The green season in Tuscany

Rolling green hills and a villa in the Tuscan region of Italy

“To a Tuscan, food is not just something to eat, it’s the very core of life. It is a sense of time, of place, of family — a sense of belonging. We truly believe that we are what we eat.” — Chef Umberto Menghi

 

Spring and summer are surely Tuscany’s most beguiling seasons. The landscape fills your eyes with so many shades of green that words fail. Cypress trees, like columns of arrows pointing the way to heaven, outline Tuscany’s famed rolling hills. Medieval towns overlook a checkerboard fairyland of blossoming cherry, peach, apple, and olive groves, wildflower carpets and row upon row of vineyards.

Tuscany nestles along the northern coast of Italy on the Mediterranean/Tyrrhenian Sea, where the soil is rich and the climate temperate. Everywhere you look is a celebration, and in Italy, celebrations are all about food. Food fills the Italian soul and renews it. Italians especially love to celebrate with their abundant produce.

It wouldn’t be hard to give up meat in Tuscany. Tuscans love vegetables, above all, and often plan their meals around those that are seasonal and fresh. With their passion for agriculture and land, they can grow just about any produce. Tuscans enjoy a spring bounty of garlic shoots, arugula, scallions, parsley, asparagus, peas, sage, rosemary, artichokes; fresh fava, cannellini and navy beans, zucchini blossoms, eggs, poultry and lamb. Beans are staple food and Tuscan cooks use them in a variety of ways from soups, stews, and salads to dessert.

The rest of Italy calls Tuscans “mangiafagioli” or bean eaters. “Tuscans generally use white beans, either the white kidney beans called cannellini or the smaller white beans called navy beans in English. For a short time in May the beans are green and tender and we steam them (and serve them) with garlic, oil and lemon. Then for a few weeks they are halfway to being dry and they’re boiled and drizzled with olive oil and served as a garnish for white meat. A few weeks more and they are dried to sustain our bodies and souls for the rest of the year,” says Umberto Menghi, a Tuscan-born chef.

The hallmarks of Tuscan and, indeed all Italian cuisine, are local products, fresh ingredients and simple preparation. Not many Italians want to stray far from their homes so most of the food they eat comes from nearby. Since Tuscans eat with the seasons they get the freshest, most deeply flavored food. They excel at preparing vegetables to enhance, not cover, their natural good flavor.

Halibut poached in crazy water

Halibut poached in crazy water

Tuscan cooks transform even the simplest of dishes with the method trio of soffrito, insaporire and odori. Odori, literally “the flavors,” are a blend of aromatic vegetables and herbs that form a flavor base for most Tuscan dishes. The combination of onions, celery, carrots, garlic and parsley (and other herbs) is most common. A soffrito is a sauté of these aromatics, and sometimes tomatoes, in olive oil, sometimes butter, sometimes with pancetta or prosciutto. Insaporire (to infuse with flavor) is when the soffrito is infused into a dish (like stew, vegetables, pasta sauce, grain or soup) by simmering.

Tuscans have other flavoring devices up their collective sleeves. They might prepare a battuto—a raw, chopped seasoning mixture—with aromatics like minced or pounded onion, carrot, celery, garlic, herbs like sage, rosemary or parsley, and olive oil—and add it to hot, cooked soup or stew; bean, rice or grain dishes, cooked vegetables or to a room temperature salad dressing. Battuto can also be as simple as parsley and garlic. (Pesto is a battuto.) A gremolata is a battuto made with finely minced garlic, Italian parsley, and lemon zest. Usually cooks add gremolata to hot, roasted or grilled meats, hot soup and hot stews like osso buco as a finishing touch, a fresh top flavor. An intingolo is a simple sauce of meat fat, olive oil or butter and aromatics in which meat, fish or vegetables simmer and absorb flavor.

Tuscans care deeply about what they eat. Most Tuscans won’t eat leftovers because the flavor and texture of the dish are no longer at their peak. The late Anne Bianchi, cookbook author and owner of Toscana Saporita Cooking School (where I once taught), said, “The almost daily forays into local markets simulates perfectly the Tuscan way of living, which is largely focused around what one will eat that day. There is no such thing as buying a week’s worth of produce and storing it in the refrigerator. If there is any food left over, well, it might be fed to the chickens or the dog, but I’m not sure even dogs in Tuscany eat leftovers.”

