Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Buon Anno a Tutti!

It's 5:30 New Year's Eve and I can hear the firecrackers starting already. At midnight they will explode in full force and what's really neat is that Peter and I can watch them from our bedroom window. It's not exactly the fireworks scene in "To Catch a Thief", but it is awfully convenient when it's freezing out.
Peter has been a kitchen wizard all week. I've been out of the kitchen since Christmas Eve because I came down with a whooping case of bronchitis and was really down for the count. I couldn't even entertain myself with any reading for the first few days but then managed to get through The New Yorker Fiction issue. It's been one of those illnesses where you have intimate knowledge of all the twists and tributaries of the tangled sheets but you're just too sick to straighten everything out. Dr. Peter and Nurse Lucy were excellent caregivers all week. Lucy keeping me warm and Dr.P keeping the fires burning. Peter is very old fashioned about what you shoudn't do when you're keeping your hands out of water. So, I didn't wash a dish all week! I really didn't have much of an appetite but that's okay. Peter's son Marco came for a visit from England and he took care of any leftovers from Christmas dinner. Peter made sure Marco had plenty of ragu with pappardelle and his favorite, the chicken liver crostini. For lunch the next day he made him polenta and sausages. Poor Marco really misses his Tuscan food in England and Peter makes sure he has plenty of everything while he's here and sends him back with jars of marmalade and tomato sauce. And Lucy especially loves having a visitor because it's a new person to sleep with.
Yesterday Peter made tortelli. His pasta is just fine but our machine is really thwarting his progress by tearing the pasta more than rolling it. He filled them with lamb and potatoes from Christmas dinner and then cooked them with butter and sage. They were delicious.
At midnight tonight he will serve quadrucci (tiny little ravioli) with cream and proscuitto and I made an apple crostata. We will toast the New Year at the bedroom window as we watch the fireworks. Tomorrow, our dinner is stinco di maile (a large ham shank for two) roast potatoes and sauteed spinach.
Don't forget to bring out the red undies tomorrow to ensure a Happy and Healthy New Year. Buon Anno a Tutti!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Buon Natale a Tutti!

Piero and I had a wonderful Christmas dinner. We started with my favorite, crostini con fegatini di pollo, That's chicken liver spread on toasted bread. Following that we had the tortellini in brodo. You can see the steaming broth in the picture. Very soothing. I asked Piero why these are called tortellini when they are actually cappelletti. He said everybody calls them tortellini. Then the gorgeous leg of lamb with the roasted potatoes and tomatoes, plenty of rosemary perfuming the whole dish. (And how about the beautiful new roasting pan from Thanksgiving?) And of course, the mighty panettone as the grand finale with some bubbly and vin santo.
Piero surprised me with a book of the history of Stia in photographs. I will have hours of pleasure looking at the pictures. Some dating from 1889. What's really great is that things haven't changed too much since then.
The weather is changing as I write this on the evening of Christmas Day. I can hear the winds and Piero just came up from the cellar and said it's starting to snow.
Buon Natale, Much Love, and Buon Appetito to all!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Peter's Polpette and Maria's Tortellini

Peter's still in the kitchen these days..fine with me! He just made a wonderful lunch, polpette and fried potatoes. Right before lunch our neighbor, Purgatorio, dropped by with a bottle of wine for us. His family makes it in Orvieto. A red wine softly "amabile" or sweet. It was wonderful with lunch and it's all gone.
Polpette are another one of those creation based on leftovers. Peter bought some meat and bones to make stock for tomorrow's tortellini in brodo. When the meat has done it's job we trim it and chop it a bit and then pulse it in the food processor until it is very fine. Then it's mixed with some mashed boiled potatoes. About 2/3 potatoes to 1/3 meat. In those times many years ago, if la mamma had some leftover meat she would mix it with the potatoes to stretch it and feed la famiglia. So Peter seasons the mix with a little chopped garlic and lots of parsley, an egg to bind it, some grated parmesan and nutmeg, some chopped rosemary, and salt and pepper, of course. He rolls it into a small ball (a little bigger that a ping pong ball but smaller than a golf ball, or any shape you want), rolls it in some flour and then fries it in hot oil. One of my favorite lunches and he doesn't mind if I dip them in a little ketchup! Not many things I can use ketchup with here. Anyway, this is a great way to use leftovers and it makes a great easy meal with french fries or a salad or a great finger food for a party.
Big treat yesterday. When P can home from buying bread and the paper he said that Maria was going to make her tortellini for tomorrow starting at 4 in the afternoon. Not to be missed. So we went over and I took some great pictures and helped out a little. Now Maria can do this blindfolded and with her hands tied behind her back. Her pasta is like silk and stretches with ease.She was up to 500 by the time we left. That was about 40 minutes including time to answer the phone and the doorbell, the arrival of her grandson Fillipo and Umberto, and talking to Peter and me.
After that Peter and I strolled through town and stopped at Bar Roma for a little warm up grappa. Filled with men at this hour, I often wonder where all the women are. One of our former neighbors was in the back playing cards. It must have been a good day for him..he was smiling.
I really wanted to get a picture of Piero, Lucy, and myself for Christmas. The only one to ask was Pasquita. You remember Pasquita, 80+years old and the go to gal in Papiano? Peter knocked on her door to ask her to take a shot. She had never used a digital camera before so that was one hurdle. Then Lucy was decidedly unhappy with the satin bow her silly owner (me) wanted her to wear. Once I got it on her she tore up and down the road trying to reach around and get the thing off. Meanwhile Peter is trying to show Pasquita how to take a picture. She got one shot of the three of us and then Lucy ran into the house and refused to come down again. That was that.
Tonight I will make eggnog. Peter's never had it before and I hope he enjoys it. I love Christmas Eve.
He will be busy preparing a traditional Christmas dinner tomorrow and I'll give you the menu with some pictures tomorrow.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Peter's in The Kitchen

