On a recent trip to the grocery store, I discovered a new sauce that has inspired a couple of new dinner ideas. I have been trying to cook more at home these days, and there is a cookbook on the traditional cucina fiorentina (Florentine cuisine) that is haunting me on the kitchen table with several bookmarks mocking me to venture and make traditional goodies like salsa tartufata (truffle sauce for pasta or meats), fegatino (chicken liver and heart pate) and ribollita ( 2X cooked peasant bread, tomato, veg and bean soup). But I am too intimidated. Every time I go to the butcher at my local farmer’s market to brave buying pure chicken hearts and liver, I get scatty as soon as I see the blood covered butcher howling “Prego” at me. I run away and just get my typical dainty fruit and veg and perhaps some cold cuts.
So I end up instead at the grocery store, reducing myself to the pre-made pasta sauces accepting my reluctance to make a salsa tartufata. I see a jar that looks interesting, it’s called Pesto alla Siciliana. It had a nice little picture of ricotta and tomatoes on it and I thought hmmmm this looks adventurous! Until I read the ingredients: Instead of olive oil, there is sunflower seed oil. Instead of pine nuts, there are cashews (anacardi).And to my great disappointment, there is glucose syrup AND sugar! I put my foot down (and the jar back on the shelf) and said: “this avoidance to cook is not to be tolerated any more!” I will make this myself!
So from the label, I gathered more or less what this recipe was asking for. Fresh tomatoes, tomato concentrate, garlic, ricotta, pine nuts, grated aged pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese), herbs and a touch of olive oil.
I looked up a recipe for Pesto alla Siciliana just to be sure and I got chopping and grinding away. I used a hand blender to put it all together and voilà! A thick creamy umami nutty goopy pink sauce that will make any pasta more cozy.
Fry up some sausage on the side and mix in with this red pesto. Boil up some pasta (ideally penne, rigatoni or tortiglioni tubular pastas for the sauce to coat and the sausage to stick to), mix in the red pesto BY adding the pasta to the pan with pesto sauce and sausage and jump/toss the pasta to mix all together.
I top this pasta with chopped parsley that comes in with my odori (herb) bunch from my veg guy Leo, who has a strange resemblance to the comic book guy on The Simpsons.
You can also cooked in chopped sage with the sausage, again from odori bunch from Leo. It came out extremely delicious to say the least. The sauce and bits of sage coated sausage coated and filled the big chewy hollow pasta tubes.
If I were drinking this month, I would have paired it with a glass of Negroamaro from Puglia, which is basically Italian for Zinfandel. It tends to be pretty basic yet full and slightly fruity while being high in alcohol. This pasta doesn’t need some complex aged wine with tons of structure. I wonder if a layered white like a Sauvignon from La Maremma (southern Tuscany) would have fared well. We will never know…unless you try.
This sauce is very simple to make and I highly recommend you make it to add some variety to your pasta routine. I think this would make an excellent lasagna base as well. Oh want a recipe? Here ya go!
I love when someone wants to get lunch. On a weekend in Italy. Especially this time. There is this little hole in the wall in my neighborhood that I look into every time I pass, curious as to the simple Tuscan delights that lie within. Most good restaurants in Italy are brown and mustard decorated hole-in-the-walls. They have paper place mats, uncomfortable chairs with the straw seat that give you splinters especially if you wear a skirt and get stuck in your leggings and hand-written menus. And mostly everything is under 10 euros a plate. The exception being the bistecca fiorentina(Florentine steak) which is like 30 something euros a kilo and you usually split with others. But personally, I wouldn’t get a bistecca fiorentina at one of these. When in Rome, or rather Florence, stick with the mom-style comfort food in a joint like La Ghiotta.
