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The Basics of Tuscan Cooking
When I was eighteen, I discovered freedom, work, friendship, love, and ... soffritto. I left home, bought a motor scooter, and got a part-time job at lunchtime. I felt free and able to do with myself whatever I pleased. I was happy, independent, and totally unencumbered with cooking skills, which I then believed to be of little consequence. I often think of that period of my life as one of the best. It was a time when I was adopted, as it were, by the family of the boy I had chosen. His was a family where people used to eat a lot, and well. I put on six pounds just in the first month. Mealtime was a true pleasure: we joked, we talked, and, you may believe it, we ate.
There I learned how to cook, and I believe that what caught my interest was how the woman who did the cooking in that family—later to become my mother-in-law—moved pots and pans about with levity, care, and relaxation, all at once. One could not help but see that she was looking forward to the pleasure of eating what she was making. She taught me how to make soffritto. She used to tell me that, once having learned it, I would be able to make practically everything, including soups, sauces, and stews. In Tuscany, soffritto is the starting point.
Several years have elapsed since the motor scooter, the freedom, and my first attempts in the kitchen. I feel obliged to pass this knowledge on to you, as my mother-in-law passed it to me, asher mother-in-law had passed it to her—as it has been passed down through the generations.
In Italian, soffritto means "under fried." A preparation of lightly-browned minced vegetables, soffritto is not a dish by itself. It is the foundation on which many Tuscan sauces, soups, and other dishes are built. At one time it was called "false ragout," because soffritto was thought to vaguely recall the flavor of meat sauce. Many of the sauces and other recipes that follow begin with a soffritto, made in a slightly different way in each case, depending on the dish. Here is a basic one:
1 red onion 1 carrot, peeled 1 stalk celery 1/3 cup (75 ml) extra virgin olive oil
Mince the onion, carrot, and celery as finely as you can, using a knife or a mezzaluna (a crescent-shaped, double-handled knife). A food processor should not be used because it squashes the onion rather than chopping it, and the soffritto becomes a mush. Chopping an onion by hand might induce a few tears, but one should weep from time to time.
Choose a heavy-bottomed aluminum or tin-plated copper pan in order to brown the soffritto evenly, and heat the oil in the pan over a medium flame. You should use extra virgin olive oil: It works well at high temperatures and it is the most digestible of cooking oils. The amount you use will vary according to the quantity of vegetables; don't overdo it, but put in enough oil to ensure an even browning. Add the minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are the desired hue, which will vary depending on the recipe.
Never leave the soffritto unattended on the stove. It must be watched at all times and stirred frequently as it begins to brown. You may be sure that, if you leave it, it will burn. If you must answer the telephone, ladle about 1/3 cup (75 ml) of water into the pan to hold it back. After you hang up, continue cooking and stirring until the water has evaporated and the soffritto is the right color.
Learning to make a good soffritto takes time and patience. When you have made it many times, paying close attention to what you are doing and to how the soffritto behaves in different kinds of dishes, it will begin to become second nature to you, and you will be well on your way to understanding Tuscan cooking. The recipes in this book and in other Tuscan cookbooks will give you plenty of opportunities to practice.
Traditional Tuscan Cooking
This is not meant to be just a recipe book: 100 Quick and Easy Dishes Inspired by Sunny Tuscany. Instead it is an introduction to the traditional cooking of my region. I offer my approach, as a Tuscan woman and a restaurateur, to preparing this cuisine in a contemporary way. This book is at least as much about my attitude toward food as it is a record of cooking procedures. I strongly believe it is impossible to cook well by just following recipes. Good cooking is an act of creativity. I have tried to give the most accurate descriptions and instructions that I can for preparing the dishes, but you must add something of your own. The recipes in this book are not meant to be followed like scientific formules, full of precise details and step-by-step instructions. Use the recipes as indications, and trust your instincts to fill in the blanks. In doing so, you will develop a new level of authority in the kitchen.
I will try to show how dealing with food in a careful way, using all of the senses, can be more satisfying and restorative than we are accustomed to these days.
Unfortunately, for many years now, in Italy as throughout the world, the trend has been toward the maximum possible simplification of food and cooking, with the rationale that this meets the needs of modern life. Advertisements for food products tell us, in essence, "You have more important things to do; therefore we will supply you with a system that will enable you to be nourished merely by opening packages and pressing a few buttons." Now we can get vegetables already washed, peeled, cut, gassed, cooked, and frozen—small, cold corpses that, before such processing, were part of the chain of life.
