Tuscan Comfort Food
August 15, 2015
My birthday is Ferragosto, August 15 — Italy’s biggest summer holiday. The country practically shuts down, and everyone heads to the beach, the mountains, or the countryside. I think of what I might be eating today, were I sitting in the rolling hills of Tuscany, for example. The meal would be a several hours’ affair, with good conversation, great wine, and fashionable people (because that’s just who the Italians are!).
Simple, fresh ingredients create the signature taste you know as Tuscany. Whether you visit Tuscany to enjoy the culture and the cuisine, or to immerse in its astounding Renaissance art, there is no doubt that you should savor some of these fine traditional dishes. Tuscany really stands out because of the amazingly rich and natural elements in the cooking, so be sure to enjoy some of my favorites!
To start: Crostini
Rarely will you enter a Tuscan restaurant or home without being offered crostini. Quite simply, these are toasted bread appetizers with different toppings. They are also known as bruschetta — and please remember that “ch” in Italian is pronounced “k”! The quintessential Tuscan crostini is topped with chicken liver pate. It sounds gross, but unless you’re vegetarian, chances are you’ll like this specialty. It’s a signature dish for many Tuscan cooks. Other toppings abound — diced tomatoes/garlic/basil; pesto; cannellini beans (whole or pureed); the list is limited only by your imagination.
Then on to: Bistecca alla Fiorentina
Italian steak at its absolute best. The only meat dish in Italy that comes close to our perfectly grilled mid-Western US beef, in my opinion. Normally brushed with herbs and lots of peppery Tuscan oil, this steak holds lots of flavor. The steak — normally a T-bone — is rather large, and is meant to be shared among several diners. This dish is perfect for eating out and is quintessentially Tuscan! The secrets to a perfect Bistecca are choosing the right cut of meat — normally a thick T-bone — and cooking it for just the right amount of time over just the right flame. Bistecca alla Fiorentina must have a charred crust and a warm, red center. Tuscans serve it with more olive oil and slices of lemon. Delizioso!
Accompany that steak with: Panzanella
Late summer in my house means looking for that 99th way to use tomatoes. We grow our own, and my family will only take so much homemade tomato sauce, tomato tart and caprese salad! Enter Panzanella! This cold bread salad is crisp and delicious with vibrant peppers and Tuscan bread drizzled with fragrant olive oil. Tuscan cooking experts suggest “gutsy, country bread such as that of Tuscany or Abruzzi”. The key is that the bread should be stale, then “revitalized” to reach a perfect texture. I like to soak the bread for just a few minutes in vinegar — so many wonderful options here for different flavor profiles. Use best quality tomatoes, raw or charred brightly colored sweet peppers, a cuke if you have one on hand. Thinly-sliced red onion, soaked in ice water to remove the bite, is not unwelcome. Although the origins of this dish and its name are unknown, it may come from the Italian word for bread- “pane”. One thing is for sure — sprinkled with vinegar, salt and pepper, and showered with fresh basil leaves — this will beat the heat while browsing Tuscany any day!
And add some irresistable: Cannellini Beans
Whether served plain, sprinkled with extra-virgin olive oil, or in a hearty soup for supper, you can never go wrong with cannellini beans. Tuscans are often called mangiafagioli, or “bean eaters”, for obvious reasons. Many visitors are not aware that legumes are much preferred to pasta or risotto in Tuscany. Cannellini used to be considered “poor man’s bread”, because they were a main staple in so many Italians’ diets. How could you not enjoy their smooth, creamy, mouthwateringly-delicious taste? Enjoy cannellini many different ways in Tuscany, including with your Bistecca alla Fiorentina, in a spinach soup, over a crunchy slice of grilled bread, or tossed in a salad. If you can find zolfini, these heirloom beans are even finer than cannellinis.
The perfect way to end: Cantucci con Vin Santo
Biscotti with Saint’s Wine? What’s not to love? These crispy almond cookies originated in the northern Tuscan city of Prato, and were originally called biscotti di Prato. Enriched with flavorful olive oil and anise seeds, these are an unforgettable pick. Try cantucci dipped in chocolate, flavored with cinnamon and pistachios, or paired with your morning coffee. A classic favorite is Cantucci con Vin Santo. Typically served after a Tuscan meal, these crunchy biscuits are dipped in the sweet “saint’s wine”, making them an enticing end to a delectable dinner.
Filling, appetizing and simple to prepare, Tuscan food provides many different options for everyone’s taste. We’ll be eating lots of it next month as we Taste the Lost Corners of Tuscany. What could be better than cocktails and crostini at sunset on the terrace of a 17th century villa in the rolling hills near Pisa? Or dipping your cantucci into vin santo at our boutique hotel in the lovely artist’s town, Pietrasanta? My taste buds are ready!
Thanks to my daughter Morella for her excellent research on this blogpost!