Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tuscany..... What More Is There To Say!..... Buonisimo!

In the 1300s, Florence became one of the most important centers of world culture attracting tourists and merchants with its endless beauty and possibilities.

Fresh fish. seafood, meat and poultry, vegetables, cheese, and freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil were sold in the town markets. Even at this early time, there were already some exquisite convenience foods ready for purchase: cooked spinach and Swiss chard could be bought alongside herb sauces in the city's shops and on most street corners too. Fridays and Saturdays were both meatless days, giving rise to a wealth of typically Tuscan fish specialties that are prepared to this day: baccala in zimino (Cod cooked in greens), cacciucco (a spicy fish stew), and a number of grilled, fried, and braised dishes that made the most of the offerings of the Arno river and the Mediterranean.

Cosimo de' Medici became the Signore of the city in 1434 and did much to make his beloved Florence powerful and prestigious. His splendid table was a prime example of food reflecting Florence's stature as an international city. One example was a perfect roasted pork loin that was originally presented to the Pope and caused great acclamation by all those attending, and another similar story is known about Florence's famous grilled steak, which come from prized beef and was presented in 1500 during the feast of San Lorenzo. When some English tourists had a chance to savor the exquisitely grilled meat, they continued to ask for "more, more beef steak!" which over the years changed into bistecca and to this day, Bistecca alla Fiorentina is still famous all over Italy.

When Caterina de' Medici married the future King of France and moved to Paris in 1533, she was followed by her many chefs. She was known as a lover of fine food and Caterina revolutionized the basic medieval cooking of France and transformed it into a haute cuisine. France owes many thanks to Caterina's Florentine cooks: olive oil, beans, peas, spinach, artichokes, and ricotta were unknown in France until Caterina brought them with her.

It wasn't until 1860 that Florence joined the new Kingdom of Italy and born as a country under King Vittorio Emanuele II, bringing together varied histories and a colorful past of its many regions. And so began one of the most popular love stories with food in the world....

Now the food of Tuscany is known for it's simplicity of ingredients and while this is mostly true, taking into account the ingredients from this area like truffles, legumes, bread (and what bread!), cheese (oh!), crisp vegetables, mushrooms, fruit and some of the best olive oil found; the very best meat and pork and who can forget Prosciutto Toscano..... once these ingredients are on hand, the resulting meals are nothing if not spectacular and provide quite a showcase to represent Tuscany.

In the Tuscany region, many towns and small cities abound which are well known to many for their beauty and incomparable food. So whether you're interested in classic architecture, history, art, music, language, shopping or food, your senses will be on overload and time will stand still. There are many roads you can take and so much history to discover, there is no end to the richness you will find there waiting to be discovered. Among the towns you can discover are: Pistoia, Pisa, Siena, Lucca, Viareggio, Pratto, Castellina, Semifonte, Carrara, Livorno, Arezzo, Umbria and let's not forget Florence among others.

All of these locations represent some of the best Italy offers the world and once you spend time here, the enchantment will capture you, infuse your soul and you will never be the same.

So let's amble over the region and recollect some great dishes to inspire us, shall we?
A wonderful "Primo Piatto" is "Panzanella" or "Tuscan Bread Salad"-
3 cups 1/2" cubes of day-old Italian bread
2 ripe tomatoes, cut in 1/2" pieces
1 cucumber, peeled & chopped in 1/2" pieces
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/4 cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 cup fresh Basil leaves, plus 3 sprigs for garnish
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt & fresh ground pepper, to taste

In a bowl combine the bread, tomato, cucumber, bell pepper and red onion. In a blender or food processor put the garlic, balsamic and basil and puree until smooth. Leave the machine running and slowly add the olive oil. Add the salt and pepper and taste.
Before serving, toss the bread and vegetables with the dressing, garnish with the basil leaves and serve at once.