 

Gremolata

To preserve its fresh flavor, Italian cooks stir gremolata, a chopped and dry or lightly moist raw mixture, into soup or stew at the last minute, sprinkle it over hot vegetables or hot pizza, or infuse it into olive oil. Notice the balance of pungent herb, sparkling citrus, garlic, and oil or nuts.

From Discovering Global Cuisines by Nancy Krcek Allen

 

Classic Gremolata

Yields about 1/4 cup

 

1/2 ounce trimmed Italian parsley, 1/4 cup minced

1/4 ounce garlic, 1 large clove, 1-1/2 teaspoons peeled and minced

Zest of 1 medium lemon, preferably organic, 2 to 3 teaspoons minced zest

 

Mint and Walnut Gremolata

Yields about 1/2 cup

 

1/4 ounce mint leaves, 2 tablespoons chopped

1/4 ounce trimmed Italian parsley, 2 tablespoons minced

1/4 ounce garlic, 1 large clove, 1-1/2 teaspoons peeled and minced

1 ounce walnuts, 1/4 cup broken pieces or 1 ounce toasted pine nuts, 1/4 cup

Zest of 1 medium lemon, preferably organic, 2 to 3 teaspoons chopped zest

 

Optional Additions

2 tablespoons olive oil

or 2 to 4 tablespoons cream

or 1 to 2 tablespoons walnut oil 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

 

  1. Finely chop each ingredient by hand and mix together or pulse-grind ingredients in food processor until chunky-smooth.
  2. Optional additions: Stir olive oil and lemon juice or cream or nut oil into gremolata before tossing on vegetables. Season with salt and ground pepper.
  • Prepare a sage, fresh fennel leaf, celery leaf, or wild leek gremolata.
  • Toss gremolata with finely shaved fennel, sliced ripe tomatoes, or stir into a vinaigrette.
  • Gently heat gremolata in butter or oil and drizzle over grilled chicken or vegetables.

 

Italian Braised Veal Shanks (Ossobuco)

Ossobuco is a Milanese specialty of white wine and vegetable-braised veal shanks, but it is also prized in Tuscany. The shanks were a less expensive, tough but flavorful cut, perfect for braising. Milanese cooks serve ossobuco garnished with gremolata preceded by risotto alla Milanese or with soft polenta or mashed potatoes. The modern version boasts tomato paste or tomatoes. White ossobuco was seasoned with cinnamon, bay leaves, and classic gremolata (with garlic). Notice the battuto with onions, carrots, celery, rosemary and thyme.

From Discovering Global Cuisines by Nancy Krcek Allen

6 servings

 

4 pounds trimmed 1-inch thick cross-cut veal shanks

Olive oil for sautéing

Optional: 1/4 cup white or red wine for deglazing

4 to 5 ounces onions, 1 cup peeled and diced 1/2-inch

4 ounces carrot, 1/2 cup peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes

About 3 ounces celery, 1/2 cup trimmed and diced into 1/2-inch cubes

4 sprigs rosemary

2 sprigs thyme

1 cup white or red wine

4 cups veal or chicken or beef stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Gremolata

1/2 ounce Italian parsley, 3 tablespoons trimmed and chopped

Zest of 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon

Optional: 1 teaspoon minced garlic

For Serving

Soft cooked Polenta

 

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Blot shanks dry and season with salt. Heat a sturdy 6- to 8-quart ovenproof pot or casserole over medium-high heat with just enough oil to coat its bottom. Sauté shanks until browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Pull them out with tongs when browned, and set in a bowl. If casserole bottom is very browned, pour off excess oil and deglaze with 1/4 cup red wine; scrape browned bits and wine into bowl with shanks.
  2. Reheat casserole over medium heat with a little more oil. Stir in onions, carrots, and celery. Brown the vegetables. Add 1 cup wine, and deglaze the pan by scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon. Bring the liquid to a boil, add tomato paste, and reduce wine 1 minute.
  3. Remove casserole from the heat. Add rosemary sprigs, and place shanks and their liquid on top of the vegetables. Add enough stock to come halfway up the sides of the shanks. Cover casserole, place in oven, and cook until shanks are almost falling-from-the-bone-tender, 2-1/2 to 3 hours. Alternatively, simmer shanks on top of the stove over very low heat.
  4. Transfer meat to a warm platter or bowl, and cover loosely with foil. Keep warm.
  5. Prepare the sauce: Strain the cooking liquid through a fine strainer, and press down on the vegetables to extract juice. Pour juice into a 12-inch sauté pan. Pour juices that have come out of shanks to the pan. Over medium heat, reduce juices by half, skimming off fat. The juices should be reduced until they coat the back of a spoon. Taste sauce, and season with salt and pepper if necessary. Mix together parsley and lemon zest for gremolada and set aside.
  6. To Serve: Pile soft polenta on platter or plate and arrange shanks on top. Pour sauce over meat and garnish with gremolada. Serve.
  • Substitute lamb shanks for veal.
  • Add 1 ounce crushed and peeled garlic cloves to vegetables as they sauté.

