Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Tuscan Meals

Is there such a thing as a typical Tuscan meal? That is the question and a difficult one to answer. The Tuscan Region is large, has a long coastline and hills, mountains and rivers.  The agriculture is as diverse as the landscape although there is a common denominator: Cucina Toscana is “cucina povera”, which means local ingredients and simple cooking. Generally Tuscan food is earthy and filling, especially in our part of Northern Tuscany.

We are surrounded by mountains and woodland. Agriculture is hill or even mountain farming. Life in the past was hard and people are still sturdy. In Lucchesia where we live ingredients are beans, spelt, corn, chestnuts, black cabbage, mushrooms, olives, honey, ricotta and meat, a lot of meat: wild boar, beef, rabbit and pork.

A Tuscan meal is always momentous. Most locals still retain the traditional attitude to transform what the land can offer into something memorable.

Recently we had a few excellent home made feasts. We were invited by our friends, we cooked for our friends, cooked with them and had people cooking for us all.
In one particular occasion the meal was lucullan at the very least and I am going to list the courses and through my future posts recreate the recipes.

To give you an idea this is a selection from various menus:

Drinks and Stuzzichini (nibbles): mini crostini and olives

Zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and herbs
Bruschetta with fresh tomatoes
Crostini with chicken liver paté
Crostini with soft cheese and sausage meat
Potato cakes
Marinated eggplant
Cured meat: Prosciutto, Pancetta, Soppressata, Salame
Farro Salad
Mildly hot red peppers stuffed with tuna and caper sauce
Pecorino served with chestnut honey

Home made egg pasta with ragù sauce
Risotto with local wild Porcini mushrooms

Then a home made limoncello liqueur, acting as a lemon sorbet to prepare the palate for the next stage

Rosticciana (pork ribs) with olives
Roasted vegetables

Frutta & Dolce
Fresh fruit Tart served with a dessert wine, Vino Fragolino, made with strawberry grapes, an antique variety that is still popular in our hills.

When confronted with the Tuscan feast it’s important to remember to pace oneself!

On another occasion we had a really spectacular three colour pasta with mushrooms. The Red came from tomatoes, the white was plain egg pasta and the green was achieved by rubbing nettles into the dough. Nettles is something to investigate further in the future.

Wines on the tables were mostly earthy Chianti, Colline Lucchesi red and white. We also drunk Prosecco, which not being a Tuscan wine, was a concession to the modern age.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Cacciucco di Carne

The days are getting shorter and the nights are now cooler so our menus can return to the more earthy dishes.
A few days ago we entertained a few friends, two were local so I wanted to try something original but traditional at the same time. A while back I had heard that there was a meat version of the famous fish Cacciucco so I thought it would be fun to try it out.

In Tuscany Cacciucco (pronounced: ka – tchoo – kko) is a fish stew and there are two main versions: one from Livorno and an antagonist from Viareggio, a town a few miles north. The basic philosophy of Cacciucco is that fish and shellfish are added to the stew according to their cooking time so everything is evenly cooked. This technique is so ingenuous that I was surprised when I couldn’t find a recipe on the web and none of my locals could help me. The closest dish I could find was the Scottiglia, a mixed meat stew from the Casentino area near Arezzo, but it was prepared in a different way, so I decided to reconstruct the recipe using as a starting point the scraps of information in my possession with a bit of logic and imagination mixed in.

My recipe works like this: Fry the chopped onions lightly in olive oil then add minced beef, pancetta (cured bacon), red wine and tomato passata, followed in two further stages by the sausages and chicken pieces.

There were 7 of us so I made enough for 8 but I’m going to give the ingredients for 4 people.

Cacciucco di carne

Serves 4 people
Cooking time 1hr 30 min plus


2 tbsp of Extra virgin Olive Oil + 1 tbsp for browning
1 medium sized chopped onion
A handful of fresh chopped parsley
6 oz  minced beef
2 Bay leaves
2 oz of Pancetta (Italian Cured bacon)
1 cup (250 ml) of Red wine
1 cup Tomato Passata
5 Juniper berries
4 Good quality Sausages
4 Chicken pieces (Thighs, legs or breasts)
A pinch of Chili powder just to flavour (it is not a hot dish!)
A few grinds of pepper
1 cup (250 ml) of meat or vegetable stock
Sea Salt

Brown bread 4 slices

In a casserole dish light fry the chopped onions until golden then add the bay leaves and a few seconds later the minced meat and the pancetta. Stir until the meat is brown, then slowly pour the wine and bring it to a light boil until the alcohol evaporates. Now add the passata and the juniper berries.

Simmer with the lid on for 30 minutes.
Then in a frying pan heat a film of olive oil and brown the sausages. Pierce them while they’re cooking so they can release the excess fat and liquid. When they are ready (it only takes a few minutes), add them to the stew.  Don’t pour the fat in the casserole but conserve it a bowl as you might need it later.
Leave to simmer for a further 30 minutes. 

Brown the chicken pieces in the frying pan using a film of fresh olive oil, then add them to the stew. Again do not pour the fat in the casserole but save it with the sausages fat.
Now add the chilli powder and the ground pepper cook to the casserole and simmer for another 30 minutes until the chicken is tender. If you see that it is becoming too dry, add some hot stock. The final consistency must look liquidish but not watery. Add the freshly chopped parsley, adjust the salt if required, bearing in mind that sausages and bacon transmit their salt to the stew. If you like more fat, which unfortunately adds flavour but affect people’s arteries, add a tablespoon of what you have saved from the chicken and sausages browning.

The original fish Cacciucco is poured on a slice of toast so one can serve the meat Cacciucco in the same way.

The result was very good even at the first attempt. As the casserole is quite rich I made a large mixed leaf green salad served as a side dish. Celia made the most extraordinary Neapolitan Rum Baba for pudding. She gets 5 stars as it was her first attempt, but this is another story.