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Flavors of Tuscany: Traditional Recipes from the Tuscan Countryside

Flavors of Tuscany: Traditional Recipes from the Tuscan Countryside

by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
For the last twenty-five years, Nancy Harmon Jenkins has spent a good part of her time with her family in the hills of eastern Tuscany in an antique stone-walled farmhouse surrounded by fields, vineyards, and forests of oak and chestnut.  Working through the seasons, gardening, marketing, cooking, and sharing food and its lore with Tuscan friends and


For the last twenty-five years, Nancy Harmon Jenkins has spent a good part of her time with her family in the hills of eastern Tuscany in an antique stone-walled farmhouse surrounded by fields, vineyards, and forests of oak and chestnut.  Working through the seasons, gardening, marketing, cooking, and sharing food and its lore with Tuscan friends and neighbors, she has developed a deep attachment to the cuisine of the Tuscan countryside, to which she brings a unique perspective as one of this country's foremost food writers.

Often imitated but seldom clearly understood outside Italy, Tuscan country cooking is hearty and appealing in its simplicity and its straightforward insistence on fresh, authentic, unadulterated         avors--fragrant, homey herbs like parsley, sage, and rosemary; the lush, peppery aromas of newly pressed extra virgin olive oil; the appetizing redolence of farm-raised chickens braising in a wood-fired oven; or spitted pork loin, basted with garlic and wine, roasting on the hearth.  Drawing on her extensive firsthand experience, Jenkins has re-created for American cooks and the American table the rustic, robust way of cooking and eating that is the heart of Tuscan life, the         avors of Tuscany.

Flavors of Tuscany features more than one hundred recipes for the dishes that provide the foundation of Tuscan cuisine.  In addition to finding simple instructions for baking the salt-free bread that is more essential than pasta in Tuscan kitchens, cooks will learn the ways that frugal Tuscans use leftover bread in soups likeribollita and in salads like panzanella.

There are also recipes for bruschetta and crostini, the delightful bread crusts piled with toppings that are served as antipasti, light meals, and snacks.  A garden-fresh array of vegetable recipes ranges from humble potatoes braised with tomatoes or sautÚed with garlic and rosemary to creamy beans stewed with olive oil in a traditional Tuscan fiasco; from elegant spring asparagus with butter-fried eels to a series of sformati, little unmolded puddings of seasonal vegetables that are a favorite Tuscan first course.  Handmade eel pastas, gnocchi, polenta, and rice are also savory first courses, often served with robust meat and wild mushroom rag¨s or delicate seafood sauces.

More than a cookbook or a recipe collection, Flavors of Tuscany is a celebration of a way of life and an attitude toward food that is as seductive as it is simple.  Along with unforgettable sketches of people and places that have appealed to her over the years, Jenkins has included an indispensable section, "When You Go to Tuscany," that includes favorite restaurants and specialty shops.

To all this, Jenkins brings her special combination of skills: a journalist's         air for anecdote, a historian's passion for the story of the past, and a gifted cook's appreciation of fine traditional food and the people who create it, as well as a deep and abiding love of Tuscany.  The result is magic.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Rarely does an author so comprehensively connect gastronomy to geography as Harmon Jenkins does in this beautifully mapped and lovingly detailed collection of Tuscan delicacies. Having owned a house near Cortona for 25 years, she spends good blocks of text introducing us to the landscape and the neighbors from whom she draws inspiration. Foodstuffs are tagged to their specific Tuscan regions (e.g., a Rice and Onion Tart with ricotta, we learn, is typical of the Lunigiana hill in northern Tuscany). Simple ingredients are the hallmark of this cuisine, so these recipes demand the freshest of vegetables and meats, Italian-style flour and, if possible, access to a pig liver or two. This is no cuisine for vegetarians, Harmon Jenkins enjoys pointing out: even the Meatless Rag includes a couple of ounces of prosciutto. So, pastas with meat sauce, chicken, pork and rabbit claim most of the glory until it's time for the desserts. Drawn from the recipes of Cortona dessert master Emilio Banchelli, these include Fried Rags for Epiphany or Carnival (pastry flavored with sherry and aniseed) and a Rustic Torte of hazelnut. Harmon Jenkins surpasses most regional cookbooks with captivating prose notable for her smart use of similes to bring exotic dishes down to earth. Her Crostini is "what we might call Etruscan egg salad." In addition to a bibliography, there is a section on where to eat when you go to visit, a short chapter on Tuscan wines and one devoted to the only potable that takes priority over vino: olive oil. (May)
Library Journal
Jenkins's The Flavors of Puglia (LJ 5/15/97) focused on a relatively unknown part of Italy. Now she turns to Tuscany, where she has lived in an old farmhouse for much of the last 25 years, to provide the same kind of thoughtful, readable guide to its regional cuisine. She understands that "Tuscan flavors begin not in the kitchen but in the marketplace, if not in the garden itself," and the recipes she presents illustrate the Tuscan gift for transforming a handful of ingredients into simple but delicious dishes (there are three recipes alone for acquacotta, or bread soup, and she could have included a dozen more). There is also a guide to Tuscan olive oil and the wines of Tuscany, as well as a section on visiting Tuscany, with favorite restaurants and suggestions for "What To Bring Home." Highly recommended.

