What I Learned Cooking in Tuscany — With 3 Cool Cooking Tips For You

October 21, 2010 § 14 Comments

In addition to shooting guns and canning jam, taking a cooking class in Italy is another item on my bucket list. Last week, I was lucky enough to fulfill this wish in Cortona, Tuscany, home to Frances Mayes of Under the Tuscan Sun fame and Il Falconiere, a 20-room inn with a Michelin-starred restaurant and cooking school (click here for their website).

Il Falconiere was built as a villa for a famous poet in the 17th century. It was then the family home of Riccardo Baracchi, the current proprietor. Riccardo, his wife, Silvia, and son, Benedetto, continue the family tradition of growing grapes and wine-making, which began in 1860. The restaurant and cooking school use produce grown on the property: olives and the resulting olive oil, fruits from trees lining gravel pathways and vegetables from a garden near the swimming pool.

Il Falconiere grounds at dusk

A close college friend, Leah, who lives in NYC, and I had decided to spend a week together meandering around Italy. Leah was happy to help me realize my food-obsessed desires (more on the others in a later post) during our trip.

So on a sunny Tuesday, we walked into the Baracchi family’s kitchen, which also serves as the setting for cooking classes.

The warm, cozy kitchen

We nibbled on pecorino made just south of Cortona and salami made just north, sipping the Baracchi family wines while getting to know the other four class participants. Coincidentally, all six of us were pairs of women who had been friends for years and had decided to spend time traveling in Italy together — what a great way to connect with a long-time friend, no?

Over the next four hours, we learned to cook a menu showcasing the best seasonal ingredients and traditional Tuscan dishes:

Stuffed zucchini blossoms

Zucchini blossoms stuffed with minted ricotta

with basil sauce and pine nuts

Pici pasta with cherry tomatoes

and chili and herbs

 

Veal medallion

Veal medallions with citrus-olive tapenade

on herb skewers

Pear & pine nut tart

with chocolate sauce

We trimmed zucchini blossoms with giant tweezers…

Chef Richard wields his favorite weapon

We whipped up a filling of ricotta, mint and chopped zucchini sauteed in olive oil with garlic and stuffed the flowers, an activity everyone enjoyed more than they expected…

Leah and me: Fun with pastry bags

We made pasta dough, learning that pasta in Tuscany is traditionally made with flour and water but no eggs, because they were thrifty cooks and saved the eggs for other uses. After letting the dough rest, we rolled it out, sliced it into bars and attempted to transform each bar into long, thin “snakes”, as Chef Richard called them. It took us a while to get the hang of it, so some noodles were appropriately serpentine while others looked more like squashed caterpillars. Ahh, well…we have time to let the magic of habit-forming apply to making pasta from scratch!

Kneading the silky dough

We stuffed veal medallions with a filling of garlic, herbs, black olives, orange zest, bread crumbs and pancetta, wrapping them in lardo (thinly sliced, cured pork fat) and skewering them with fresh herb sprigs before searing them in a pan and finishing them in the oven…

Veal medallion with wild fennel skewer

We assembled and baked the pear tart and awaited dessert eagerly, taking in its rich aroma. (I’ll share that recipe with you next.)

Then the six of us sat down to enjoy the meal that we’d made, each course accompanied by Baracchi family wines. We’d learned new recipes and cooking tips, and over dinner, we shared stories about our friendships and our lives. There we were, laughing, eating, drinking — together in food.

Leah, Chef Richard and me

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3 Cool Cooking Tips For You!

1 — Baking stuffed zucchini blossoms in high heat (400 degrees Fahrenheit) with a bit of vegetable stock crisps the edges and is a lot easier than frying them.

The finished zucchini flowers, baked at 400 degrees

2 — Using sturdy herb sprigs as meat skewers is an easy way to impart aroma and flavor while also adding beauty to your finished dish.

Veal medallion with fresh bay leaf skewer

3 — Placing meat on a square of parchment paper while searing it in a skillet allows you to brown the meat over high heat without burning it.