All this has unavoidably brought about a distant and sterile relationship between people and their food. We have eliminated most preparation tasks, tasks that were our chance to become acquainted with food using the sensitive instruments we are lucky enough to have. Think for a moment about a freshly picked apple. Try to use all your senses to imagine the apple, and you will discover how closely they are interrelated. Together, they stimulate a potent desire to eat that apple. I believe it is imperative to sharpen our senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste before even speaking about cooking.
So I will start with the most basic recipes, so basic that they'll let me re-create on paper what I hope you will do in practice: trying the food, tasting and discussing it, enjoying it, and getting into its flavors. I mean to debunk the common myths that the more complex a dish is, the tastier it will be, and that the more difficult it is to prepare, the more skilled the cook must be.
The recipes in this chapter demonstrate that it is possible to eat fresh, home-cooked, warm, and delicious food without spending hours at the stove. It is possible to have friends to dinner without disrupting the usual routine of life and work. But please do not confuse simplicity with carelessness or superficiality: A simple dish should not be prepared with less care. On the contrary, the less complicated a dish is, the easier it will be to identify both its flaws and its virtues.
An ingredient you will never find in any cookbook is attention. For me, this is indispensable for a good outcome. By "attention" I do not mean just concentration, but also devotion to the thing you are doing. Your cooking will never come to its fruition without your full participation.
To put it simply, add to the recipe a pinch of love, select the finest and freshest ingredients, and don't let yourself worry if you are carried away by the flavors or tempted by your own appetite.
Sauces and Pasta
We begin with some traditional first courses, starting with a few recipes for fresh tomato sauce—often called pomarola. These sauces come first because they are extremely simple and because spaghetti with tomato sauce is the real national dish, the ubiquitous staple food, of Italy.
First, though, let me suggest that if you don't already have one, you acquire a simple, old-fashioned manual food mill. This is usually the best tool to use to strain and purée tomatoes and other cooked vegetables and fruits. While an electric food processor or a blender will also purée the food, it will not remove the seeds or bits of skin, and it will aerate the food in a way that can be undesirable. So, whenever a recipe calls for it, please use a food mill if you can. If a food processor or blender will do just as well, I will say so when I give the procedure.
Pasta con pomarola Pasta and Tomato Sauce with Garlic and Basil Serves 4
3 tablespoons (50 ml) extra virgin olive oil 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped 1 pound (500 g) fresh or canned tomatoes, peeled and halved Salt 1/2 teaspoon sugar (optional) 10 leaves basil, torn into large pieces 2 to 3 tablespoons (30 to 50 ml) extra virgin olive oil or unsalted butter, for dressing 1/2 teaspoon ground chile pepper (optional) (see Choosing Ingredients) 1 pound (500 g) dried pasta 1 cup (125 g) grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
Among the simplest sauces, and perhaps the best during the tomato season, is a very plain sauce made only with tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and basil. You need about a pound of fresh and fully ripe tomatoes, but in winter, they may be replaced by canned, peeled, whole tomatoes, preferably of the San Marzano variety. This sauce requires about 10 minutes to prepare, the time it takes to boil the pasta. Cook the pasta (see the instructions on page 15) while you are making the sauce, so that both will be ready at the same time. Simple tomato sauces like this one do not stick much to the pasta; therefore short pasta (penne rigate or farfalle, for example) is more suitable than spaghetti. In Italy, pasta dishes are served as first courses, without any accompaniment.
Put the oil and garlic in a pot over medium heat. Any type of pot will do, except earthenware, as it will maintain a high temperature for too long and will overcook the sauce. Stir the garlic as the oil heats, and as soon as you hear a sizzling sound, toss in the tomatoes. Do not allow the garlic to brown, because that would give a burnt flavor to the sauce. Add a little salt, and keep cooking for 6 to 7 minutes, until you see the tomatoes becoming soft. Strain the sauce through a food mill and taste it, both to adjust the salt and also because it might be slightly acidic, especially if you're using tomatoes that are not fully ripe or canned tomatoes. This may be corrected with a bit of sugar, perhaps half a teaspoon.