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Crown Publishing Group
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7.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)

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Tuscan Beanpot Beans (fagioli al fiasco)

6 to 8 servings

Beans fit right into the Tuscan larder because they're a) cheap, b) easy to store, c) cheap, d) painlessly easy to prepare, and e) cheap again, and as nourishing as meat, an important consideration for thrifty Tuscan cooks.  Like potatoes, beans are one of the few vegetables that are served as a true contorno, an accompaniment to meat, most often pork in some form, whether sausages, chops, or slices of roasted loin.  But they are just as often served on their own as a main dish.

The secret, and it's the only secret, to making good beans is to cook them as slowly as possible, just below the simmering point, for hours and hours.  The gentlest heat comes from the bread oven after the bread has come out, or from a corner of the hearth where the pot can be left, with ashes and embers heaped around it, from morning till suppertime.  Or cook them, as modern Tuscan cooks do, in an earthenware pot on top of the stove over the gentlest possible heat.

The beans used in Tuscany are often the long, fat, white beans called cannellini or toscanelli, but in some areas speckled borlotti beans are preferred, while around Pescia, cooks seek out Sorano beans from the Sorano valley.  Each bean has its qualities and local cooks swear by local beans and only local beans.  If you're ever in Lucca, the Antica Bottega di Prospero, via Santa Lucia 13 in the heart of town, has an excellent selection of beans, including all of the above plus scritti (the name means "written on" and the beans look like smaller versions ofborlotti with their hieroglyphic tracings), piattellini (small, flat white beans), alberghini, and cicerchie, old-fashioned chickpeas that look like dried fave.  Rarest of all are the creamy yellow, almost round beans called zolfini, from the area around Montevarchi, in the Arno valley south of Florence, and said to be indispensable for a proper Ribollita.  Pale yellow zolfini are similar to what we call sulfur beans in Maine, but Dario Cecchini, who is something of a bean expert, as well as a great butcher assures me that they are ancient Tuscan beans and not from the New World at all.

A Tuscan bean pot is shaped a little like a traditional Chianti wine bottle, a narrow neck swelling to a bulbous base.  The ones I buy from a potter in Cortona are particularly handsome, glazed bright yellow and splashed with viridian green.  The shape is ideal for cooking beans, the narrow neck helping to retain moisture while the base gives the beans plenty of room for expansion.  I have often been puzzled by almost universal instructions in recipe books to cook fagioli al fiasco in a traditional glass Chianti bottle, first removing the woven straw basket that cradles the base.  Were beans ever actually cooked in an empty Chianti fiasco? None of the traditional cooks I've asked about this would confirm it and it seems highly unlikely when you stop to think about it--once beans the size of cannellini, for instance, have swelled in the cooking liquid, they're almost impossible to shake out of the bottle.  I suspect that some unwitting food writer years ago misinterpreted instructions to cook beans in a fiasco, meaning the kind of fiasco my Cortonese potter makes, and food writers ever since have followed suit.

If you don't have a Tuscan fiasco, use an earthenware bean pot or a high, straight-sided terra-cotta casserole, remembering that clay vessels will crack on an electric ring.  A heavy enameled cast-iron pan with a lid is a fine alternative.

