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!
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 trendy 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).
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?
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.
My friend Ambra (see previous article) sent these recipe for a classic dishes of Tuscan comfort food. The first is called Matuffi or Pallette. With a base made from polenta flour, these matuffi are truly stick-to-your-ribs kind of food! Next is Zuppa Casalinga or home-style vegetable and bean soup. The last is another classic winter polenta-based soup.
Matuffi or Pallette
This is a typical dish of Viareggio & Province of Lucca- There are many versions of this recipe. This recipe can be made richer and heartier by adding 2 sausages and a handful of mushrooms (or soaked dry porcini mushrooms) to the sauce. Printable VersionNote from Serenella: Definitely better with the sausage and mushrooms! Read more