When you walk in, you immediately are greeted with all thetavola calda type items like roasted pork, polpettone (big Tuscan meatballs that are typically meaty and breadcrumby), small fried fish medley, hot gooey lasagna, fried polenta (a decadent goodie I discovered in Florence) and maybe some random slices of pizza. You can either order some of this to-go or to bring immediately to a table, or you can order from the hand-written menu. There is nothing pretentious here with nothing to hide or show off. What you will find is simple Tuscan food at modest prices. Antipasti include salami boards and crostini toscani. Primi include spinach and ricotta ravioli in a fried sage and butter sauce. Mains include generous slabs of Milanese style veal cutlets and roasted fried potatoes. No fru fru fusion, just damn good (real) Italian food. What I had was the mare caldo (warm ocean) with a personal carafe of sparkling house wine:
Delicious. The calamari had a perfect balance of chewy and meaty. The clams were little buttons of flavor. and the Mussels were creamy and retained a good deal of garlic and herbs. The sauce was silky, herbaceous and woven nicely with garlic. I was even taken aback by the shrimp, which I usually do not care for in restaurants as they are rubbery and freezer burned. Again, the buttery texture soothed my senses and revitalized my appreciation for this little meaty sea creatures. This was served on a modest piece of toasted (very plain) Tuscan bread which soaked up all this wonderful broth and it basically melts like pure umami in your mouth.
After this, of course we enjoyed an espresso and a dessert: Tiramisu’
Tiramisu’ literally translates into “Lift me up.” Well, how could this not lift you up? It’s a booze cream and marscapone cheese cake with cookies soaked in espresso. Not to mention the obvious sugar high this invokes.
Tiramisu’ is not a traditional Tuscan dessert, but La Ghiotta was out of frittelle which are little fried rice donut-like sweets- I’ve seen these in Venice also so may not be exclusive to Tuscany. And sometimes I see them in the bakeries filled with custard.
The point is- when you are in Florence, eat off the beaten tourist path. Be okay with getting squished in the corner with straw-bedded chairs that drive splinters up your bum. It’s okay. You know why? Because you will probably have one of the best meals all month at a traditional hole-in-the-wall without burning a hole in your wallet. And leave with a slight buzz at 3 in the afternoon. These gastronomic moments in Italy are priceless.
It was when I moved to London on a whim with nothing more than a temporary work permit at age 19 that my appetite grew for travel and the desire to move to Italy after a summer weekend getaway in Florence. I remember it like it was yesterday: I was in awe surrounded by beautiful architecture, fresh fish and summer salads. I turned to my travel partner and said:
“I want to live here one day. I want to learn Italian.”
…and I did. 7 years later. So I look back on London very fondly. It was my gateway drug to my expat desires.
Recently, I was offered an opportunity to stay in London for a month for a secret food and wine mission. I accepted. But the critic in me unleashed its analytical wrath within just hours of arriving.
To say the least, I was shocked by a lot of things concerning the British lifestyle. After living in Italy for nearly 7 months now, I was quite excited to go back to an Anglo culture for a little bit. Italy can be tiring for a young, foreign American woman. You think I’m joking, but in Italy I am not really taken seriously in certain situations based on my age and gender. Also, people assume I am a rich American tourist. It could be worse if I were in a developing country, but c’mon this is ITALY. It is a country in EUROPE. I shouldn’t have to make such comparative justifications.
As happy as I was to be surrounded by so many options in the grocery stores (like a whole section of greek yogurt! In Italy it is the same dinky overpriced Fage. One variety: plain.) I was relieved to be able to speak my language and be respected. And, to find such a variety of international foods, sauces, condiments, spices and organic granola hipster culture food. I was quite tickled when I was able to make this delicious shallow fried tofu and veg green coconut milk Thai curry:
But after a few days, I found that I really appreciate Italian food culture. In London (like in Seattle) cuisine is imported. There is a plethora of fusion but nothing quite convincing of its own. Yes, the Brits have a cuisine and it is very modest and humble. Meat pastry pies, scotch duck eggs, fish, stilton, cheddar truckles, oysters, roasted root veggies…they do indeed have delicious fare. But what they lack is culture in comparison to the Italians.
Please note: the following comments are merely gross generalizations.