C'e' il sole oggi! It's sunny today! And yesterday,too. Lots of things to accomplish while the sun shines. Like doing wash and getting it on the line to dry. Peter has been busy fencing in the front part of the garden, the side where the beasts got in to feast. He bought the fencing in Pratovecchio last week and has been bringing the pieces home one by one. Everything can't fit in the car at once. But now with all the mud in the garden, he keeps slipping when he tries to get the pieces in line.
He's also been busy in the kitchen. He's quiet and efficient and sometimes I never know what he's up to. He makes a stunning orange marmalade and with the winter oranges available now, the kitchen was bubbling the other night with his pots of jam. Last night he made a salsa verde, a green sauce that accompanies boiled meat dishes. He's been enjoying the freezer so much that when he goes to the macelleria he brings home all kinds of interesting things. The other day it was veal tongue. Eventually, it will be boiled, skinned, and sliced. That's why he made the salsa verde. And this is how I learn what goes with what. When you have the boiled meats you serve them with salsa verde and puree di patate. Oh, and yes, there are about 6 pounds of young wild boar in the freezer now. Out neighbor Purgatorio came by and asked if we wanted some from his friend's latest shoot.
Yesterday, with the sun still shining after lunch, we took a ride and we visited a beautiful little church about 30 minutes from here in Bibbiena, Santa Maria del Sasso. I took some great shots of the altarpiece and an absolutely elegant wooden Madonna (from the 16th century) in the crypt below. Will write about that later. On the way back we stopped to food shop and picked up the last few things for the 25th. I can see it in P's eyes.. he loves this buying and prep. Now everything is in place for Peter's Christmas Dinner. He's in charge of the kitchen next Thursday.
Friday, we went to the market in Pratovecchio. Each one of these little towns here has a market day, and outside market. Stia's market is on Tuesday, But Stia is so small it can't handle all the vendors in it's small piazza. So we go to P'vecchio on Friday because we know the fishmonger ("pescivendolo") will be there. I took some pictures but what I didn't get in the shot was that the whole display and work area is part of his refrigerated truck. People take a number and wait to be served. Better that way because standing in line isn't part of Italian protocol (everybody stands in a clump and tries to remember who's next) and there are lots of people who want that great fish on Friday morning. Peter bought mussels and clams. And the rest I'll let him tell you. One thing I'll say, he gets the most flavor out of all his ingredients now matter what he's cooking. Remember, you don't throw anything out.
Ti passo, Peter.
As Marta said, we bought some clams and mussels from the fish guy to make a spaghetti sauce.
Put the mussels and clams in some water with salt in it for about one hour, Clean the mussels taking off the baffo - we call it beard in Italy.
Get two handfull of fresh parsley, one clove of garlic and a small chili pepper. Chop everything very fine with the mezzaluna and make a quick soffritto (that is, saute the garlic, parsley, and chili on medium to low heat) otherwise the parsley and garlic will burn. When the soffritto is soft throw inside a small can of peeled tomatoes and cook for a few minutes. , breaking them up. Put the clams and mussels in a pot and let them open with a strong fire shaking the pot every now and then. Shell the fish one by one throwing it with the soffritto. With a fine strainer strain the water from the shellfish and keep it aside. Start cooking the spaghetti in the ordinary way. After the pasta water has begun to boil, cook the pasta for about three minutes and then take it from the boiling water and put it together with the soffritto and fish. Start adding the water you kept aside so that the pasta cooks in it. You should have enough water to finish cooking the spaghetti, if not add some more pasta water until ready.
Remember to buy more mussels that clams because of the water content in the mussels. Buon Appetito!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lucy and Peter's Nativity Set