1 1/2 cups dried beans, soaked overnight in water to cover
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 or 3 sprigs fresh sage
1 small white or yellow onion, quartered
1 or 2 cloves garlic, peeled
Salt to taste

Drain the beans from their soaking liquid and place in the bean pot with fresh water to cover to a depth of 1 inch.  Add all the ingredients except the salt to the pot and bring very, very slowly to a simmer.  When the liquid is just simmering, cover the pot and continue cooking until the beans are very tender but not falling apart.  The liquid should shimmer with the heat and never come to a rolling boil.  Check the beans from time to time and if more water is needed, add only boiling water to the pot.  It is impossible to give an accurate cooking time because so much depends on the age and size of the beans--and age, at least, is nearly impossible to determine unless you've grown them yourself or know the farmer who did so.  Count on at least 1 1/2 hours, but it can take up to 3 hours for the beans to soften to that tenderly melting stage.  If it takes longer than this, the beans are awfully old indeed and probably should be discarded.

The finished beans should be not at all soupy but rather napped in a velvety cooking liquid in the same way that grains of rice are napped with liquid in a well-made risotto.  Add salt only in the last hour or so of cooking.

Serve immediately.  Or, when the beans are done, you can, if you wish, turn them into fagioli all'uccelletto (recipe follows).

Sara's Potatoes with Garlic and Rosemary (patate saltate all'aglio e rosmarino)

4 to 6 servings

This is the dish my daughter turns to whenever she gets homesick for Tuscany--which she does almost any time she's not actually there.  It's probably the first thing she ever learned to cook on her own--one of those little nothing recipes that parents can use to encourage self-sufficiency in their offspring.

2 pounds waxy red-skinned potatoes
Salt to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 or 4 cloves garlic, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water until they are tender enough just to be pierced with a sharp knife.  Remove from the heat and drain.  As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and slice about 1/4 inch thick.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and add the sliced potatoes, garlic cloves, and the leaves stripped from the rosemary branches.  Turn frequently with a spatula to keep the starchy potatoes from sticking to the bottom of the pan.  (Once they start to brown this is less of a problem.)

Sprinkle the potatoes with salt and pepper and continue cooking, stirring and turning frequently, until they are thoroughly brown and tender.   Serve immediately.

Roasted Game Hens (pollastrini arrosti)

6 servings

Once some friends of mine, dining in a country trattoria, were served exquisite little game birds that had been roasted on a spit--the birds so small that a single plump olive had been tucked inside each tiny bird as a stuffing.  "Wonderful," they exclaimed to the proprietor, "but what are they?" "Pettirossi," he replied proudly, "robin red-breasts."

Now, the consumption of robins is as illegal in Italy as it is in America, but there's no getting around the Tuscan predilection for little birds.  I prefer to stay on the right side of the law and roast Cornish game hens.  They may lack that frisson of the forbidden that robins have, but I'd rather have the robins singing under my windows.

Spit-roasting small birds like game hens is tricky, so I do these in the oven instead.

1 thick slice pancetta or prosciutto
6 Rock Cornish game hens, each about 3/4 pound
6 fresh  sage leaves
6 bay leaves, preferably fresh
12 black olives (preferably small Gaeta or ni&#231oise)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 thin slices pancetta or prosciutto

Preheat the oven to 400° F.

Cut the thick slice of pancetta or prosciutto in 6 equal portions.  Tuck a piece of pancetta inside each bird, along with a sage leaf, a bay leaf, and 2 of the olives, pitted if you prefer.  Sprinkle salt and pepper all over the outsides of the birds and rub into the skin, rubbing with some of the olive oil at the same time.  Wrap a thin slice of pancetta or prosciutto around each bird, stretching the meat to cover the bird well.  Set the birds in a baking dish in which they will all fit comfortably.

Roast for 15 minutes, then turn down the oven to 325°F.  and continue roasting 30 to 45 minutes longer, or until the birds are done and the juices run clear when the bird is pierced with a fork.

Serve immediately, with the pan juices as a sauce.