Put the strained sauce on the stove again over a medium flame and as soon as it starts boiling, add the basil and remove from the heat.
Ten minutes before you are ready to serve, start the pasta (see page 15). As soon as you drain it, while it is still very hot, dress it with the sauce. Once it cools it is no good. I suggest you mix in either oil or butter. Butter has a more delicate taste; if you prefer oil, a little ground red chile pepper will add some character. Freshly grated Parmesan cheese is a mandatory final addition to the dish, especially when butter is used.
Tomato sauces may be kept in the refrigerator, well-sealed, for up to 2 days, and gently reheated over low heat just before using.
Variation with Fresh Tomatoes and Parsley
The second version of this recipe is slightly more elaborate, and I recommend using fresh tomatoes. These give better results if peeled first, so I am going to teach you how to do it.
Once and forever, I recommend that you wash all vegetables with the utmost care, but do not leave them immersed in water for any length of time, lest they lose flavor.
To peel the tomatoes, bring a pot of water to a boil; toss in the tomatoes, leaving them in the water for just a few seconds. Retrieve the tomatoes with a large slotted spoon and, as soon as you can handle them, rub them gently all along the surface with the blunt edge of a knife, then peel the loosened skin with your fingers.
In addition to the ingredients listed for the first version of this sauce, you will need:
1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley 1 egg yolk (optional) Freshly ground black pepper (optional)
Put the oil and garlic in a pot over medium heat. The pot should be rather large and shallow in this case, to enable the heat to reach most of the sauce at once. Stir the garlic as the oil heats, and as soon as you hear a sizzle, throw in the tomatoes and turn the heat up to high. Because this sauce will not be strained, you may squash the tomatoes with a fork at the bottom of the pot. Add salt sparingly. After 6 to 7 minutes, add the parsley and basil. Lower the heat to medium, and let the mixture cook for another 2 minutes, then take the pot off the stove.
This sauce also may be flavored with either oil or butter. If you prefer the latter, I suggest a variation to make the sauce tastier and better-blended: before adding it to the pasta, when it is still in the pan but no longer over the heat, add an egg yolk and a little black pepper.
Another little trick when using butter for dressing pasta: Melt it first. It is enough to keep the butter next to a source of heat, which may be the same pot in which you are boiling the pasta, or to toss it into the warm sauce.
At this point, some considerations about how to cook pasta might be useful. The quality of the pasta is paramount. Buy brands made only of durum wheat (this should be clearly labeled—it is called semola in Italian), which withstands cooking much better than other varieties of wheat. Use abundant boiling water to which you must add salt, because once the pasta is cooked it cannot be salted anymore.
It is not merely better, or advisable, but imperative: Pasta must be cooked al dente. Overcooked pasta is muck, and there is no reason to punish your dining companions this way.
It takes some expertise to put perfectly cooked pasta on your dinner plates, but a general rule applies for all dried pasta: Use the directions on the package as a guide, stir the pasta occasionally, and taste it after 6 or 7 minutes. At this point, add more salt if you think the pasta needs it. Taste it again when you think the right moment is close, and drain it as soon as you find that the core is still firm but not hard. Bear in mind that from the time you drain it until it's eaten, the pasta continues cooking. Fresh pasta is cooked in the same way, but it requires only 1 1/2 to 3 minutes of boiling.
The way you drain the pasta must suit the consistency of the sauce. If the sauce is very thick, the pasta has to be wetter so that the sauce will be a little more fluid; if the sauce is more liquid, the pasta should be drained thoroughly. Note that it may be better to retrieve fresh or dried egg noodles or tagliatelle (thin strips of fresh pasta) from the cooking water with a large fork rather than tossing it in a colander. This preserves the starch on the surface of the pasta, which would be leached away by the draining water, leaving the pasta gluey and lumpy.
Canning Pomarola Tomatoes
Peeling tomatoes is the first step for canning them, and for making tomato sauce for the winter, which used to be a widespread custom. It's not so popular nowadays, but well worth your while if you have an abundance of good, ripe tomatoes in season. If you want to try canning your tomatoes; boil glass canning jars and their flat lids to sterilize them. Fill the jars with peeled tomatoes, pressing them down as far as possible without rupturing them, and layering well-washed basil leaves in between them. Seal the jars with their sterilized flat lids and metal rings, then wrap each jar with a clean dish towel (or whatever other cloth you have). Immerse the jars in a large kettle filled with water up to the top of the jars, bring to a boil, and boil for about 10 minutes. Tomatoes and sauces canned this way last the whole winter, but once opened, the whole jar must be used at once and never put back in the refrigerator.
