Italy.

Tuscan cuisine is a simple and earthy way of cooking, which centers around fresh and local ingredients from the farming region such as olive oil, greens, poultry, beans, beef, pork, rabbit, lamb, and sausages. Crostini is a famous antipasti which are little toasted breads spread with toppings such as olive tapenade or chicken liver pates. Bruschetta is also a popular antipasti made with rustic bread, fresh chopped tomatoes and garlic. Other popular dishes from the area are Panzanella (bread salad), Minestrone soup, Pasta Fagiole (cannelloni bean and pasta soup) and Ribollita.

Because of the ample farm land in Tuscany and areas surrounding Florence, there is a large production of olive oil, grapes and wine, and a variety of fruits and vegetables and herbs such as pears, oranges, thyme, rosemary, tomatoes, wild mushrooms, artichokes, asparagus, spinach and beans – all main ingredients in Tuscan cooking. Risotto is an earthy dish that incorporates many of these vegetables and cheeses from the region. Fennel is another ingredient often used in salad and sautéed with meat dishes. In Florence, Pecorino (a salty sheep’s milk cheese) tends to have herbs, garlic and red pepper added for flavor and is served shaved in salads or as cut in chunks served with grapes, olives and rustic breads like Foccacia bread with rosemary and olive oil.

Almond and Anise Biscotti and Oranges in Marsala Glaze are standard desserts and most of the wine that originates in the area is Chianti, aged in small oak barrels. Another popular white wine is Vernaccia, ranging from light and crisp to full-bodied, made in a small medieval town known as San Gimignano.

The following is a sampling of some of my favorite Tuscan recipes that use rustic and earthy ingredients originating from a Tuscan Cooking class I took at the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC. If you’re interested in learning more about Tuscan cooking there are a variety of cookbooks sold online, as well as cooking excursions in Tuscany with local chefs and other sites dedicated to Tuscan cooking.

Mushroom Risotto

Wild Mushroom Risotto

Mushroom stock:

½ lb. cremini mushrooms

½ lb. white button mushrooms

½ lb. shitake mushrooms

2 quarts chicken stock

½ c. dried porcini mushrooms

4 tbsp butter

3 oz. Madeira wine

Risotto:

3 tbsp butter

2 shallots, finely minced

4 c. Arborio rice

¾ c. white wine

Mushroom stock (reserved)

1 tbsp. minced chives

1 tbsp. Italian parsley

¼ c. grated Pecorino Romano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the mushroom stock, wash and trim the stems of the fresh mushrooms. Reserve the stems and slice the mushroom caps for use later in the recipe. (Make sure to dust of the dirt first and don’t soak the mushrooms).

Combine the chicken stock, stems, dried porcini mushrooms in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook for 30 minutes over low heat. Strain through a cheesecloth and reserve the liquid for the risotto.

Heat a large sauté pan and add 4 tbsp of butter. Add the sliced mushrooms and sauté until browned. Deglaze the Madeira and reduce until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Reserve the mushrooms. (Try to let the Madeira glaze sit, don’t stir).

For the risotto, heat a wide pot or rondeau (flat bottom pot with tall sides) over medium-high heat and add 2 tbsp butter. Add the shallots and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir the mixture together to coat the rice with the shallots and butter.

Add the white wine, lower the heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the wine has evaporated. Begin adding the mushroom stock, a large ladleful at a time. Continue to add the mushroom stock (slowly and continuously), stirring constantly until the rice is just cooked through and all the stock has been absorbed, about 20 mins. The rice should be slightly al dente but have a creamy consistency and not dry.

Stir in the reserved mushrooms, the remaining tablespoon of butter, chives, and parsley. Top off the risotto with Pecorino Romano and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 6.