I noticed a lot of drinking and not a lot of food pairing. In Italy, it is almost a violation to serve an alcoholic drink without some sort of snack- even if it is a small bowl of chips and nuts. “Happy Hour” in London consist of, not full on buffet bars of lasagna, salami, cheeses and radicchio salads like at an Italian aperitivo, but rather 4 beers for 10 quid. People work hard in London. They live in small flats. By the time you come home after a ten-hour day combined of work + riding the grey, crowded and smelly tube all you want to do is relax with a beer, eat something quick or grab dinner at the pub. And smoke a lot of cigarettes. My diet was at its lowest while I was there. Not because there isn’t good food, but because I was so busy and refused to pay a lot of money on food. Food is to me, a basic human right and should be affordable and good. Good food in London (and in Seattle) come at a premium. In Italy, good food is accessible to everyone. I can get a big bag of local organic farmer market produce at 5-10 euros. It’s not trendy, it is just the way they do it. And no wonder rates of diet-related disease are lower and people seem generally healthy and vibrant.
In London, I noticed an affluent couple taking a picture of perfectly merchandised Romanesco (a simple cruciferous vegetable related to the cauliflower priced at a whopping 9pound x Kilo). The said vegetable celebrity was paparazzi’d at the food hall at Selfridges ( Hellridges: a pretentious food museum) because the couple had never seen it before and I recall laughing to myself and trying really hard not to scold (judge) them silently for this blatant food voyeurism.
I did however manage to eat delicious samosas and Indian food on Brick Lane. Just walking through the colorful street with spices lining the store counters piled up in the shapes of upside down cones and fresh fried samosas sitting innocently in the windows wafting their savory turmeric and chili aromas deep into your nostrils, so deep that you can almost taste the mushy potatoes, curried lamb and fried fennel seed within those little triangular pockets of Indian heaven. As well as decadent spicy onion bhajee with tamarind.
While I was on my food mission, I discovered a couple true English food gems. Such as: Christmas Pudding w/ Brandy Cream (and Brandy Butter) and mince pie. A mince pie is not what you think I thought (a savory pastry pie filled with minced meat). The mince is actually a sweet pastry filled with a winter spiced apple and dried fruit gunk. Christmas pudding is this gooey sticky fruit cake thing that is soaked in brandy or some sort of booze and is set on fire and served warm with the brandy fat/cream products oozing on top.
I was lucky enough to be in a small beach town in East Sussex with a lovely Brit family that left a wonderful taste in my mouth about the English food culture.
On Christmas Day, you basically eat everything all day long. Not much different from the rest of the Christmas celebrating world. Port and Cheese is not an uncommon compliment and neither are little sausages wrapped in bacon, homemade cranberry sauce and creamy bread pudding. The food social scientist in me asked a lot of questions concerning food and tradition to the family’s grandmother. She told me that in her school years, domestic sciences were taught where you learned all cooking basics and knitting. Like I imagine home-economics was in American schools. Those classes don’t exist anymore (at least in the U.S.) and no wonder why people of our generation are having to either teach themselves culinary arts as apart of hipster homesteading trends or simply eat processed convenience foods out of ignorance. I notice, that in America unless you come from a liberal, educated family (or a very rich one), your holiday dinners generally come from a box, a can and a cling-wrapped foster farms tortured processed meat product. In England, at least most people from a wide range of socio-economical backgrounds cook from scratch.
After my trip, I realized Italy is the best place on earth. People (Italians) sometimes take for granted how precious their country is. What other country has what Italy has: Rome, Venice, Sicily, food, wine, art, history, music, Milan…the list goes on and on. Not only is Italy wonderful for its rich landscape and crystal blue beaches but the also the way everyone respects each other, their body and how to eat (and live) a good life. I heard so many Italians on the streets in London and it made me sad because I know why they are there. Young Italians are giving up on Italy and fleeing to more affluent (organized) parts of the world for a “better” life. But what constitutes a better life? To me, I left America and effectively rejected my culture in order to live a better life. In Italy. And this is where I plan to stay until its not fun anymore.