Raining again today. I think we've had maybe two of three days without rain for over a month now. And if it's not raining in the morning it will be raining by the afternoon. Peter said that the spinach in the garden needs water, "But not this much!" But there is good news..the artichokes, broccoli, and cauliflower that the deer enjoyed so much last month are growing back. And the newly planted fava beans are coming up. too. So this is all very good.
There was an anniversary here over the weekend. We brought Lucy home from the kennel four years ago on December 14. Naming a dog is quite a big deal. For me, anyway. The calendars here always have the feast days of the saints listed for each day. Even if it's a calendar for a garage or a tire store. When we brought Lucy home I checked the calendar and saw that the 14th was the feast of St. Giovanna..."Joan". That didn't do it for me. So back up to the 13th and there is St. Lucy.
Now, before Lucy came bounding into our life, we had a short run through with a dog I named "Lucky". He was a rescue dog and we picked him up at the Chocolate Festival in Pratovecchio one November night. Lucky was a good looking beagle mix, two years old. We made him a little bed of rugs and towels for the night and helped him to get used to his new digs. The next day Peter went into Florence and Lucky and I stayed home to cook and bond. That night Lucky got a little nervous as Peter walked past his territory on the way to the bathroom and Peter was almost rendered a castrato. So ciao, Lucky. The guy from the kennel came the next day and took not so Lucky back to the other inmates.
I said to Peter after that, "No cuccia, no dog." ("Cuccia", pronounced coo-chuh, means dog bed.) So, I see Peter taking apart an aluminum lawn chair that he found on the side of the road. And then he goes into Stia and buys some screening. I can see what's going on here. His Tuscan ingenuity is working, the wheels are grinding. "I am making a bed for the dog", he tells me. I told him we were getting a puppy not a rabbit. That afternoon he goes out and buys this huge crate (I call it the guest room.) for the puppy we don't have yet.
December 14 we start out to find the kennel.We stop somebody and ask. Now we're really in the mountains here so it's difficult to even find anybody to ask. Somebody tells us to go up the road and we'll see a sign. No sign. It goes on this way for about an hour.
We finally find the place, It's raining hard and it's cold and tempers are tight. The kennel guy say that he has seven pups. "Seven choices!", I think. This is great. He stops hosing the doggie diamonds from the kennels and opens door #1 and five little poopy white pups come tumbling out. Peter says,"He tells me that they are Pastore Maremmano." These dogs grow up to be as big as Volkswagons and we were really hoping for something on the smaller side. Door #2 opens and these two abandoned sisters explode out the door. They're both about a foot high but one is a tiny bit smaller and we grab her. No time for interviews and puppy chat. Peter puts a leash around her neck and she trots off trying to keep up with him. I'll never forget the sight of them walking  in front of me, little Lucy and Peter and the red leash. We sign the papers, etc. and I hop in the back seat with our new bundle of joy wrapped in the spaghetti rug. ( A chenille bathroom mat that unravels.) 
We take her right away for her shots. I waited in the car...and waited. Peter finally comes back with Lucy dazed by her sudden new life. He tells me that when she got the last shot and she was placed on the floor that she promptly collasped! The Vet said it (the reaction) happens one in 500 dogs. So an antidote was administered and she was all puppy-liscious all over again.
Now, she's a big girl and she's is our sunshine on a rainy day, believe me. She loves to ride into town each day with Peter when he goes to buy the paper and bread. She is his shadow while he works in the garden and sits by him when he stops to take a break. She barks at strangers but given the chance she will smother them with kisses. She's crazy about Umberto's woods. And we even buried a few truffles and she followed the scent (we rubbed her nose with truffle oil) and found them! All that, and she's bilingual, too.
I know that you can really bore people if you talk about your dreams or your dog. So pardon my indulgence.
I must get Peter to post his recipe for spaghetti with mussles and clams. That was Friday's lunch and it was exceptional. Peter can  really step up to the plate (please pardon the pun) when I'm not inspired to come up with something for lunch. Sunday I was pleased with my rabbit with mustard and tarragon sauce. There were plenty of buttery boiled potatoes with parsley to take care of the sauce. An apple and amaretto torta followed the rabbit. Today is somewhat uninspired country fare. Tortelli con patate (a kind of ravioli stuffed with potato which this area is known for) with the ragu' I made last week. Fast and filling on this rainy day
Peter put up his own Nativity Set last night. I think it's terrific. All the little tools of daily life that he made to accompany the main act....I love the well and the bucket and the lamp to heat the oil. Look for the cooking pot over the fire. And don't miss in the stable, the broom made out of a rosemary branch. You just have to love this guy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

December 8, Italian style

Yesterday was a lovely day here in Stia. The morning was bright and frosty and Peter and I made a few plans for after lunch. December 8th is a national holiday in Italy, L' Immacolata Concezione. Everybody's off. I said to Peter, "I can't imagine December 8th being a national holiday in the States." And he answered, "You must remember that in Italy we have the Pope." But first, lunch. Always the primary focus of the daytime hours. I hadn't pulled anything out of that new freezer of ours so I had to think of what was ready to go. Aha! Polenta with sausages and tomato sauce. It's always nice when that decision is out of the way. I found this great way to prepare polenta without ending up with Popeye arms. After you've salted the water and it's boiling, drizzle the polenta into the hot water stirring the whole time.When you've got it all mixed take a brown paper bag and put it over the top of the pot and then cover it with a lid. Put it on the back burner as low as it will go and forty minutes later, Polenta! Funny, when I told Peter about this technique he said that he'd overheard two women in the pasticceria talking about a way to cook polenta without all the stirring but they didn't know how it was done.
I browned the sausages in some olive oil for a bit and then added our own canned tomatoes, threw in a little rosemary (a nice little shot of flavor) and let it simmer away. Amazing the changes that tomatoes go through when they have a thirty minute simmer. It's a satisfying feeling to get a lunch on the table that Peter enjoys and is simple and delicious as well.
We were headed into Pratovecchio later in the afternoon. The Christmas fair was in the main piazza and on a few side streets. I found no turtles but plenty of underwear (a table or red undies that gli italiani wear for luck on New Years Day) lots of made in China stuff, tons of purple clothing (the "in" color this season), household items, shoes, handmade jewelry and crafts, cheese and meats, tools like wrenches and other objects who uses I don't know about but Peter does. He bought something from the made in China table..a set of earphones for ten euro that he can wear when he watches TV at night. He tried them out last night and they work.
After that, we headed back to Stia where we checked out the Presepe in Piazza Tanucci. Il Presepe is the word for the nativity scenes that are so popular here. This one in Stia had life size figures dressed as shepherds, etc. I especially loved the area that was prepared for Mary, Joseph, the Baby and a few beasts. As you walked into the enclosure there was a hidden recording of mooing cows. I could hear it before I went in and was somewhat disappointed to see the real things weren't wandering around. Obviously, someone in town had recorded their own cows.  The rest of that part of the piazza had small groups of the figures pointing to the Star of Bethlehem and other nativity eve scenes.
As we walked down the piazza towards the church the Stiani were gathering for the celebratory Mass for La Festa della Madonna. Extra excitement today because Don Carlo, the parish priest, had just been made a Monsignor and I was able to catch a shot of him in his new Monsignor colors (purple!) as he exited his quarters and entered the church to say Mass. I noticed there were tables across from the church with platters of tin foil covered food for a celebratory antipasti after Mass before heading home for dinner. Looks like everybody lent a hand in the preparations. 
It was almost dark and as we were headed home Peter suggested we stop at Cafe A-Go-Go for some hot chocolate. It gets quite chilly once the sun goes down and we needed something warm  for our ride back up the mountain. Maybe I've never had real hot chocolate before, but the hot chocolate here is actually chocolate that is hot, almost like hot chocolate mousse. It's more for spooning than for drinking. And to really gild the lily, Peter ordered mine with a shot of Amaretto in it. In a word, divine.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Piero's Ribollita