Pasta con pomarola con verdure Pasta and Tomato Sauce with Vegetables
1 pound (500 g) fresh or canned tomatoes, peeled 1 red onion, minced 1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped 1 stalk celery, minced 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf paarsley 1 clove garlic, minced 10 leaves basil 1 pound (500 g) dried pasta 1/2 cup (125 ml) extra virgin olive oil 1/2 teaspoon ground chile pepper (see Choosing Ingredients) 1 cup (125 g) grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
This sauce can be prepared in two ways. In either version, if you are using fresh tomatoes, cut them into large pieces; if canned, use them whole. These sauces are different from the basic tomato sauces, with their fresh, barely cooked tomatoes. In the basic sauces, the subtle and delicate flavors of tomato and basil are still distinct and recognizable; here, all the flavors are combined, producing the harmonic yet distinctive taste of a true sauce.
Combine the tomatoes, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are tender.
While the sauce is cooking, start the pasta (see page 15). When the vegetables are cooked, purée them with a food mill and transfer the purée back to the saucepan. Put the sauce on the stove again for a couple of minutes over medium heat, then turn off the heat, stir in the basil, and the sauce is finished.
As soon as you drain the pasta, dress it with the sauce and then the oil. Serve immediately, while it is very hot. A little ground chile pepper will spice it up a bit, whether added while the sauce is cooking or when you dress the pasta.
This sauce and the version that follows do not require any more additional seasoning when you serve the pasta—except, of course, for a generous sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese onto each serving.
Variation with Lardo
This second version uses the same ingredients and amounts as the first (except that in this case garlic and parsley are not required and the carrot should be minced, not chopped), but we add:
1 1/2 ounces (40 g) lardo, diced (see Choosing Ingredients) Salt
The procedure for this version is different and a little more elaborate. It starts with a soffritto, so combine the onion, carrot, celery, and oil in a pan over medium heat. For this sauce, the vegetables should not become too brown, but they must be fully cooked. Stir them frequently and watch them constantly. Add 1/3 cup (75 ml) of water, and when this is completely evaporated, the vegetables should continue cooking until they reach a light golden color. This will take 15 to 20 minutes. Toss in the tomatoes and squash them with a fork, then add the lardo. Cook for about 20 minutes over a medium heat, until the sauce has thickened. Add salt sparingly at first, then shortly before it's done add more salt as you like. Remove from the heat and stir in the basil.
After the pasta has been drained, dress it with the sauce. Serve immediately, while it is still very hot.
Soups and Broths
"Macaroni Italians"—a derogatory nickname formerly used to describe Italian immigrants in some countries—have exported spaghetti all over the world, making it an international food. Tired joke aside, the association between Italy and pasta is so ingrained into our consciousness that it's hard to believe that this food hasn't always existed. However, dried pasta as we know it did not appear until the beginning of the nineteenth century. As a matter of fact, Italian cooking has plentiful primi—first courses——of earlier origin, such as soups and broths. These have not become as popular as pasta, but they are at least as good.
In Tuscany, where the vegetable garden used to be the peasant's blessing, a large variety of vegetable-based soups used to be popular first courses. Two variations are described in the following recipes. Both use similar ingredients, but somewhat different procedures.
Excerpted from Soffritto by Benedetta Vitali. Copyright © 2001 by Benedetta Vitali. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Soffritto: The Basics of Tuscan Cooking||7|
|Aroma and Taste||41|
|Bread, Oil, and Wine||67|
|Ragu: Theme and Variations on Meat Sauces||143|
|Memory and Innovation: Finding the Equilibrium||179|
|Alchemy in the Kitchen||205|
Posted April 1, 2003
After living in Italy for many years I found it difficult to find Italian cookbooks that captured the incredible beauty of true Tuscan cooking. This book is an example of what real Tuscans eat. The photography is also beautiful. Everytime I open this book it brings back memories of Toscana. It is not all nostalgia, every recipe I have made from this book has received rave reviews from the hard to please crowd as well.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.