Pork Chops with Fennel

Pork Chops with Olives and Fennel

¼ c. extra-virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, crushed

4 pork rib chops, bone in

Salt and black pepper to taste

1 tbsp. fennel seeds, crushed

1 c. white wine

2 fennel bulbs, cored and quartered or cut into eighths

6 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, roughly chopped

¼ c. Gaeta olives, pitted

1 spring rosemary

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet with sides over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until it turns brown, and remove the garlic. Season the pork chops with salt and add them to the pan. Cook until one side is brown, then turn and brown the other side. Remove and reserve until later. Add the fennel seeds to the pan and cook for 1 minute (toast them lightly to release oils and flavor, watch closely to not  burn them).

Remove the pan from the heat and deglaze with wine. Return the pan to the heat and cook until wine nearly evaporates. Add the fennel pieces, tomatoes, olives and rosemary.

Bring the liquid to a simmer and add the pork chops back to the pan. Cover the pan and cook for 15-20 minutes more or until the internal temperature reaches 150 degrees F. Remove the chops and if liquid is too runny, reduce until it coats the back of a spoon.

This recipe can also be made with veal chops, and for extra flavor and to ensure juicy chops that won’t dry out, soak them in a brine overnight made out of 2 quarts of water, 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of salt and throw in some chopped up herbs such as rosemary or thyme.

Makes 4 servings.

Pollo alla Toscana

Pollo alla Toscana (Tuscan Chicken)

2 c. dried navy beans, soaked overnight (or canned beans drained and rinsed)

1/3 c. diced slab bacon or pancetta

2 (4 lb.) chickens, cut up into 8 pieces each

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Flour for dredging

1 medium yellow onion, diced small

2 celery ribs, diced small

1 garlic clove, minced

1 cup white wine (dry and crisp, such as Chablis)

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 tsp. freshly minced rosemary

3 canned plum tomatoes, chopped

2 tbsp freshly minced parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Drain and rinse the soaked beans. Discard the liquid.

In a medium saucepan, over high heat, bring 5 cups of water to a boil and add the rinsed and soaked beans. Cook them until they are soft, but not mushy. Drain the beans, but reserve the cooking liquid.

Cook the bacon in a large rondeau or Dutch oven until just browned. Using a slotted spoon put the bacon on paper towels to drain, reserving the fat in the pan.

Pat the chicken pieces dry, season with salt and papper and dredge in flour, shaking off any excess. Heat the bacon fat over high heat and when it is hot, add the chicken and cook, in batches, turning the pieces once, until the skin becomes golden brown and crisp. Remove the chicken and set aside.

Add the onions, celery and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and deglaze with the wine. Return the pan to the heat and bring it to a boil, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan and reduce by 1/3. Return the chicken and bacon to the pan, add the beans, thyme, rosemary, tomatoes, and 2 cups of the reserved beans cooking liquid (liquid should come half way up the pan, use more or less accordingly). Cover, place in the oven and cook for about 40 minutes, until the chicken is no longer pink and most of the liquid has absorbed. You may have to add more liquid if it looks dry.

Season with salt and papper to taste and garnish with parsley.

Makes 8 servings.

Cipolline Onions

Cipolline Agro Dolce (Caramelized Cipolline Onions)

2 lbs. Cippoline onions

6 tbsp sugar

½ c. red wine vinegar

8 sage leaves

¾ c. extra-virgin olive oil

Salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Prepare a large bowl of ice water and set aside.

Blanch the onions for 2 minutes in boiling water. With a slotted spoon, immediately remove the onions and place them in ice water. Remove when cool and peel removing the stem and first layer of skin.

In a large baking dish, mix the onions, sugar, vinegar, sage, olive oil, and salt making sure that onions are coated evenly (this makes a lot of liquid so you don’t need to use it all).

Bake in the oven for approx. 60 mins, or until the onions are well caramelized. Make sure to turn the onions and watch them while in the oven, taking care to not let them burn.

Makes 6 servings.