Dear Readers,
First of all, let me introduce myself, my name is Peter from Florence, as they call me in the States and I think that Marta has already mentioned me a couple of times.
Today I want to write about one of most famous soups in Tuscany, ribollita.
There are two steps before the soup becomes ribollita. First you make minestrone, then bread soup, and finally ribollita. This is a typical winter soup since in this season we can get all the winter vegetables we need for it.( I planted the cavolo nero, black cabbage, in September and it's ready now.) 
First of all you must have a big pot for the minestrone because you need to put in a lot vegetables. The"must" for the ribollita is cavolo nero. I think it can be found in the States as well in some speciality shops. If you don't have cavolo nero, kale would be fine. Here is a list of the vegetables you need - cavolo nero or kale, cabbage, cannellini beans, one small carrot, (if you put a lot of carrots the minestrone will taste sweet), a stalk of celery,( too much celery would give it a strong bitter taste), potatoes, and spinach.
Wash the vegetables and chop them up, fill a large pot with everything and add cold water up
to two fingers from the brim, salt it and boil for about two hours. Put the cannellini beans in
some cold water and let them soak overnight. In the morning, cook the cannellini with plenty of
water adding some rosemary, one clove of garlic, a small ripe tomato and a sprinkle of olive 
oil. Once the cannellini are ready take out the garlic and rosemary and pour the bean water and cannellini in the minestrone.
Now you need some crusty, rustic bread.. better if 2 or 3 days old and not fresh daily bread.
Slice the bread and put it in a large, wide pot and cover  it with some minestrone, add more slices of bread and keep on until everything is finished. Let it soak for about one hour. This stage is called "minestra  di pane". Before eating, put some good olive oil over it. If there is a lot left over, don't panic. Refrigerate what's left. When you feel like eating it again, put what you think would be the right serving for as many as you are in the family in a pot and boil it until steaming hot . This will be the ribollita; the word "ribollita" in Italian means
re-boiled or boiled again. While cooking stir the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon so
that it does not stick to the bottom. Put it into the plates, add some good olive oil and buon
If  you are able to get from your butcher a ham shank usually once that the ham is finished they
throw it away, put it together with the minestrone and then let me know how it tasted.
This was a typical farmer's dish in the winter. Farmers baked their own bread in those times,
I am going back 50 or 60 years as I remember it.
I have some relatives who own a huge farm just after Arezzo and I used to go there for a month
in the summer or winter so I know first hand what farmers used to eat in those times.
They were baking their own bread every two weeks. I was shocked at the amount they were
baking but they were two families living together, 3 women and 9 men!
Everywhere in Italy farmers used to make these bread soups. They were baking their own bread and they had their own vegetables so it came as a nourishing and cheap dish. They did not have to buy anything since the flour for the bread was their own. They were growing their own wheat. Sometimes they had some bread left over from the previous weeks and they were using it to make bread soups so that nothing was wasted.
In the summer instead of making ribollita, since they did not have winter vegetables - it was not like today that you can get anything  you want in every season - they were using the stale bread to make panzanella, a cold dish. They were putting the bread in cold water, squeezing it to take the water surplus off and seasoning it with fresh chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, olive oil and vinegar with some finely chopped onions and basil.
By the way, a while ago one newspaper started printing Italian cook books, one for every region. So we started to buy them. We got to n.4 which was Tuscany recipes and I gave it a quick glance. I was horrified to see what they sold for typical recipes. They were putting everything but the proper ingredients into these classic Tuscan recipes.  It's like if somebody was putting a hat on Mona Lisa.
The trouble with me is that I have been a waiter for 40 years and I know how food is prepared.
If you want to be a good waiter you must know how every dish in your restaurant is prepared
with all the right ingredients. If you write a cook book with the classic, local recipes stick to them without adding or taking something out. These recipes have been around a very long time and they are still enjoyed by everyone today. There must be a reason why the classics endure!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Umberto and His Woods