Tuscan Pot Roast (stracotto)

8 to 10 servings

With the exception of the glorious bistecca Chianina, Tuscans don't eat a lot of beef.  Once the T-bones have been removed from a Chianina carcass, however, something has to be done with the rest of the meat, and stracotto is one thing to do with it.  This kind of pot roast exists all over Italy, a real Sunday dish, elegant, flavorful, and practical for the cook, since the sauce for the pasta and the meat cook all at once and together.  Americans may find it odd to serve two courses with the same fundamental flavors, but to Italians it's perfectly normal.  What makes this particular treatment Tuscan is the presence of a robust Chianti wine in the sauce.  Any flavorful red wine with a good acidic balance will do.

3 1/2 pounds beef, such as top round, rolled and tied
3 or 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, scraped and thinly sliced
2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 thick stalk celery, thinly sliced
3 sprigs rosemary, leaves only, chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 pound very ripe fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, or 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Using a small sharp knife, make incisions all over the meat to a depth of 1/4 to 1/2 inch and insert the garlic slices in them.

In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, gently sautÚ the carrots, onions, celery, and rosemary in the oil until the vegetables are beginning to soften but not brown.  Add the garlic-studded beef, raise the heat to medium, and brown the beef on all sides, turning frequently.  Add the wine and let it boil until reduced to about 1/2 cup.  As soon as it's reduced, stir in the tomatoes.  Cover and let simmer for about 1 hour.

Work the butter and flour together to make a paste, then stir thoroughly into the cooking juices.  Cover tightly, reduce the heat to low, and let cook at a bare simmer for 2 hours longer, adding a little hot water, wine, or broth if the liquid in the pan reduces too much.

When the meat is done, lift it out of the cooking juices and set aside to rest for about 15 minutes, then slice off three thin slices of meat.  Chop them with a knife as finely as possible.

Degrease the juices in the pan, setting aside about 1/2 cup of the meat juices to garnish the meat.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the chopped meat to the remaining juices and serve this as a sauce over pasta for a first course.  Serve the meat as a second course with the reserved juices as a garnish.  (This is often served with a contorno of puréed potatoes.)

Rustic Torte (torta rustica)

2 cakes, 12 to 16 servings

For those who know it, this will be reminiscent of Huguenot torte, an old favorite in South Carolina kitchens.  I make no claim for a link between Tuscany and Charleston except that both are regions noted for care in the kitchen.  This is my adaptation of a recipe in Dolci di Siena e della Toscana, a collection of traditional Tuscan sweets compiled by Giovanni Righi Parenti, who says that the cake was covered in days of yore with crushed dried figs and nuts mixed with honey.  This plainer version is more in keeping with today's tastes.

Butter and flour for the pans
1 cup whole hazelnuts
1 1/2 cups whole blanched almonds
1 1/2 cups unbleached pastry flour
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup milk
Pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 300°F.  Lightly butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.

Spread the hazelnuts on a flat sheet pan and place in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they are toasted golden brown (watch carefully lest they darken too much).  Remove and transfer to a kitchen towel.  Put the almonds on the sheet pan and toast them the same way.  While the almonds are baking, rub the hazelnuts vigorously in the towel to rid them of most of their skins.  When the almonds are done, combine them with the hazelnuts and chop them on a board as finely as possible, or use a food processor to process them, working in short bursts, 1/2 cup at a time, to a fine granular texture.  (Be careful not to overprocess to a paste.) Combine the ground nuts with the flour and cornmeal in a large bowl, tossing to mix well.

Raise the oven temperature to 375° F.

In a smaller bowl, cream together the butter and sugar.  Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition.  Beat in the milk, then combine with the dry mixture and fold to mix well.

In a separate bowl with clean beaters, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff.  Stir 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter, then fold in the remaining egg whites and turn the batter into the prepared pans.  Bake 45 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the cakes pull away from the sides of the pans.  Remove and let cool on a rack, then loosen the sides of the cakes with a palette knife and turn them out on the rack.

Note:  Some cooks spread a little jam or marmalade as a glaze over the tops of the still warm cakes before serving with a dollop of whipped cream, but it's also very good on its own, a dry, crunchy, barely sweetened cake to serve with vin santo or a sweet dessert wine.

Meet the Author

Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of a number of books, including Flavors of Puglia and The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.  A contributing editor to Food & Wine, she writes often for the New York Times and other national and international publications.  She divides her time between Cortona, Italy, and the coast of Maine.

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