Pear and Fennel Salad

Pear and Fennel Salad

2 fennel bulbs, cored and cut into thin slices

8 cups mixed salad greens (red leaf, Bibb, Boston and Radiccio), washed and dried

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil

Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon

3 red Bartlett or Bosc pears, cut in half, cored and thinly sliced

Combine the fennel with the salad greens. Refrigerate until ready to toss.

When ready to toss, add the salt and pepper, olive oil and lemon juice. Toss gently and arrange on individual plates or a platter. Top with the pear slices and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

Glazed Oranges and Biscotti

Oranges in Marsala Glaze

6 large navel oranges, peeled and pith removed (save one peel with pith removed)

¼ c. sugar

¾ c. sweet Marsala wine

½ c. Cointreau (orange liqueur)

12 mint leaves

In a small saucepan with boiling water, simmer the orange peel over high heat for 5 mins; drain and set aside. When cool, slice into julienne strips.

Separate each orange into sections, removing all membrane between sections. Place sectioned oranges in a large bowl, cover and chill.

In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, Marsala, and Cointreau. Bring to a boil over medium heat until the mixture has reduced by half or until it becomes syrupy. Add orange peel strips to the syrup and chill. To serve, spoon orange sections into individual dessert dishes. Top with Marsala glaze. Garnish with mint leaves.

Tip: this dessert is delicious topped over Vanilla ice cream and served with Almond and Anise biscotti on the side.

Makes 6 servings.

Other Tuscan recipes you might enjoy:

Panzanella (Bread Salad)

Peach Bellini

Crostini with Roasted Eggplant

Olive Tapenade

Chicken Liver Pate

Pasta e Fagioli

Minestrone

Ribollita (Bread Soup)

Bistecca alla Florentine (Tuscan Steak)

Almond and Anise Biscotti

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A Few of My Favorite Thanksgiving Sides


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and there’s no guessing why – it’s all about visiting friends and family, being thankful for the wonderful things in our lives and of course, it’s all about the food.

Turkey and Dressing is the normal star of the table, but I love to experiment with the side dishes to mix it up and spice up the menu each year. Here’s a couple of recipes I plan on making this year (one tried and true, one a new experiment!)..would love to hear from all of you what your favorite side dishes are and what you’ll be making this year that’s a change from just mashed potatoes and green bean casserole!

Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Bacon & Shallots 

brussel sprouts with bacon, shallots and balsamic vinegar

I made this recipe a couple Thanksgivings ago and it was an absolute delicious hit at the table! The crispy bacon, butter and shallots, mixed with the tangy vinegar gives the brussel sprouts an amazing trio of flavors and the roasting in the oven technique cooks down the balsamic into a glaze coating the crispy oven browned sprouts. The original recipe came from Williams Sonoma and I adapted it a bit by adding the balsamic vinegar and shallots. Thought you didn’t like brussel sprouts? Wait until you try this recipe.

Ingredients:

Water to steam
1 pound large Brussels sprouts
2 ounces thin-sliced pancetta or bacon (3-4 slices)
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon premium unsalted butter
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste

Preparation:

Add water to a large pot with a steamer basket and bring to a boil.

Trim the sprouts: Slice off the base and remove the outer leaves. Cut each sprout in half lengthwise through the core, then make V-shaped cuts to remove the core. With your thumbs on the either side of the V, twist the sprout to open up the leaves a bit. Steam the sprouts for 5 minutes until bright green and tender.

Meanwhile, saute the sliced pancetta or bacon over medium heat in a small skillet until the edges have started to brown, breaking it into pieces with a spatula while it cooks. Remove the cooked bacon and reserve the bacon grease, adding a teaspoon of butter and then add the shallots and cook until soft and golden.

Drain the water from the steamer and plunge sprouts into ice water to stop the cooking, pat dry with paper towels and return the sprouts to the hot pan. Stir in with the pancetta and shallot mixture, including the fat in the skillet. Add the olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a dash of salt and pepper. Cook until the vinegar reduces and the sprouts are brown on the bottom, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and hot sauce and toss well.