The rains really haven't let up since  Friday. Yesterday we had hail, rain, sun, and extremely high winds in the night. So high that the shutters blew open at 3 AM. The Stia Christmas fair was a washout but there will be one in Pratovecchio, the next town over, very soon.
The kitchen is closed today, as far as I'm concerned. Peter went into Florence on the 6:30 bus this morning and won't be home until 2:30. I know he had some things to take care of in town but to tell you the truth, I think he didn't want to see another round of turkey showing up on his plate. I made turkey noodle soup yesterday and offered him a bowl last night. He looked up from the paper and said,"Again?"
He contributed to turkey-philia on Sunday by making turkey polpette alla Fiorentina,turkey meatballs. This isn't what you think. These meatballs are made with very finely chopped cooked meat, chicken, whatever you have, (you can use a food processor), and then mixed with plain, well mashed, boiled potatoes. Use an egg to bind the mix and season with salt, pepper, cheese, a little grate of nutmeg, chopped parsley and garlic. Use your imagination. Shape them round or as cylinders, roll in flour and then fry in a neutral oil. They are delicious. 
Potatoes are used to stretch the leftovers. In very poor times this was what "la mamma" did to feed her brood. Which gets me to the next subject.
I wanted to write about Umberto's Woods the other day but the deer got my attention, instead. Peter's cousin Umberto lives in Stia. I always say that if you sit in the piazza for twenty minutes and don't see Umberto, something's wrong. Peter's father and Umberto's father were two of a brood of thirteen. There was Bruno, Brunetta, Nello, Nella, Giulio..that's as far as I could get but based on those names I'm pretty sure there was a Giulia. Giulio ran a "drogheria" in the main piazza. This was many years ago and he sold sugar, flour, all kinds of dried goods. You don't see drogherie around any more. They've been replaced by the "alimentari",(from the verb "alimentare", to feed) more of a little grocery store. 
Anyway, Umberto's father, Bruno, won the lottery when Umberto was young and with the money he bought the two apartments where Umberto and his wife Maria live now and the storefront below where they opened a store. They were selling their own sopressata, fresh pasta, tortelli, ravioli, you name it. You could walk in and Umberto would slice the proscuitto  for your panino. Maria was making the all the pasta. She is a lovely woman. One that you would call "handsome" in a complimentary way. Always dressed in a good wool skirt and sweater and classic earrings. As many times as I've sat in her kitchen I've never seen this woman sit down. One time I watched her make about 75 tortellini in about 5 minutes. She's so fast I couldn't get the count. She always uses the same knife. It looks like a sword it's so long. But it's her favorite knife and her brother has mended the handle many times, she says. I've seen the brother pass through the kitchen and pop a few tortellini in his mouth right from the cutting board.
Unfortunately, the store closed about ten years ago when the COOP, a communist cooperative, opened a market in town. Umberto and Maria have never stepped foot in it.
One of the other things that Umberto and his father bought was a nice patch of woods. This must've been a long time ago because Umberto is in his seventies. They built a little hut, shack, cabin, I can never decide what to call it. Our friend Chris was right on target when he said it reminded him of "The Beverly Hillbillies". It is very Jed Clampett, indeed There is a beautiful fireplace with a chestnut mantle, a plastic medicine cabinet (band aids and brandy), another cabinet where we put our cooking stuff, a rickety table and equally rickety chairs. And this is where we have had our Sunday feasts.
As soon as we get there and unload our cooler, Peter goes and collects the wood for the fire as well as wood to bring home for our fireplace in the kitchen, Lucy goes wild and free, and I start the prep. Our favorite is half a chicken, one of those scrawny, free range beauties that taste like heaven. I give it a massage with a dry rub that I concocted with rosemary, sage, garlic, plenty of pepper and some lemon zest and olive oil. Then I chop plenty of parsley, basil (if we've got it) and garlic, s&p, to put on the tomatoes halves after they've been grilled. I slice bread for the fettunta...we grill the bread and when it comes off the fire I take a clove of garlic and rub it over the toasted surface. Then it's drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. That's the REAL garlic bread, my friends. I usually pack some pecorino and a pear, and whatever cake I've made the day before. And of course, vino rosso. Sometimes, I absolutely cannot wait and I rip off a hunk of bread and wash it down with some vino. How can something so simple be so good?! If only the magazines could see our rustic feast. And there's not a sound anywhere except for the cowbells that I hear when the sheep are herded down the road to another pasture. I love it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Il Giorno del Ringraziamento

That's what I heard Peter telling our neighbors about Thanksgiving. The Day of Thanks. And a beautiful day it was. After some rain the night before, (By the way, the heating guy came Wednesday AM  and fixed the water pipe in no time.) the skies had cleared and the morning sky was a breathtaking blue. The fields were crisp with frost and the chimneys in the village below were already busy burning off the damp. What a great beginning for T'giving 2008.
First, after trying to fit the bird into our largest roasting pan, I had a novel idea. (I never did find out how much it weighed. Peter told me that the butcher said a little over 4 kilos. I think it was heavier.) When Peter goes out to buy the paper and his bread, ask him to go to the hardware store and buy a bigger pan. And he brought home a real beauty for 15 euro! That done, I put the turkey on top of some chopped vegetables, breast side down and put it in the oven. With the timer set I'd turn it over after an hour. The cream cheese frosting (or, as we call it in the Philadelphia area,"icing") was a learning experience. I'd often seen the silver foil packages of Philadelphia Cream Cheese in stores here. Never tried it, though. I looked at a recipe for cream cheese icing in "Joy of" and saw that you could do it in the food processor. Good idea. So I followed the recipe, everything good and cold and gave it a whirl in the FP. The cream cheese promptly turned to a soup. I just stood there looking at it. The butter was suspended in tiny dots in the cream cheese soup and the sugar was just going along for the ride. A lovely goop. But it tasted just fine and I spooned it over the carrot cake and figured my audience would never know the difference. So, that's that for Philadelphia Cream Cheese in Italy. Same way with the gravy. I didn't make any. The turkey was so moist and delicious I figured why cover it up. Now I think that the compulsory gravy was needed to cover up the sins of the many dry turkeys our mothers cooked over the years. I started everything off with little puff pastry tarts made with gorgonzola, walnuts and pear with a savory custard poured on top. Everything was "tutto bene" as we say. Just fine. I ate quickly. I couldn't get enough of the flavors of  Thanksgiving. And the cranberries were right next to me. Not a tomato or head of garlic in sight all day.
 Yesterday, I was up by seven and the turkey was already morphing into stock and whatever. Lunch was hot turkey sandwiches. I explained the concept to Peter. You don't pick them eat them with a knife and fork. When he came in from the garden and saw them covered with gravy (I finally made it.) he quickly said, "We must have bread on the table." I explained that there was plenty of bread under the gravy and not to fear.
Today is Turkey Tetrazzini. Named after Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940), born in Florence, an Italian coloratura soprano. Legend has it that chicken tetrazzini was created for her in San Francisco. This turkey will keep me busy for the next few days.
I hope the rain lets up today. The big outside fair for Christmas is in Stia tomorrow. Vendors come from all over and sell everything you can imagine. You can buy everything from turtles to a bra. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Ce ne ha sempre una." It's always something.