Veal medallion searing on parchment paper

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The Magic of Habit-Forming

October 5, 2010 § 10 Comments

Stop for a minute and think about the last thing you did that was fun, fulfilling and felt natural.

Maybe it was cooking your favorite meal from scratch without referencing the recipe, or strumming a song on your guitar with ease, or flowing through your yoga class. Maybe you were tired or sweaty at the end, but it felt good when you were doing it and you felt a sense of pride when you finished.

Now, ponder this: how many times did you do that thing before it came to you naturally? Before your hands knew how many tomatoes to chop, before your fingers knew which chords to strike, before your body knew how to fold itself into downward dog – all without thinking about it too much?

Knowing hands cooking a homemade meal

Often we talk about habits in negative terms: the bad habits we need to kick because they’re holding us back. But there are so many good habits that we form throughout our lives that enrich our daily experiences.

This realization hit me the other day in the garden. I’ve been “blessed”, shall we say, with the warring traits of obsessive anal-retentiveness and chronic forgetfulness, so I write everything down. I mean everything. If I don’t write down that we need sugar from the grocery store, two days later I’ll have measured flour and baking soda for a batch of chocolate chip cookies (like these tasty ones here) when an expletive escapes my mouth as I suddenly remember that we’re missing a key ingredient.

So when I started gardening, I wrote it all down: what I’d planted and when it needed to be watered, fertilized, pruned and harvested. Every Friday I’d write my plan for Monday, noting that I needed to fertilize the Meyer lemon that week but not the jalapa pepper. And every Monday I’d reference that plan religiously, checking off what I did, both for a sense of satisfaction and to recall that I actually did it.

Our Meyer lemon rejuve-ing...more on that later

But this week, I walked outside on a misty Monday morning having forgotten to look at my plan. I filled the watering can, toted out the fertilizer, snipped away errant shoots and pulled weeds. An hour later, the plants were happily satiated and cleaned up.

Jalapa pepper bounces back in our September heat

"Bright Lights" Swiss chard lives up to its name

And then it hit me: gardening had become a good habit for me.

It was such a small thing, but it felt a bit like magic. Just seven days ago I was nervously looking at my notebook before making each move in the garden, and now my hands just knew what to do, and when and how to do it. (And so far, the plants haven’t died on me.)

You could say, Gosh, gardening isn’t rocket science; it’s not that big a deal. And in some ways, you’d be right. However, one thing I’ve realized is that when we allow ourselves to revel in even our smallest accomplishments, it can improve the quality of our lives, because they’re signs that we’re learning and growing. And really, who doesn’t want to feel like they’re moving forward?

Dahlias are off and running!

So, here’s my suggestion to you for this week: Remember, two and a half minutes ago, when you started reading this post and conjured up that image of the thing you did that was fun, fulfilling and felt natural? And how just a few weeks, months or even years ago, you didn’t know how to do it? Hold that for a moment, and celebrate yourself for having experienced the magic of forming a good habit.

How To Have A Tomato Extravaganza — Canned, Jammed, Sauced & Toasty (RECIPE)

September 22, 2010 § 23 Comments

1 — Get up early. Have a big mug of coffee.

2 — Enlist a friend or loved one to accompany you (you’ll see why in a sec) to your local farmers’ market. Present your morning’s mission to your companion: to find the best darned tomato in the market. Sample all of the tomatoes; compare notes. Go to the farm stand that had the unilaterally best tomatoes and ask how much they’ll charge you for a 20-30 pound box (SFoodie reported prices at $1.60-$2 per pound for a box. I got a 30-pound box for 30 cents per pound at Alemany Farmers’ Market from the stand right near the Putnam Street entrance; they weren’t certified organic, but I asked, and the farm doesn’t spray and uses sustainable farming practices).

3 — Ask your companion very nicely to help you lug the box back to the car and into your abode.

30 pounds of tomatoes!

4 — Put on clothes you don’t mind getting tomato-ey, and an apron.