Put the entire mixture in to a casserole baking dish and cook in the oven for 20 mins on 350 degrees until golden brown. Take out of the oven, drizzle a little more olive oil on top, stir well and serve.

Serves 4-6.

Sweet Potato, Butternut Squash and Potato Gratin

Butternut Squash, Sweet Potato and Potato Gratin

Everyone loves mashed potatoes and gravy for Thanksgiving but this year I decided I’m going to make a Gratin, but mix it up with not just potatoes and cheese, but adding some butternut squash and sweet potatoes to give it a kick and blended flavors of 3 of my favorite veggie sides. The decadent consistency of the garlic Gruyere cream sauce with this trio of veggies is a delicious twist on this classic French potato dish.

Ingredients:

1 garlic clove
½ tsp. sweet paprika
1 cup heavy cream
Pinch of nutmeg
1/3 lb. baking potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced
1/3 lb. butternut squash, peeled and very thinly sliced
1/3 lb. sweet potatoes, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shredded
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or parsley
Salt and Pepper to taste

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Thoroughly rub garlic on the bottom and sides of a shallow porcelain gratin dish or medium sized glass casserole dish. Coat with cooking spray. Sprinkle the nutmeg and paprika in the heavy cream and stir. Peel the potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash and cut them into thin slices.

Layer the potatoes in the dish. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the cheese and then 1/3 of the cream. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a second layer using the squash, another 1/3 of the cheese and then 1/3 of the cream. Sprinkle again with salt and pepper. Add the top layer using the sweet potatoes, the last 1/3 of the cheese and final 1/3 of the cream. Top it off with a dash more salt and pepper. Sprinkle the entire top of the casserole with fresh Parmiagiano-Reggiano cheese and chopped parsley or thyme.

Bake uncovered, about an 50-60 minutes until the gratin is golden brown on top and serve immediately.

Serves 4-6.

Wild Rice with Pecans and Cranberries

Wild Rice with Pecans and Cranberries

My mom always used to make a wild rice casserole over the holidays with either chicken or shrimp which is delicious as a main course or buffet dinner, but for a Thanksgiving side, this recipe is a bit lighter with tart cranberries to complement the turkey and some pecans for extra crunch.

4 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon grape seed oil
3 large shallots minced
2 cups wild rice
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 bay leaf
2 fresh thyme sprigs
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/2 cup pecans toasted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375.

In a saucepan over medium low heat bring stock to a simmer. In a heavy 2-quart flameproof casserole over medium heat melt butter with the oil. Add shallots and sauté until translucent, add rice and stir until the grains are well coated about 3 minutes.

Stir in the simmering stock, dried cranberries, bay leaf, thyme, sea salt and white pepper. Bring to a simmer then stir and cover. Transfer casserole to the oven and bake 45 minutes. Remove from oven.

Remove and discard the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Stir in the pecans and parsley. Serve hot or warm.

Serves 4-6.

Cheddar and Herb Biscuits

cheddar biscuits

I found this recipe on Food Network website for The Neely’s Cheddar and Herb Biscuits. Having lived in the South in Atlanta for over a decade, I grew a love for fresh, homemade buttery biscuits. They definitely beat your standard prepackaged rolls from the grocery store and are delicious hot out of the oven with a little bit of real (yes, real!) butter. This version is made with buttermilk and fresh herbs (chives and parsley), mixed with tangy shredded cheddar and a dash of cayenne for a spicy kick. Yum!

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons freshly chopped chives
1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley leaves
3/4 cup grated sharp yellow Cheddar cheese
1 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons butter, melted

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and cayenne together using a whisk. Add the herbs, cheese and buttermilk. Stir together until dough forms. Once dough has formed, using an ice cream scooper, scoop out dough onto baking tray. With a brush, lightly butter tops. Bake for 15 minutes.

Serves 4-6.

Recipe from The Neely’s – Food Network

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