This is a very handy sentence to memorize in l'italiano because you're sure to need it more than once. I wanted to write about our Sunday lunch in Umberto's Woods and today there was a quiet time after lunch this afternoon. Piero was napping with Lucy (our gorgeous diva dog),the lunch dishes were in the sink (braised cabbage with sausages with polenta), my Red Bull was cold..and then BANG! A water pipe exploded under the sink and water was blasting all over the kitchen and into the bedroom with a mighty force. Piero shot out of bed and went outside to turn the water off. Thank God he was home. 
So, now we are without water until the heating guy comes. Piero called him right away and found out he was at the dentist. When we finally got in touch with him he said that he'd come tonight and look at it and return in the morning to do the repairs. No water until ?
My first thought was brining the turkey. Where am I going to get the water? Fortunately, here in Stia we have a spa where the water is always flowing. The water is actually bottled and sold under the name "Maxim's" and it's owned by Pierre Cardin (aka Pietro Cardin) but he left open taps for the common use here in town. The water is known for it's curative properties...especially for reducing cellulite. So watch out Faith Popcorn.... There could be a new trend. Brining your turkey in spa water!!! All turkeys should have that lean, smooth look before heading into the oven.
Piero headed for the Terme (we call it the "water place") with a carrier filled with one and a half litre plastic bottles and more for whatever we might need in the way of cooking and drinking. As for our plumbing needs, there is a lavatoio (old stone tubs with water from a spring) at the end of our road. Once upon a time you could drink the water but now it's used for washing cars and watering plants. Pasquita uses it for some laundry from time to time. The slabs of stone in the front of the tubs are angled just so for slapping and kneading the clothes. 
Piero filled up some five litre wine jugs and brought them up the road and I put them in the bathroom. What would we do without these sources? It sounds  like we're roughing it but this is the way it is here. We're really very fortunate to have these two water sources so close by.
Tonight I'll put the turkey in the big plastic laundry tub with the spa water and brine it. I'll ask Piero to get a piece of wood to put over the top and we'll put it outside overnight. It's cold enough. We had snow yesterday and today, so glorious and silent. Today was one of those extra brilliant days you get the day after a snowfall. Bright and clear but with everything thawing you really can't do a wash or hang anything on the line. Plans go awry. It's the way of the world here.
But I have a turkey in the fridge waiting for it's spa treatment..
Ciao, I hope to get back to you domani.
P.S. It's 6:30 the next morning..
The fun didn't stop there last night. As we were attempting to rearrange the turkey in the bucket for maximum coverage of the brining solution it split sending another few litres of water over the other side of the kitchen floor. And the heating guy never showed up, naturally. I hope he's here in the next few hours.
Ciao for now.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Turkey Day in Tuscany Part 1

Peter ordered the turkey from the macelleria (the butcher shop) last week. I'm pretty sure he told him that it should be a small turkey, I didn't ask him, but he knows if it's too big I can't fit it in the little Fisher-Price oven. That happened the first year and I had to do some serious pre-cook carving to get the bird comfortably set in a pan and on the rack without it grazing the top of the oven. Didn't make a very nice presentation but I learned something..get a small turkey.
I really don't know why I'm doing the whole T'giving thing at all. I mean it has no significance here in Italy and Peter doesn't really like "meat" (he calls everything meat...two legs or four) or leftovers. Although I made turkey tetrazzini last year and that went over well. Probably because it was half pasta. This will be my fourth T'giving here. The first two were without cranberries and believe me, I really missed them. Last year, my best friend, Marybeth, sent me two cans from the Publix in Florida, one jellied and one whole berries. That was a big decision and I guess I chose the whole berries because the jellied is still on the shelf in the black hole. Sometimes I think I'm doing it because of that can of cranberries. I mean what else can I eat it with? Chicken, I guess, but not the same thing, really.
I'm a big fan of brining so when Peter brings the bird home on Tuesday I'll stick him in a brine (laundry basket works) for a while and then air dry him in the fridge. We'll have a potato puree, that much I know. Not mashed but pureed like silk. Peter does that brilliantly. There will be a stuffing.. probably one with chestnuts and sausage since they are favorite foods for both of us. One of the more problematic dishes is the vegetables. Italians like their vegetables well cooked,"ben cotto", really well cooked. Pasta is al dente. Vegetables are not. And there isn't much room for compromise. Green beans, carrots, cauliflower all are reported to be "hard" when I cook them. Maybe the next generation of Italian cooks can popularize vegetables tender but firm, but for now I'm eating...dare I say it...soft vegetables. Not quite ready for Gerber Kids, but on the way. Awful.
I don't know about dessert yet. I was clicking through the NYTimes T'giving recipes and saw a pecan and apple pie. I'd love to do something like that but there isn't any maple syrup or Karo syrup here. That chocolate/pumpkin cake looked good and I might look at that again. Or I just might do a carrot cake with buttercream icing. My cakes are usually a hit because all the recipes are from somewhere in Italy but the few "American" cakes I've made have been graciously received and disappear quickly.
When I really think about why I do this it's clear I do it for myself. For Peter it's just another meal. I enjoy all the prep, the amazing, evocative aroma of the turkey, carving that first slice (P does it all with a plastic handled steak knife...tender bird.), the sage in the stuffing, the tang in the cranberries, all the flavors of home and the memories of my mother stuffing the turkey the night before and making me laugh every year when she made the turkey "chew" the stuffing. I remember the agonizing temptations of the prepared dishes waiting to be warmed up, the sound of the electric beaters whipping the cream for the pies, the scraping and shuffling of the turkey pan when she was making the gravy. It's about family and tradition no matter where you are. The only thing I'm missing is the Macy's parade and the football games.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Artichokes for Them and Mushrooms for Us

