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Ecco La Cucina: An Interview with Tuscan Chef Gina Stipo


Gina Stipo at Ecco la Cucina, Tuscany

Gina Stipo at Ecco la Cucina, Tuscany

I recently took a Tuscan cooking class with Chef Gina Stipo at ICE in New York, and immediately fell in love with her rustic Tuscan recipes, her passionate, hands-on teaching approach and cooking philosophy; centered around fresh, seasonal produce and local ingredients from Tuscany. We learned the basics of Tuscan cooking, local ingredients, cheeses and wines, and a little bit about Gina’s culinary training. She explained Italian culture and ways of cooking, and we made some really delicious food which we thoroughly enjoyed at the end of the evening.

Pecorino Flan, Kristen making Gnocchi, Artichokes and Lemon

Pecorino Flan, Kristen making Gnocchi, Artichokes and Lemon

For starters, we made a savory Pecorino Flan, served with roasted pears and arugula and paired with a crisp, white Tuscan wine to complement the tangy cheese. We made fresh homemade potato gnocchi from scratch, along with two savory, simple cream sauces – one with fresh crumbled gorgonzola, onion and sage, another with walnuts, butter and parmesan.

For the Roasted Chicken dish, Gina demonstrated the ‘Tuscan’ way of cutting up a whole chicken (with a large pair of kitchen shears), then she threw it gently into a roasting pan along with our fresh trimmed artichokes, lemons, garlic, rosemary and sage and put it in the oven for awhile until it was crispy and browned. For dessert, we savored a light and fruity Strawberry Semifreddo drizzled with melted dark chocolate – straight from the heavens above!

Gina's Cooking Class, Ecco la Cucina Cookbook

Ginas Cooking Class, Ecco la Cucina Cookbook

In my interview with Gina, she discusses her culinary training and background and cookbook Ecco La Cucina, (“Here’s the Kitchen”). Having lived and trained in Italy, Gina specializes in Italian cuisine primarily from the Tuscany region. She also does personalized food and wine tours in Tuscany and around Italy, and offers hands-on cooking classes held on the rural estate of Spannocchia, south of Siena, focusing on Tuscan cuisine and wines. Gina is truly passionate about her work and has found her place in the culinary world. She’s truly an inspiration, and a talented Chef and cooking instructor… Read my personal interview with Gina below to find out more about her culinary training and career, cooking philosophy, her cookbook and a few of the recipes from our class.

Can you tell me a little bit about your culinary and professional career background?

I feel as if my life has always been food focused, I have so many early memories of different foods I loved.  Growing up in an Italian family, meals were very important.  We celebrated with food, we made special trips to buy the right ingredients, and we ate together as a family.  When I was six years old we moved to Italy for four years and the beauty of the country, the food that is such an integral part of their lives, made an indelible mark on me that formed a basis for the way I relate to both the beauty of my surroundings and food. I have been studying food all my life but made a career change when I was in my late 30’s to focus on food professionally.  I came into a little money and I used it all to go travel in Italy and study their cuisine.

When did you realize you wanted to be a professional chef and cooking instructor? Who inspired you most as a young cook? What did you learn from them?

For a long time as a young adult my dream was to live in New York City and go to culinary school but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it.  I lived that dream when I was in my late 30’s and then worked in restaurants for several years to gain experience, but I still hadn’t found my niche.  In 2000, some friends who own an estate in Tuscany asked me if I would come and do some classes for their guests.  I set up cooking classes and found that I’m really good at it, that my innate curiosity and constant study of the subject before I went to culinary school had given me a lot of information that people are interested in.

My mother inspired me as a young cook, she has a curious nature and was always buying strange things in the market and figuring out how to cook them or eat them.  The Italian food of my father’s family inspired me.  From my mother I learned curiosity and openness, from my grandmother and aunts I learned the importance of freshness and respecting your ingredients.

Can you tell us about your training at the Institute of Culinary Education as well as abroad in Italy? How were you trained and what was that like? What was your first job as a professional cook and what was that like?

I loved going to ICE, spending every day surrounded by food and talking about it; I got extra bonus points on tests, joyously studied and constantly felt thrilled to be learning and surrounded by people interested in food.  I learned that I love the technique and precision of beautiful desserts and enjoy making them perfectly.

I also trained in Italy, at a school in Bologna as well as by talking to little old people and home cooks about their food and cooking with them in the kitchen.  It’s important to have an open mind and realize that, no matter what you’ve studied or for how long, you don’t know it all, there’s always something new to learn.