Then you can follow with "Seared Loin of Lamb with Almond-Mint Pesto and Aceto Balsamico Glaze"-
2 lbs Lamb tenderloin
Salt & fresh ground pepper
5 tbl butter
3 tbl Aceto Balsamico
1 cup veal stock
3 tbl parsley leaves, minced

Almond-Mint Pesto
3 garlic cloves
1 bunch fresh mint, leaves only and about 1 cup packed total
1/2 cup almonds, toasted
1 lemon, juiced
3 tbl olive oil or as needed

For the pesto: In a food processor or blender put the mint, almonds and lemon juice and mix until grainy. Leave the machine running and slowly pour in the olive oil until you get the consistency you like. Set aside.
Tie the lamb with kitchen twice every 1 inch so the meat keeps it's shape. Salt and pepper the meat really, really well on all sides. In a large skillet melt the butter over med heat and once hot add the lamb. Sear on all sides until golden evenly on all sides, about 4 min. Put on a cutting board and allow to cool.
Add the balsamic vinegar to the pan and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen all the bits on the bottom. Add the veal stock and cook to reduce by half. With a whisk, incorporate the remaining butter and salt and pepper to taste.
Cut the meat between the ties which will give you 1 inch thick medallions and put them in an ovenproof pan. Turn on the oven to a warm setting only and place the meat in the oven for no more than 10 min to warm. While the meat warms, insure the glaze is hot.
Serve the meat, sprinkle with parsley, topped with glaze and serve the pesto on the side.

Another spectacular dish, this time for fish: "Grilled Trout with Fresh Grapes and Balsamic Sauce"-
4 whole trout, about 10 to 12 oz each
1 tbl olive oil
salt & pepper to taste
1/4 cup mixed herbs: rosemary, thyme, parsley)
Extra herb sprigs for grilling, optional

Grape and Balsamic Sauce:
3 tbl olive oil
4 shallots (or onion), finely minced
1/2 cup Balsamic Vinegar
2 cups vegetable stock
2 cups red grapes, cut in half and seeded

Get your BBQ grill ready for cooking. Brush the trout inside and out with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle 1 tbl of the mixed herbs inside each fish. You can also truss a sprig or two to each fish as well with some kitchen twine Grill until browned, maybe 4 min on each side. Place fish on a platter and keep warm.
For the sauce: In a saucepan over med heat, heat the oil and add the shallots and stir for about 4 min. Add the balsamic and stir, then add the stock and grapes and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2-3 min. Remove the grapes with a slotted spoon and set aside. Now you reduce the heat to med-high and reduce the sauce to 1 cup. Return the grapes to the sauce, season with salt and pepper.
When you serve the fish, take the twine off if you used any, spoon the sauce over each fish and serve at once.

Now to finish off your delectable meal, here's a quick dessert that is fabulous! You can use store bought Vanilla Bean Ice Cream or make your own.... in either case, top with:
"Cherry-Balsamic Topping"-
1/2 cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 cup apple juice
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp grated lemon zest
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 lb or 3 cups dark sweet cherries, fresh or frozen (pitted or thawed)
or 8 oz dried cherries
4-6 pieces lemon or orange rind (no white pith) about 2" long and 1/2" wide

In a medium saucepan, put the balsamic, apple juice, water, sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon and bring to a boil, stirring so the sugar is dissolved. Add the cherries and lower heat to simmer and cook for 8-10 min or until the cherries are nice and soft. Turn off the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
You can serve over ice cream, pound cake, cheese cake, etc. and either use it warm or re-heat it and serve hot, your choice. Put some of the orange / lemon rinds as a garnish on each and serve.

The finishing touch, if you were in Italy would be "Cafe", meaning an expreso, dark and rich tobe savored after dinner and accompanied with stimulating conversation, slowly allowing digestion to settle in while you take time to savor the meal and company.... lovely.

Now we've taken a lovely little trip to one of my favorite regions of the world and I've given you some great recipes to set the mood with, why don't you have a Tuscan Evening one of these nights and give your family a treat- maybe you will even be inspired to see the real thing!.....

I'm already thinking of our next trip so check back soon.....

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