Experts will tell you that Tuscan food is exceptional because it is based on “fresh ingredients.” Fantastic! What does that mean?
Imagine holding a fresh egg that is still warm from the hen. Hear the distinct snap as you crack that egg and place it on a flat surface. Take in the fresh smell. See the shiny orange (yes, orange) perfectly round, thick yolk that stands about ¾ inch high. Notice the compact and lustrous white of the egg, so very distinct from the yolk. Observe that the entire circumference of the egg is around 4-5 inches. Perfect.
You combine this egg with freshly ground (Italian) flour to make pasta dough. The color of the dough is a vivid gold, the smell of the pasta is enticing and the texture is smooth and firm in your hands.
Toss that pasta into briskly boiling salted water. It retains its shape and easily cooks to an “al dente” (firm in the middle) phase.
Finally, combine your perfectly cooked pasta with your favorite sauce or ragú (that you made using all the freshest possible ingredients). Heaven!
Compare the egg used in this case with that of an egg bought from your local grocery store. Crack it and the shell might crumble into many pieces. Place it on a flat surface; you will often see a pale yellow yolk that blends into the white of the egg. The egg white is runny and quickly spreads all over the surface.
You may, of course, not be able or willing to reach under a hen’s rear end to retrieve a warm egg. The point is, always be meticulous about using the freshest possible ingredients. Learn to read the signs of freshness and quality.
This is how the Tuscans approach cooking – with simplicity, attention to freshness and details and love. This is how my 99-year-old mother still cooks today.
Try this approach, no matter what you are making. This can apply to cooking, sewing, writing, painting or whatever you enjoy. Your outcome is only as good as the attention and love you put into each detailed step of the process, each moment along the way.
And, when your end result is something totally wonderful? Like the Tuscans, share it joyfully with people you love!
In the province of Lucca in Tuscany, cooks often make this dish called Pasta Tordellata. Tordelli are the Lucchese version of ravioli and Pasta Tordellata is a pasta dish with the ravioli filling on the outside.
This is a hearty dish which is normally made during the winter months.
Pasta Tordellata (serves 8) Printable version
Everyone loves Julia Child as evidenced by the opening of this week’s much-anticipated movie “Julie and Julia,” sure to be seen by foodies and food buffs all over the world.
During her long television career, Julia was known as the “French Chef.” Julia studied at length in France at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school. However, Julia and her husband were gourmets and loved food from many nations. In fact, according to a Julia Child biography on Answers.com, Julia’s passion for cooking originated during her assignment to China in 1941 where she was influenced by her future husband Paul’s passion for food.
What you may not know, is that Julia Child had a great love for Italy and Italian food as well. This one-woman dynamo hosted an annual luxury tour to Italy for food buffs during her long career.
Italians are known for their use of the fragrant herb rosemary in many food preparations. Perhaps this use grew from the fact that rosemary grows spontaneously on the rocky terrain along the Mediterranean coasts in incredible quantities. In fact, rosemary is also very popular in other cuisines such as those of France, Spain and Greece.
In Italy, rosemary is predominantly used to flavor roasted and grilled meats and fish. It is often coupled with garlic (rosemary is a perfect pairing with the aroma of garlic), wine and vinegar.
I challenge you to come up with some low cost, healthy and delicious recipes using leftovers and inexpensive ingredients – just like the Italians do. As you may know, Italians throw nothing away and utilize every part of the animals they consume (think of head cheese or pickled pigs feet)! This is true now more than ever.
Some of my favorite meals as a child resulted from my father or mother using kitchen leftovers. Most people know about the delicious Tuscan soups (like ribollita or pancotto) made utilizing breads – usually stale breads. Have you heard of polpette (meatballs made from leftovers – sometimes coated and fried) or fresh pasta ravioli with stuffing made from leftover fish or meat? Have you heard of soups or pasta sauces made with fish bones and fish heads or those flavored with parmesan crust?
Pasta with Smoked Salmon (Printable Version)
- 3 oz. smoked salmon, cut into large pieces (1 inch squared)
- 1 T olive oil
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- 1 T butter
- 1 T Tomato sauce
- A few drops of Tabasco Sauce
- 4T fresh whipping cream
Boil plenty of water for your favorite pasta. Bow tie pasta is fun with this recipe. Bring the water to a boil, add salt as needed. Follow the package cooking directions for the pasta. You can actually make the sauce as you are cooking the pasta.
Here are some recipes from my own mother, a wonderful gourmet cook:
Spaghetti Sauce with Sun Dried Tomatoes (enough for ½ lb. pasta)
- 1½ T Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 2 Roma tomatoes, chopped
- 1 scallion, thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic
- 5 or 6 sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
- Fresh Oregano
- Fresh Basil
- Salt, pepper
- Grated Parmesan cheese
Fagioli all’Uccelletto (with or without Italian sausages) Printable version
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hours, 30 minutes
Tuscans are known as Fagiolari or Mangia-fagioli (bean eaters) in Italy. You can be sure that meals in Tuscany often include beans in a variety of preparations.
The Tuscan dish Fagioli all’Uccelletto is quick, easy and delicious. The name all’uccelletto refers to the fact that this preparation uses ingredients (mostly sage and garlic) classically used in cooking small game birds.
- 1 pound (500 g) dried cannellini, navy or great northern (white beans), soaked overnight in abundant water*
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 7-8 leaves of fresh sage
- 1-2 peeled fresh plum tomatoes or a small can of tomatoes
- Boiling water
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 8 Mild Italian link sausages (optional; see below)
*If you’re in a hurry, you can substitute 2 cans of cannellini beans. They won’t be quite the same as the soaked beans but very good just the same.
Spaghetti with Dungeness crab (printable version)
My grandparents’ first stay in the San Francisco area was between 1912 and 1919. During this time, they were befriended by many other Italian-American families. My grandmother Nonna Assida, who was a wonderful cook and later ran her own restaurant, learned to make spaghetti with Dungeness crab from the wives of Sicilian fisherman.
This dish soon became my family’s traditional Christmas Eve pasta- a tradition that continues to this day. We serve the pasta as the first plate or primo and serve the cooked crab as a main course with a side dish or salad.
For this dish it is important to have the freshest possible crab. Buon appetito!
- One large red onion finely chopped
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- (1) hot chili pepper, sliced or Chile pepper flakes (according to taste)
- 1/2 glass red wine
- 1 large can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed or chopped
- 2 large (2 1/2 pounds each) very fresh Dungeness crabs, preferably live. Clean and break the crab into pieces (or have the store do this for you). The crab should be all broken apart. For example the claws should be in separate pieces. Crack the pieces of crab with a crab or nut cracker.
Cantucci di Prato (Almond cookies)
Biscotti in Italian refers to cookies in general. The word biscotti (biscuits in French and English) means ‘twice cooked’ and refers to the Italian cookies that are now widely sold all over the world.
The city of Prato (a famous textile center near Florence in Tuscany) is famous for its Cantucci or mini biscotti. These are traditionally served at the end of a meal with a small glass of vin santo (Tuscan dessert wine) for dipping. Some people also dip cantucci in their espresso, cappuccino or tea.
This recipe for cantucci is a classic. Our family enjoys these all year long. For the holidays, a brightly wrapped package of home-made cantucci makes a lovely and thoughtful present either on its own or with a small bottle of imported vin santo!
Oh, and if you’re wondering about butter, the classic cantucci are made without butter.