5 — In your kitchen:

  • Clear and clean counter space.
  • Set up your biggest cutting board on the counter. Fold paper towels length-wise and nestle them around your cutting board to catch the tomato juices that will run away once you start cutting up tomatoes.
  • Sharpen your favorite knife.
  • Set up the other kitchen utensils you’ll need, depending on what you’re making (see recipes below).
  • Turn on some lively music — whatever pumps you up.
  • Pour yourself a glass of wine or pop open a beer (by now, it might be noon — at least, it is somewhere).

6 — Let the extravaganza begin!

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RECIPES

I’ve ordered these roughly along the lines of how tasty they are relative to input of time and effort:

(1) OVEN-ROASTED TOMATOES – Easy-peasy, super flavorful, very versatile and freezable

(2) TOMATO JAM – The sweet-savory punch is, in my mind, completely worth it; while it takes some time to prepare (and more if you plan to can it), the recipe is relatively simple

(3) TOMATO SAUCE – Time-intensive but not technically difficult, and fresh tomato sauce, especially in the winter, is a treat

(4) CANNED TOMATOES – Time-intensive and takes some technique (more on my simultaneous interest in / fear of canning in a later post), but then again…tomatoes in January? Awesome

Specific recipes are below, including the volume of tomatoes I used and yields I got and serving notes.

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(1) OVEN-ROASTED TOMATOES

Volume: 3 pounds of small-ish tomatoes –> 56 tomato halves

Total Time: 4-6 hours + 15 minutes. Prep: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 4-6 hours

Planning Notes: The prep is minimal, and you can roast these while you’re watching TV. Or, if you want, you can prep the tomatoes and stick them in the oven before you go to bed. Just remember to set your alarm to get up and take them out of the oven so you don’t end up with tomato hockey pucks.

Thank you to Chiot’s Run for the inspiration for this recipe (click here for hers).

Ingredients

However many tomatoes you want to roast

Olive oil

Chopped herbs, if you like (I used basil, but oregano would be tasty too)

Cooking Instructions

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Wash the tomatoes and drain in a colander.

Washed and ready to go

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Slice smaller tomatoes in half, larger ones into quarters. Arrange them on top of the parchment paper on the baking sheet, leaving ¼ inch or so between the tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle chopped herbs on top of tomatoes if using. Put in oven (middle rack).

Tomatoes should shrink considerably (see pictures below); be curled up around the edges and about as firm to the touch in the middle as the meaty part of your palm (under your thumb) while still slightly moist; and taste like sweet-tangy, concentrated tomato.

Before

After

Check in four hours. If the tomatoes meet the description above, take them out and let them cool on the pan. If they don’t, roast them for another one to two hours.

Once cool, you can pack into freezer bags; squeeze out the air before sealing. Or, you can put in an air-tight container and store in the fridge for a few days.

Serving Notes

Great in salads, with eggs (chopped in omelets or egg scrambles; in an egg sandwich), on pizza, tossed into pasta or plain.

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(2) TOMATO JAM

Volume: 3 pounds of tomatoes –> 24 ounces

Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes; approx.  1 hour 45 minutes if canning. Prep: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 1 hour 15 minutes + 10 minutes processing time if canning

Planning Notes: If you’re canning the jam, make sure your jars, lids and rings are washed. Then, start bringing water to simmer in your boiling-water canner and put the jars in a 225 degree oven to sterilize them before you prep the jam ingredients.

I basically used Mark Bittman’s recipe (click here)

Notes On The Recipe

I doubled the recipe as I was canning it, so I used 1 large jalapeno and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne as I wanted a mellow heat to offset the sweetness, vs. a spicy jam. If you’re making the recipe as is, you could just use the jalapeno or do half of a jalapeno and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne.

Simmering the jam 1 hour 15 minutes as Bittman instructs did not yield a thick jam consistency for me, so I brought the jam to boil to the “gelling point”. There are three ways to test for the gelling point, but in my opinion the easiest way is the plate test: put 2 small plates in the freezer before you start cooking the jam. Bring the jam to boil; when it starts getting to a thick jam consistency, place a spoonful on the plate, put it back in the freezer for 1-2 minutes, take it out and run your finger through the jam. If the jam separates and slowly returns to its original form (vs. running right back together), it’s ready. If it runs right back, cook it 1-2 minutes longer and repeat the test with the clean plate.