Peter had a successful morning in the woods looking for mushrooms and came back with a basket full of mazza di tamburo, or drumsticks, because they grown on tall stalks and the cap is a tight, knobby, elongated. dome The chicken and dumplings were ready to be served (it passed) and after we sat down to eat I mentioned that it looked like we were down a few more artichoke plants. "Not again", he said. I wasn't really sure because I just took a quick look when I went out to get some parsley. Sure enough and I could even see the hoof prints. He's down there now stringing up another kind of barricade in the front of the garden, the terrace side. "We cannot go on this way anymore. I must get more fencing," he sighed. If you could see the mangle of thorny bushes that the deer have to get through to get to the garden you'd really wonder how they did it. Poor Peter. He spends hours in the garden planting the vegetables and turning over the earth. It's really his baby.
 Let's change the subject for now...The mushroom hunt is a very, very, big thing in this neck of the woods. With all the rain we had last week the woods will be filled with funghi now. Our neighbor, Pasquita, came up the road with a basket yesterday. I could hear Peter ask her where she got them and then laugh. Cardinal rule of mushroom hunting is never (never!) disclose your particular spot. It a known fact that a husband won't tell a wife where he finds his mushrooms. Our neighbor, Purgatorio, has a spot off road and three hours into the woods where he has found plenty of porcini that he can sell for a great price. Anyway, back to Pasquita. She's a Papiano girl, born and bred. At eighty something we should all look so good and be so interested in life. I've seen her come up the hill with her basket filled with these really tiny mushrooms called chiodini, "little nails". She must have to get on her hands and knees to get them.  Whenever Peter finds a mushroom he's not sure about he says,"I'll ask Pasquita. She'll know." And not only about mushrooms! She knows everybody and dare I say it, everything about them, too. (If you know what I mean.)
Driving along the roads up here in the mountains you see cars parked in the middle of nowhere at an ungodly early hour. And I can hear Purgatorio's motorbike start up and down the road he goes with a basket and a long stick attached to the back. It's all about i funghi. It becomes even more of an experience when you bring them home and cook them. Peter brought some home recently and threw a couple of big ones in a pan with some olive oil and salt and pepper. That's when it becomes a religious experience. The flavor is rich and earthy and exquisite. Those were the kind he found today. Everybody thinks  porcini are the best but there are plenty of other gems in the woods. Besides the salt and pepper the mushrooms are also seasoned with nepitella, a wild mint that grows along the side of the road. I'll go out and pick some now. I'm sure we'll have these beauties for dinner tonight. Another fantastic budget meal courtesy of Mother Earth.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Feeding The Man

There was a lot of cooking going on here last week at lunch time. Pork chops braised in Chianti and Marsala,, spaghetti alla carrettiera, baccala with potatoes (our own home grown!), and apple turnovers. I went against my grain and prepared Roman broccoli (a fascinating and beautiful vegetable) with a bechamel sauce and baked it. And yesterday there was a gratin of leek, artichoke and those potatoes again. I threw a little fresh thyme in there too and it worked out very well along with chicken with rosemary and lemon and a chocolate amaretti cake. I usually don't adulterate the vegetables with a sauce but I know Peter (he's the guy next to me in the picture) loves bechamel and that sort of thing...and after all it was our anniversary. We met in Florence six years ago, November 16, 2002. Yes, that's another story.
But some things don't go over well at all with in point, last week's Hungarian cauliflower soup. Some are a mystery to him-cole slaw. And some are a surprising success- wilted spinach salad. He said he'd never eaten raw spinach before. Some flavors aren't part of the everyday Tuscan palate at all but I've held my breath and watched the verdict. Indian food and apple spice cake have both been a hit, although Peter keeps wanting to add water or some kind of liquid to the basmati rice. "No Peter, it's not risotto, darling."
Now I know that he likes my Bolognese sauce (thanks, NYTimes) but one time I noticed he was shoving the pasta around the plate. He's usually happily stabbing away at the tortiglione. He never says what's on his mind so I had to go into the sleuthing mode. The perp was the penne. Doesn't like it. Something about the consistency. I pulled out a bag of the tortiglione. "Look, one's cut straight and one's cut diagonally, and you can taste the difference?" Evidently, he does. Same thing with fusilli. It makes him gag. I'm positive this has got to be an Italian thing. My friend Susan, her family won't eat pasta that can't be twirled. So which on are you? A stabber or a twirler?
Today we had lasagne for lunch. Peter made it last night before we went out for a pizza and some bubbly. He said it would only take a few minutes to put it together. He went to the cellar for a jar of our sauce, started, the bechamel and within a few minutes, just as he said, it was made and we were out the door. The result? It was just fine. But I can't possibly tell anyone what he did. I'll just call it "Don't ask, don't tell Lasagne".
I want to make chicken and dumplings for him tomorrow. My mother used to make it and my father would always lovingly tell her that she just couldn't make it like his mother. I don't think I'll run into that response because Peter has never heard of dumpling, in English anyway. I'll keep him guessing and see if he figures it's "passatelli" in Italian.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Midnight Salads for All

