Tuscan Food: Simplicity, Freshness, Details and Love

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!

Save money wisely: The antique Italian art of cooking with leftovers

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?

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Standing in line – an unfamiliar concept in Italy

I was just thinking about my last trip to Italy. It is in remembering the little episodes and nuances that make each trip a study in all aspects of my culture.
One warning I always give travelers to Italy: the term “fare la coda” (standing in line) is an Italian term in words only.
On my last trip, as I walked away from a very popular cheese shop, I heard shouting emanating from the store as three women and a man argued with each other and with the clerk over who should be served first. Standing in line patiently awaiting one’s turn is a concept foreign to most Italians who would prefer to show how furbi (cunning) they are by triumphantly stealing a spot in the queue.
Many are the times I have seen confused and confounded tourists trying to figure out how to get to the head of a line (or cluster)  of competing Italians.
Admittedly, I have noticed that more and more locations in Tuscany are using the “take a number and wait in line” method. This is intended to wean Italians from their old ingrained habits. 
But as the antique Italian proverb says, trovata la legge, trovato l’inganno” (establish a rule and someone will find a way to cheat their way around it). At locations where numbers were requested, I observed people avoid taking numbers by walking up to the person in charge to drop names of influential people they knew so they would not have to stand in line. ‘Influential people’ could be anyone from the prime minister of Italy to the grandmother of the clerk. It worked. Another part of Italian culture is getting things done through connections.
Oh well…

Life as an art form – Italians have 3 times more holidays than Americans do

Those of you who are regular readers probably realize by now that Tuscans (and all Italians) live life as an art form; using all the senses, paying attention to each moment or detail, celebrating traditions and family, being endlessly inquisitive, highlighting one’s individuality and finding many outlets for creativity. Life is like a blank canvas and you must execute the painting that is most meaningful for you. What you may not know is that Italians also have more time at their leisure to enjoy life than anyone else.

holidays.jpgApparently, the Italian government is on board with the concept of living life to the fullest. I read with interest a report from the World Tourism Organization (WTO) on the number of official holidays per country per year. Italians have more holidays (42) than citizens of any other major country. You will probably not be surprised to know that US citizens have the lowest number of national holidays of any major industrialized country (13). Even the super industrious Japanese have 25 official holidays. The ever efficient Germans have 35 holidays, and the French have 37.

I have to wonder what this all means. Why is there so much difference between the number of holidays in the US as compared to other countries? What do other countries know that we don’t know? The high number of U.S. working days does not seem to help in a bad economy and it probably impacts our overall attitude towards life. Americans just don’t have as much time to enjoy life and have fun.

As we move towards a new year, and ponder more than ever on what is really important in life, we might learn something from the Italian attitude. Although our new administration will probably not be moving towards 42 official holidays anytime soon, let’s concentrate on making the most of any free time we have and live a more Dolce Vita (sweet life).

Buon Anno (Happy New Year)!