Having just returned Monday night from a quick wine-judging trip to Tuscany, I haven't had much chance to get into the kitchen and start whipping up Tuscan-inspired dishes based on the goodies that I sampled during my too-brief visit.
And believe me, there were plenty of "foodie" inspiration there. Although our days were occupied with serious wine judging that left little time for rest or relaxation, this being Italy - and I say this most admiringly - when work was done, no one hesitated to stop, rest and eat.
Most of our meals were prepared and served at the wine-competition venue, the luxurious Hotel Garden just outside the old city. However, we did find time to venture out for dinners at two Siena landmark restaurants - Il Mestolo di Gaetano and Casa Mia Ettore Silvestri - and were treated to a simple but special meal in the Renaissance-era brick fortress, within the old Siena city wall, that now houses the intriguing Enoteca Italiana.
I'm publishing a detailed list of the dishes we ate and the Italian wines we enjoyed with them today at
Meanwhile, in place of the usual recipe in today's FoodLetter, I thought it might be fun to describe and comment on a few of the dishes that I hope either to replicate or to use as jumping-off points for my own Tuscan-inspired dishes in weeks to come. I hope they'll inspire some of yhou to your own creations; and I'd like nothing better than hearing back from you with your own suggestions and ideas.
Appetizers and first courses
<B>RISOTTO:</B> This Italian rice standard is apparently very popular in Tuscany, with four risotti served at seven meals. Somewhat to my surprise, the risotti were usually a little drier and a bit more <i>al dente</i> than I usually see in the U.S. or even other Italian regions. The rice was surely cooked, but the chefs seemed to stop consistently short of the point where the rice turns creamy and is soft all the way through. Straightforward renditions were made with bits of mixed seafood, tiny diced shrimp, and a beautiful, pale-green risotto redolent of onion and studded with small pieces of asparagus. On the more offbeat side, a <I>Risotto con Pere e Pecorino</i> proved an unexpected treat. It was made with chopped bits of ripe pear, savory, not sweet, flavored with sharp Pecorino cheese and a dash of cinnamon. You should have no problem building any of thes on the fly, assuming you've mastered the risotto procedure - covered in previous FoodLetters including Asparagus risotto
, Aug. 22, 2002, Radicchio risotto
, April 11, 2002, and, in the very first FoodLetter, Risotto pescatore
, Jan. 24, 2002.
<B>BEANS:</B> I've often read in English-language cookbooks that other Italians jokingly call Tuscans <i>mangiafagioli</i> ("bean eaters"), but when I asked actual Tuscans about this, they looked bewildered and shook their heads. Even so, a number of dishes featured beans, and they were uniformly delicious. <i>Zuppa de Fagioli e Farro della Garfagnana</i> was true comfort food that reminded me a lot of my grandmother's old-fashioned bean soup. Three three kinds of beans (large white, small white and large red) swimming in a rich, thick vegetarian soup thickened with <i>farro</i> flour, made from a Tuscan grain related to wheat, and, apparently, by pureeing some of the beans. My tablemates said this dish was called a <I>ribollita</I> ("re-boiled"), suggesting that it's made in advance and reheated on the second day to improve texture and flavor. In a more modern appetizer at Il Mestolo di Gaetano, seared, sushi-rare ahi tuna was presented atop a neat spoonful of perfectly cooked, meaty white <i>cannellini</i> beans.
<B>PASTA:</B> Defying the stereotype that Italians live on pasta, we had only a couple of pasta dishes during our stay. I loved them all, though: A traditional Tuscan fresh-made pasta called <i>pici</i> ("Pee-chee") <i>di Spianatoia</i>, a thick, fresh, hand-rolled long pasta about the size of bucatini or perhaps extremely thin <i>grissini</i> breadsticks, topped with a thick, savory meat ragù. A similar ragù, this one based on gently gamey shredded wild hare, topped a traditional dish of wide pappardelle pasta at Casa Mia. A pasta first course at Hotel Garden featured a dark, earthy shredded duck ragù in a completely different style dish: <i>Lasagnette al ragù di anatra</i> was a neat little package best described as a relatively refined, single-serving lasagna fashioned by stacking three coaster-size rounds of crisp, toasted pasta layered with the <i>ragù</i>. The key to all these dishes is, obviously, ragù, a long-simmered meat sauce infused with the flavors of the vegetables, spices and herbs it's cooked with. I've mastered Marcella Hazan's classic <i>Ragù Bolognese</i> but will be looking for a possibly simpler and perhaps more specifically Tuscan rendition. I'd also like to figure out how to make <i>pici</i>, which appears to be hand-rolled rather than run through a pasta machine.
<B>MUSHROOMS:</B> This is fresh wild mushroom season in Tuscany, and it was a delight to find fresh porcini and other edible fungi accompanying many meals. One Hotel Garden appetizer, <I>Tortino di Polenta con Cuore di Porcini e Taleggio</i>, featured a Shriner's hat white polenta mold with an earthy blend of fresh sauteed porcini and earthy melted Taleggio cheese at its center. At Casa Mia, an exquisitely simple wild-mushroom soup consisted of nothing more than mixed wild mushrooms coarsely chopped and cooked until just wilted in an intense mushroom-and-onion broth.
Tuscany's pride is simple grilled and roasted meat, and we had plenty of that, ranging from pork through veal and beef to small, tender Adriatic sea bass.
As reported in the longer article, one of the most intriguing main-course dishes of the week was <I>Tranchio di Pescatrice al forno con Patate e Funghi Porcini</i>. A block of snapping fresh monkfish almost as large as a tennis ball was wrapped in a turban of thin-sliced pancetta and baked until just done through. This simple process seems easy enough to replicate, and I'll give it a try the next time I can get my hands on fresh monkfish.
I was also intrigued by a simple but amazingly addictive side dish for this meal, baby new potatoes peeled and sliced, seemingly parboiled, then sauteed in green-gold olive oil with garlic until they were puffy and highlighted with golden flecks.
I'm not all that much of a dessert person for either eating them or making them, but a few were difficult to ignore, including two variations on dense, sweet yellow cake topped with pinoli (pine nuts), which I'm told abound in the Tuscan Apennines.
Several desserts were based on simply prepared fresh fruit, including the innovative <I>Carpaccio di Ananas al Moscadello</I>, fresh pineapple carved in paper-thin slices fancifully reminiscent of beef <i>carpaccio</i>, garnished with berries and scented with aromatic Moscadello sweet wine.
Not so simple or light but almost helplessly addictive was <i>Tortino di Cioccolato con Gelato alla Vaniglia</i>, a dense cupcake-size round of not-too-sweet chocolate with a warm, runny chocolate center - very much like a popular American bistro dessert often billed as "lava cake." It was accompanied by a tiny portion of creamy vanilla gelato that made a nice contrast to the rich chocolate.
<B>DISCUSS COOKING IN OUR ONLINE FORUMS:</B>
As I said above, I'll be very much in your debt if any of you similarly inclined foodies out there will join in an online conversation about these and similar Tuscan dishes and how to replicate them - or create dishes inspired by them - in our kitchens around the world.