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Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Over the Tuscan Moon

So before we left, I had to watch “Under the Tuscan Sun” of course.
Maybe I’m just not that into sappy feminist romances, but that’s 2 hours of my life I’ll never get back.

Which all left me decidedly dissatisfied.

What did leave me decidedly satisfied was Tuscany in real life.

Mist covered winding roads leading to charming hill towns, vast vistas of rolling hills alive with colour: pale green grapevines, dark green olive groves, deep red wildflowers, bright yellow fields of sunflowers...hues of burnished gold glowing over all of it, as the evening sun sets, painting the sky in vivid strokes of pink and purple. You don’t know where the fields end and where the sky begins. The horizon melts before you. And you lose perspective.

It is breathtaking. Soul-achingly so.

A landscape that presents just the perfect milieu for the superlative food that this region has to offer.

For at the heart of Tuscan cuisine lies only that which this land so bountifully offers: Cooking is done with olive oil, which is used liberally - as salad dressing, poured over bread, and used to enhance the flavour of soups and stews.  The farmland produces this oil, along with wine, wheat, and a variety of fruit. Chickens, meat and game are reared and raised locally. Regional vegetables include potatoes, artichokes, asparagus, spinach, beans, peas and wild mushrooms. Canneloni beans, broad beans and chickpeas are staples; Cheese – pecorino, ricotta, parmesan, gorgonzola are plentiful; the tomato is an essential element of the cooking, as is garlic and parsley.

Essentially, it is four fundamental ingredients that form the epicentre of Tuscan food : bread (plain, unsalted, crispy on the outside, light and airy on the inside); extra-virgin olive oil; grilled meat; and wine. Vegetables serve as large and filling side dishes; pasta cooked in a variety of unique flavours – subtle, not heavy – serve as first courses.

It’s all so simple. And so unbelievably tasty.  

A foodie's paradise. This is love, true love.

We stayed in Monterrigioni, largely because this is where our friends were getting married, and used the town as a base from where we drove around the countryside, windows down, sun on our faces, baby in baby seat, exploring the surrounding areas – Greve, Radda, San Gimignano, Castellina, Volterra...mostly walled cities - medieval fortresses - sitting majestically on hills, their tall stone towers striking a remarkable contrast against the surrounding valleys.

We ate everywhere, stopping when we were hungry, seeking out the most local of local places, the smaller and rougher, the better, little farmhouses that grow their own wine where the owner seats you and his teenage daughter serves you, and her mama and grandmama - plump, affable looking types with dimpled chins and broad smiles - rule the kitchen. Non-English menus had us leaping with joy. You know the type.

I don’t know how they do it but we didn’t have a single meal that wasn’t memorable. Honestly, I tell you, these mamas and grandmamas, routinely and effortlessly conjuring up pure magic, are Italy’s best kept secret.

And so, I won’t be able to capture all that we ate in one post, but it’s all there in my head and I will share them with you slowly over time. I promise.

For now, it’s three dishes that were stand-out winners.  They might seem complicated but they’re really not. As in all the food we ate in Tuscany, simplicity rules the day. Freshness and quality of ingredients makes all the difference, so everything I use here is the very best that I could find. Enjoy!

I. Primi: Penne al Dente with Pear and Gorgonzola
Blue cheese and pear – a classic Italian combination!

Here’s what you need:
- 9 ounces penne pasta
- 2 Bartlett or d’Anjou pears, peeled, cored and cubed
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley
- 1/2 cup light whipping cream
- 1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts
- Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Here’s how you do it:
Boil some lightly salted water in a large pot. Cook the penne in the boiling water, stirring occasionally, until tender yet firm to the bite (al dente). This should take about 10 minutes. Drain the water.
Return the drained pasta to the pot. Stir together the butter, Parmesan and Gorgonzola cheeses into the pasta and cook on medium heat until the cheese is completely melted. Pour the cream into the pasta mixture and stir to mix well. Now, remove from heat and fold the pear into the pasta mixture. Add pepper to taste. Top with parsley and crushed toasted walnuts. Rich, nutty, creamy and finger-licking good!

II. Secondi: Bistecca Ala Fiorentina
This is Florentine Steak - perhaps the most famous dish in all of Tuscany!

Here’s what you need:
- 2 1/2 pound choice or prime porterhouse steak. Porterhouse is best because it has both filet and contre filet. If that's not available, then T-bone or strip steak will do just fine.
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Here’s how you do it:
Press chopped rosemary liberally onto both sides of the steak, and allow to marinate at room temperature for an hour. Either use an outdoor grill, or simply fire up your broiler. Brush steak with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place steak on grill or broiler, and cook 5 to 10 minutes. You should start to notice the outside of the meat turn to a dark, golden brown. Turn over, and continue cooking for another 5 to 10 minutes until golden on the other side.

Bistecca Fiorentina is normally served rare or medium-rare. If you prefer your steak more well done, cook on both sides until they are golden brown, as above, then place onto a cooler part of the grill, and continue cooking for longer. A general rule of thumb for cooking steak – this is according to the owner/chef of a little osteria in Castellina - is as follows:  

* 1-inch steak: Rare, 10-12 mins; Medium Rare, 12-16 mins; Medium, 16-20 mins
* 2-inch steak: Rare, 18-20 mins; Medium Rare, 20-24 mins; Medium, 24-30 mins

III. Contorni: Sautéed Spinach with Olive Oil and Garlic
Fresh, nutritious, delicious and ready in minutes!

Here’s what you need:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 pound fresh spinach leaves, washed and drained
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Here’s how you do it:
Add olive oil and garlic to a hot skillet. Sauté the garlic until it begins to brown and get soft. Add the spinach to the pan and toss in the hot oil until each piece is coated and just wilted. Season with salt and pepper.

Enjoy your meal with a rich red wine - a Chianti Classico Riserva, a Brunello, or a Barolo!

Of course this post is wholly incomplete without mentioning our hosts and dear friends, Ryan and the gorgeous Harriet, for inviting us to their beautiful wedding! (I hope you are enjoying your honeymoon you guys and the love rug is getting good use - I’m referring to our gift, of course)


But – truly, it was a exquisite wedding. Set in the beautifully manicured estate of a 13th century villa, sitting atop a hill facing the magical fortifications of Monterrigioni, Tuscany’s fabled rolling hills as a backdrop, the subtle shades of yellow and green glimmering in the evening was a sight I will never forget.  Short, sweet, simple ceremony, flowing Champagne, good food, good wine, great company, lots of laughs. A really good time, you guys – thank you!

Well, arrivederci for now, but do try out the recipes and let me know what you think.
For me, they were heaven. And beyond.
One taste, and I was over the (Tuscan) moon. Way over.

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