The stove and the freezer (!) arrived at 9:40 this morning. Right on time. I saw the delivery truck winding its way up the road as I looked out the window and I quickly ran down to the garden to tell Peter. As he came up through the gate he said, "They got in again. They ate all the brussel sprouts, the broccoli, most of the cauliflower and a few artichokes." Our friends, the deer, must've had a feast last night. Damn!
The garden, or l'orto, as well call it here, sits high above the road on a terraced hillside. Peter really thought he had reinforced the fencing well enough on three sides especially after the deer had helped themselves to all the lettuce at the beginning of the summer. As it stands now the garden looks like a very large cage. The back wall of the garden is just that...a 15 foot high stone wall. But there's one spot where the fencing isn't very secure and that's where they got in. Just like in the summer, they smashed a few tomato plants on their way in, but didn't eat any. No pomodori in their salads, I guess.
So Peter's in the garden right now assessing the damage and seeing what he can save and I'm sitting here with the new stove. It's on and so far it has effortlessly sailed up to 450 degrees. What a difference a door makes. The burners..well, 3 work and the tiny little thing doesn't work. I can live with it. Believe me, I can, I can! I didn't watch my old friend go out the door but I did take one last picture of her this morning when Peter went into town to buy the paper. Her tin foil smile lit up that corner of the kitchen.
Here I was all set to write about "Feeding The Man" today and then the beasts got in the way. Oh, they must've had a blast last night. Surprised they didn't knock on the door and ask for some olive oil.
The freezer is a beauty. It's of the chest variety and quite large, too. Now, all we need is for our neighbor Purgatorio to go out and bag a wild boar (are there any other kind?) to put inside. We've wanted a freezer for so long and were so lucky to find it and the stove on the same day. Anyway, it's humming along nicely in the cantina. We thought we'd finally have plenty of room for all our winter vegetables in the new freezer, but now--- well, kind of an O. Henry twist to the story, don't you think?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The New Stove and My Old Pal

We'll be welcoming a new stove into our kitchen on Saturday, we hope. And I say hope because we've had some really bad luck getting a stove delivered, but that's another story. The stove I inherited was a mess to begin with. There are four gas burners. Two on the right side work without any problem....although it's hard to get a large pot and a large saute pan back to back. On the other side we have a burner that won't light without an extremely delicate touch (and then it can't be regulated) and the other is a tiny little thing that's good for warming tiny little things. The oven door blew out before I got here and has been variously replaced with a flattened olive oil can, a lasagne pan and now, a pressed out piece of an old washing machine. (Tuscans, at least the one I live with, don't throw anything out.) There are gaps in the door that I have plugged up with heavy duty Reynolds Wrap and more flattened aluminum take out pans. Some of the knobs have fallen off and they get a wad of Reynolds Wrap ,too
Baking is a real dicey project for me. I have two oven thermometer from the States hanging on the racks and depend on them, stealing quick little peeks at them to see if the old girl can hit 350 or better yet 400 degrees without getting flustered and losing heat. I'd named her early on the Hail Mary stove.
Now, the "new" stove isn't really new. In fact it's the same model and color as the one we have now. It's just the better looking twin. We found it at a used goods warehouse near Arezzo. Great place, it has everything. And there she was the long lost twin just sitting among the other has beens.And she's brown just like her sister. I'm thinking if this stove is 40 years old it was probably called "autumn bronze" or something like that, in Italian of course. (Can't imagine having to keep a white stove white.)
To tell you the truth, I'm a little sorry to see the old girl go and I'm thinking about the last things I'll cook with her. I remember how I'd button her up with tin foil before a big project and set her on her way. There's no last lap for the old girl. I'm just about crying right now...
Addio, my friend.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Room With a View

Welcome to Mangia Tutto! In Italian that means "eat everything" and to illustrate that the day before yesterday I made risotto alle ortiche for lunch. 
Ortica (plural is ortiche) is basically a weed and it is otherwise known as"stinging nettle". I know this because in the summer when I walk to the garden in flip-flops my toes always hit the ortiche and there is an annoying little tingling sensation that lasts for a few minutes.
Piero, who otherwise will be known here as Peter, my Florentine sweetheart, has often mentioned ortica as something to cook with. And he has picked bags of it to take to his friend Eva in Florence. (Poor lady lives in the city and doesn't have the pleasure of weeds.) So this week I came across a recipe for this risotto with ortiche and I decided to try it. Not bad at all and really economical considering it's a weed.
Italians really do make the most of everything that nature gives them in the way of food. We're in the midst of chestnut season right now. During the war the country was so poor that chestnuts were a plentiful source of food for them. Drying them and making flour and then making the simple cake, castagnaccio, of the flour and water. Just this past weekend we had the Chestnut Festival here in our little town and I had a steaming piece of castagnaccio and washed it down the vin wine steeped with cloves, sugar and an orang peel. It really hits the spot. Peter had polenta made of the chestnut flour and a dollop of sheep's milk ricotta. And then you could have the polenta fried and dusted with sugar or the whole chestnuts with get the idea. Everything chestnut. In the center of the piazza there was a huge chestnut roasting pan spewing smoke and the irresistible aroma of roasting chestnuts and people come from all over to walk around and look at the craft tables, eat chestnuts, drink the steaming wine and enjoy the music and a day in the country.
In Mangia Tutto! I hope to write about these little snippets of country life here in the Casentino. And also to keep you posted on what's for lunch this week. Right now, I have to get the cake out of the oven. It's an olive oil cake. Today's pasta is tagliatelle with chicken liver sauce.