How did you get started doing food and wine tours in Italy and can you tell us a little bit more about that?

After I started doing classes for the estate in Tuscany I hit upon the idea of doing a tour for their guests and taking them around the area to great restaurants and wineries, sharing with them the intricacies of the regional foods.  That grew a little every year.  Meanwhile I did single day classes for people who come to Tuscany.  In 2005 my sister came to work with me and is my partner in the States, coordinating the weeklong tours and coming to Italy when we have a group.

Can you tell us a little bit about your cooking style and what makes your cookbook and cooking classes unique?

I would say what sets my cooking apart is knowledge and respect for the ingredients, for the way the dishes developed and evolved.  My cooking style is simple, I don’t believe in making it complicated or scaring people away from food; I want them to have the same acceptance and understanding of the importance of it as an integral part of their lives.  While I enjoy entertaining with stories, my focus is on education, not on reinventing the wheel or making a dish so complicated it takes the joy out of cooking.

Tell us about your cookbook Ecco La Cucina, and what inspired you to write this?

My cookbook is a simple compilation of the recipes we use in my area of Tuscany and was put together by the requests of many of my students.  I put a spiral binder on the first several printings because i want people to be able to use it in the kitchen, not fight with it to get it to stay on the page.  It’s all about making it friendly and comfortable, like Italian cooking should be.

In your opinion, what are the most important elements when creating a recipe from scratch?

There are two questions there:  a recipe from scratch or a dish from scratch.  I do both.

When I went to Italy I worked with an Italian woman who was the cook on the estate.  The owners wanted someone to write down her recipes in English because they had so many requests from their guests.  It hadn’t been done before because she didn’t use recipes, she just cooked.  I worked with her for two months and watched her and learned a lot and wrote the recipes down into a saleable cookbook for the estate.  That exercise helped tremendously when I moved to Italy and traveled around learning about the cuisine and how the dishes were made and allowed me to write my own cookbook years later.

When making a dish from scratch it’s most important to understand the science of cooking; the why and how to make a dish taste good.  There are certain basics in cooking and if you understand those you can create authentic dishes.   But those basics can be different depending on the cuisine.  Indian food is put together differently than Chinese, which is different than French.  The fun thing is learning all of that and making great authentic food!

What is your signature dish or your favorite recipe?

There is my grandmother’s special baked lobster that’s a family favorite and has become my signature dish among friends.  You have to have the courage to kill the lobster and it’s stuffed with bread crumbs, herbs, garlic and drizzled with olive oil, baked and then served on top of thin spaghetti.  It’s fabulous!

What is your favorite spice to cook with and why?

I just did a series of classes on spices used in Italian cooking .  I am crazy about salt and talk a lot about the importance of using unprocessed sea salt, but I don’t think I have one particular spice I like to cook with.  I’m against the constant use of black pepper in absolutely everything without thinking of whether it adds anything good to the dish or whether you even like it.  I love making Indian food for all the wonderful spices there are and adore the smell of cloves, but really in Tuscan cooking we use more herbs than anything because they were free for the peasants, whereas spices cost a lot of money.

What is the most underrated ingredient in your opinion?

Freshness and the seasonality of food.  When you get a vegetable or fruit that is grown in season and is allowed to ripen before picking, there really isn’t much else you have to do to it but eat it.  And by using seasonal ingredients that are local and fresh your dish is elevated before you even begin.

As a professional chef, what was your funniest kitchen incident?

My first job as a professional was in a very hot, very small kitchen at an excellent French bistro in Atlanta.  I was garde manger until I got promoted to the grill.  The first day I was there it was 95 degrees outside and too hot in the kitchen for chef coats so we all wore our favorite t-shirts and ball caps.  After 10 minutes sweat was already trickling down my back and stomach so when the owner asked me if I thought they should turn on the air conditioning in the kitchen, I answered YES!  Everyone laughed because it was a joke they always played on new crew: there wasn’t any air conditioning in the kitchen and, to make it worse, if you kept the kitchen doors open it pulled the air conditioning from the dining room and the guests would be too hot.  I loved how tough you had to be to make it through your shift and the camaraderie you have with the other cooks, like surviving under fire.

When cooking at home, what do you like to prepare for yourself?