 

Fresh Halibut Poached in Crazy Water (Ippoglosso Aqua Pazza)

Chef Rina Tonon of Café Cortina in Detroit learned this dish from her family on the Italian island of Ponza. It’s 40 miles off the coast between Rome and Naples and the namesake of a small archipelago called the Pontine Islands. Once dubbed the “Pearl of Rome,” this small island was a summer retreat for the ruling elite. If serving the fish with the crazy water, precision cut the vegetables.

From Discovering Global Cuisines by Nancy Krcek Allen

4 servings

 

Crazy Water Court-Bouillon

Yields about 5 cups

1 cup white wine

4 ounces onion, 1 small, 1 cup slivered

3 to 4 ounces carrot, 1 medium, about 1/2 cup sliced

3 ounces fennel stalks, 1/2 cup trimmed and sliced

2 ounces celery, 1/4 cup trimmed and finely diced

Zest of 1 organic lemon and juice of 1/2 lemon

1 large bay leaf

5 stems Italian parsley

Optional: 1 sprig thyme

Four 5-ounce halibut fillets

Battuto

Yields about 1/2 cup or 4 fluid ounces

1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley

1 teaspoon finely sliced mint leaves

1 teaspoon chopped tarragon leaves

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon drained and finely diced pickled pepperocini

1/4 teaspoon hot red chili flakes

1 large lemon, 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 slices country bread

1/4 ounce garlic, 1 large clove peeled and halved lengthwise

 

  1. Pour 1 quart cold water and crazy water court-bouillon ingredients into covered 4-quart saucepan: wine, vegetables, lemon zest and juice, bay leaf, parsley stems, and optional thyme. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer 20 minutes. Remove pan from heat and steep 10 minutes.
  1. Season fish with salt, and rest 15 minutes at room temperature before poaching.
  1. Mix together battuto ingredients, fresh herbs, garlic, pepperoncini, chili flakes, lemon juice and olive oil in small bowl. Season with salt. Set aside.
  1. Strain court-bouillon and pour into 10- to 11-inch high-sided sauté pan that will fit the fish in one layer. Place fish into court-bouillon; it should cover or almost cover the fish. Bring to a simmer and poach fish until cooked through. It should flake when probed with the tip of a knife, 5 to 8 minutes.
  1. Grill or toast bread slices. Rub with garlic clove.
  1. To Serve: Carefully remove fish fillets with flat spatula. Don’t break them. Place fish into serving bowls or flat soup plate. Divide battuto equally and spoon on top of fish. If desired, ladle hot court-bouillon with vegetables around fish. Serve with grilled or toasted bread.
  • The battuto is startlingly good on most fish, even canned—try it on other seafood like salmon.
  • After straining court-bouillon, simmer 1/2 cup slivered fennel bulb and 1 small carrot, finely sliced, until tender. Serve this with the fish.

 

About the Author
Nancy Allen

Nancy Allen

Chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen has traveled extensively, and has worked in kitchens and classrooms for more than 30 years. She graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While living in New York City, Allen worked full-time teaching recreational and professional cooking for the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, and in Viareggio, Italy, for Toscana Saporita.

During her time at ICE and the Natural Gourmet, Allen wrote curriculum for the professional and recreational programs. While living in New York, Allen was a member of the New York Association of Culinary Teachers, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where she attained a Certified Culinary Professional rating.

International cuisines are Allen’s passion and she has traveled around the world to learn about food and cooking.  Allen owned a restaurant and cooking school, catering business, and has worked as a freelance writer for various publications. In Michigan Allen has taught for a decade at Chateau Chantal Winery Cooking School on Old Mission Peninsula and Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College, both in Traverse City, Michigan. She is the author of the culinary textbook Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques.

Allen currently works as a cook at an organic farm, and as a cooking teacher and freelance writer. She is working on a cookbook featuring seasonal farm food. Allen lives in Leelanau County in northern Michigan along the glacial moraines of Lake Michigan.