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!

Italian cocktail recipes for entertaining at home

Campari (bitter), Limoncello and Italian Sweet VermouthAs I mentioned in the last article describing the various parts of an Italian meal, it is customary to have an aperitivo or cocktail before a formal meal. Some Italian cocktails are also catching on in the U.S. as the popularity of Italian liqueurs such as Campari or Limoncello (purchased or home made) continues to rise.

Following are some recipes for enjoyable Italian cocktails that can liven up your next get-together. The Italian words used for a toast include “Salute” (sah loo tay) or “Cin cin” (cheen cheen)!

Cocktail Americano: This drink was invented in the 1930s when the fascist regime dictated using national products, such as Campari (from Milan) or Vermouth (from Turin). It is believed the drink was named to commemorate the victory of Primo Carnera who became the world heavyweight boxing champion in Madison Square Garden in 1933. Read more

The Italian quest for authentic, fresh and traditional ingredients

Being from a Tuscan family, it never amazes me how far Italians will go to maintain traditions or procure the right ingredients for family recipes.

There is a long history of food appreciation and gourmet cooking on both sides of my family. When I was a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s, the only espresso coffee house was Caffe Trieste on Grant Avenue in North Beach (where I experienced my first heavenly cappuccino). We did not see espresso shops on every corner (like Starbucks) or trendyAntique Coffe Grinder Italian restaurants that featured the regional foods of Italy. In an effort to maintain traditions and have authentic ingredients, my parents roasted their own coffee beans in a small, round tin roaster with a handle turned by hand over an alcohol-fueled can. The dark-roasted coffee beans were ground in an old, hand-cranked coffee grinder (I was responsible for this task). When we went on vacation, the first thing to be packed was an old (manual) espresso coffee maker and a small electric burner.
In the pre-Alice Waters California, Italian-American families grew their own produce in their back yards (or on window sills and terraces if they lived in apartments).

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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…

Watch your head on New Year’s Eve – celebrating in Italy

fireworks_12_.jpgNew Year’s Eve is known as la Festa di San Silvestro (Feast of St. Sylvester) in Italy. New Year’s Day is called Capodanno. On either day, you will find people celebrating by eating lentils (symbolizing wealth) or pork specialties such as cotechino or zampone (stuffed pork sausage or stuffed pig’s trotter) symbolizing richness for the coming year.
If you possessed x-ray vision, you would find yourself in a sea of red as many Italians don new red underwear to bring good luck in the New Year.

At midnight, there are fireworks displays throughout Italy with the largest and longest taking place in Piazza del Popolo in Rome. The fireworks last for an hour and this is a true celebration for all (no reservations). As a result, people camp out for as much as a week in advance to secure a good spot. They are also treated to a concert that goes on for hours both before and after the fireworks.

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