Serving Notes

Here’s my favorite: Slather this on a warm, fresh-out-of-the-oven biscuit (click here for my favorite cream biscuit recipe), and accompany it with a finger of smoky-sweet bourbon.

A fresh biscuit & tomato jam -- supreme comfort food

Also great on toast, eggs, fish and chicken.

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(3) TOMATO SAUCE

Volume: 6 pounds 7 ounces of tomatoes –> 2 ½ pints (about 3 pounds tomatoes per pint, or 6.5 pounds tomatoes per quart)

Total Time: Approx. 2 hours; 2 hours 40 minutes if canning. Prep: 20 minutes. Cooking Time: 1 hour 40 minutes + 35-40 minutes processing time if canning

Planning Notes: If you’re canning the sauce, make sure your jars, lids and rings are washed. Then, start bringing water to simmer in your boiling-water canner and put the jars in a 225 degree oven to sterilize them before you prep the sauce.

Adapted from the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving

Ingredients

However many tomatoes you want to use for sauce

Bottled lemon juice if canning the sauce (the lemon juice acidifies the sauce so it doesn’t go bad; using bottled lemon juice is key because the acid level is consistent, whereas fresh lemons vary in acidity)

Seasonings, if you like: chopped herbs, salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper (I made mine without since I use tomato sauce in a variety of recipes that may not go well with certain seasonings)

Cooking Instructions

Wash the tomatoes and drain in a colander. Slice in half, cut out the stem/core. Cut into quarters.

Ready for some simmering

Simmer 20 minutes in a large saucepot, stirring occasionally.

Puree tomatoes in a blender or food mill. Strain puree through a sieve to remove seeds and skins into a clean, large saucepot.

Cook juice over medium-high heat until it thickens and reduces by about half, or to desired consistency. This will take, depending on the volume of tomatoes you use, about 45 minutes.

If freezing, pour into sterilized jars or air-tight plastic containers and let cool before placing in freezer.

If canning, put lids in a saucepan of water and bring to a simmer (but don’t boil or a seal won’t form). When the sauce is ready, put 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice into each pint jar or 2 tablespoons bottled lemon juice into each quart jar. Ladle hot sauce into a jar, doing one jar at a time, leaving ½-inch headspace. Wipe jar rim clean with a damp, clean paper towel or cloth; put lid on jar; screw on ring until finger-tight and place in boiling-water canner. Repeat process with remaining jars. Bring boiling-water bath to roiling boil, and from that point, process 35 minutes for pints, 40 minutes for quarts.

Serving Notes

Great for use in chili, stews, pasta and pizza.

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(4) CANNED TOMATOES

Cannot wait to have these this fall/winter!

Volume: 15 pounds of tomatoes –> 13 ½ pints (about 1 – 1 ½ pounds of tomatoes per pint)

Total Time: Approx. 4 hours for 15 pounds. A lot longer with more tomatoes

Planning Notes: This is at least a half-day affair, all day if you’re doing a lot more tomatoes than 15 pounds. Just plan on being up to your arms (literally) in tomatoes, and don’t plan on much else that day!

Up to my elbows in tomatoes

I referenced The Bitten Word’s handy photo narrative and video (click here) and the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving

Notes On The Recipe

According to The Joy Of Cooking, if you’re doing a huge load of tomatoes, instead of blanching them a few at a time in boiling water and then putting them in an ice bath, you can place tomatoes in a single layer in a large roasting pan, cover with boiling water, let cool and then slip off the skins. I didn’t try it, but it sounds a lot easier than the blanching / ice bath / peeling assembly line I did!

Serving Notes

Great for use in tomato soup, chili and stews all winter.

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Did you find this post helpful? Would you make any of these recipes? If so, please vote above or comment below!

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