Sometimes I like to make complicated braised dishes that take all day, but when I’m hungry I’ll make myself a big fresh chopped salad with walnuts, dried cranberries, blue cheese and grapes.  Or cook up a batch of fried chicken or rabbit.  But I’ve been known to make dinner a bottle of red wine and a bowl of buttered popcorn!

What is your favorite cooking gadget or kitchen item you can’t live without and why?

I really love a decent rubber spatula and a microplane, but I tend to travel with my own special paring knives.

What 5 cookbooks would you recommend every home cook own?

That’s hard because I’m not a big fan of cookbooks, I prefer to read food history or food science.  But the Joy of Cooking is a go-to book in my kitchen for all those traditional recipes that no one knows by heart, plus the original Betty Crocker book from my childhood is great for straightforward American desserts and a bit of nostalgia.   The Greens cookbook from The Greens Restaurant in San Francisco is my all-time favorite book, it’s all vegetarian cooking and every recipe in there is amazing, yet simple.  The Essentials of Italian Cuisine by Marcella Hazan is also an excellent reference book.  My new favorite is by an Italian, Giorgio Locatelli who owns a restaurant in London; his book “Made in Italy” is a wonderful read and a great learning tool

Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs and home cooks?

For aspiring chefs:  respect your ingredients and spend time learning in depth a cuisine rather than trying to reinvent something you don’t understand.

For home cooks:  Don’t be afraid and don’t let them confuse you with complications.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

I’ve really enjoyed living in Italy, studying the foods of the regions and getting to know the people who make the food and preserve the roots of their cuisine.  I love being able to share that with visitors and help them to better understand Italy, to build memories and enjoy their vacation.

Homemade Potato Gnocchi

Homemade Potato Gnocchi

Homemade Potato Gnocchi

2 lbs red skinned potatoes
2 large eggs
2 cups flour
Salt

Preparation

Bring potatoes to a boil in salted water until cooked through, being careful not to cook too much or they become water logged. A fork should enter easily with no hard center. Peel and then put through a ricer onto your work surface. Make a well and add the egg and half of the flour and work until incorporated and evenly mixed, adding the rest of the flour as you go. Knead the dough until its just pulled together and you don’t see tiny potato pieces. Try not to overwork the dough. Form into logs, cut off half-inch sized pieces and roll them on a gnocchi board or fork.

Gorgonzola Cream Sauce

Gorgonzola Cream Sauce

Gorgonzola Sauce

4 tbsp (1/2 stick) butter
1 medium onion, chopped
6-8 fresh sage leaves
8 oz gorgonzola cheese
½ cup cream
Fresh ground pepper
Salt to taste

Preparation

Saute the onion in butter until soft, add sage leaves and continue to cook gently without browning. Add gorgonzola and cook over low heat until melted, stirring occasionally. Add cream and heat through, being careful not to boil. Season with ground pepper and check for salt; some cheese is saltier than others. Serve over homemade potato gnocchi and top with some fresh ground Parmigiana cheese as garnish.

Walnut Cream Sauce

Walnut Cream Sauce

Sugo di Noci (Walnut Cream Sauce)

1 cup walnuts, chopped fine
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) butter
White pepper, ground
Salt

Preparation

Put the cream, walnuts, Parmigiano, and butter in a saucepan and heat. Salt and pepper to taste; bring to a simmer and then turn off heat. Allow to remain hot until pasta is cooked, then toss and serve with a sprinkling of more Parmigiano and finely chopped parsley. Because gnocchi or pasta continues to absorb liquid, you will need to save some of the pasta water to add when you toss the pasta, as it may seem dry. Serve over homemade potato gnocchi and top with some fresh grated Parmigiana Reggiano cheese as garnish.

Strawberry Semifreddo

Strawberry Semifreddo

Strawberry Semifreddo

1 cup sugar
3 cups fresh strawberries, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon juice
6 egg whites
½ cup sugar
1 pint whipping cream
Dark chocolate, melted
Strawberries for garnish, whole

Preparation

Combine the first cup of sugar together with chopped strawberries and lemon juice and bring to a boil, allowing to cook until thickened, about 10 minutes. Take it off the heat and cool completely.

Whip the egg whites with ½ cup sugar until stiff, then whip the cream. Fold together with the cooled syrup.

Spread the semifreddo in a pan, or into individual cups, and freeze until set. To serve, allow it to sit at room temperature 10 minutes then either slice or invert onto plates. Serve with fresh strawberries and chocolate drizzled on top.

To find out more about Gina, her cookbook and Italian culinary tours, visit www.EccoLaCucina.com

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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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