Every stage of my Italian life dives deeper into the underbelly of what makes this culture tick, a new breakthrough is made every month or so, a new language barrier has been breached. And this applies also to my understanding of Italian food.
The basic level is understanding a real pizza (no tomato sauce base or thick deep pan crust here), a real plate of pasta (made fresh and with minimal ingredients like cherry tomatoes, garlic and olive oil- no Alfredo sauce ever) and that Italians actually drink beer with their pizza, not Chianti.
Then when you are here for a bit, and if you are a wanna-be food anthropologist, you’ll see that pizza and pasta really isn’t truly Italian. You’ll learn about food from the Renaissance (wild boar cooked in a cacao spiced sauce), cakes and breads made from wild chestnut flour, foraged porcini and truffles, heirloom beans, salami made from cooked blood and pig hearts and cheese made from rare species of bovine and mountain sheep in obscure villages. This is what makes my heart flutter. This is what proves to me that Italy is a gift to the world. And the best place to live.
There are consortia, funded partly by the chamber of commerce, local governments and agricultural ministries, that PROTECT these ancient foods, and provide a means for these precious commodities made since centuries past; to survive and be cultivated for generations to come. This is what blows my mind about Italy. That here the government takes an active role to protect biodiversity in agriculture and food culture. And the aggressive stance against allowing GMO’s to be grown in the region and demanding labeling of incoming food products from abroad. How can a country like Italy be so deep in recession and so backwards in certain ways- yet is more advanced in food democracy than a supposedly free and democratic country like America where none of these protocols exist? Hey America, just label it already!
In the Fall, cities across the boot celebrate the harvest of countless foods and hand-made products like cheese, preserves, dessert breads, etc. They are put out on display at events and sagre (local fair) in piazzas and open-air markets, with live traditional folk music and dances, with wine (variety is according to the region, or the district even) that was just pressed and fermented weeks ago. And here is a little collection of what I have discovered so far:
Want a taste of a secret Italian dish? Try out this recipe for la schiacciata con l’uva (taken from Epicurious.com):
1 package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
3 tablespoons Chianti or other dry red wine
1 tablespoon honey
3/4 cup warm water (110–115°F)
2 1/2 to 3 cups Italian “00” flour or half all-purpose flour and half cake flour (not self-rising)
1/4 cup fine-quality extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Tuscan)
Whenever I have guests, I tell them that they must try lampredotto from a banco mobile (food cart) that puts the whole “street food”…”food truck” fru fru scene in America to shame. I recommend it because it is an authentic food experience besides “pizza and pasta.” And it’s what the general blue collar work crowd can comfortably afford for lunch. I am about to explain. I will use this post to squash some ideas Americans and tourists have of Italians and Italian life. Okay, so we come here like it’s Disneyland, voyeuristic in taking snapshots of the old ladies buying fruit at the open-air markets, or as one of my friends told me- taking snapshots of him buying tomatoes in the store. Which if you think about it, is pretty creepy. How would you like some tourist taking your picture in Trader Joe’s? But the reason people shop at these “open-air markets” that tourists think is so glamorous, is because life in Italy for some is poor and that 10 cent difference between bananas at the market and at the store is worth something that most tourists could hardly fathom.
So my point is, unlike living in the states, life is modest here. I’m not complaining, but most people in Italy don’t exactly have the luxury to eat out expensive meals multiple times a week . I’m not writing this to incite sympathy or pity- It makes me uncomfortable to talk about money in my sort of public blog but I think people should understand this. And nothing irritates me more than people who think Italians live this life of vespas, ferrari, gucci and cappuccino. The vespa part is kinda right, but because the gas is cheaper for scooters. Gas costs almost the equivalent of 10 dollars a gallon. Cappuccino is also kind of true, but it’s part of breakfast and there is a national “cap” on how much a bar can charge which is not the Stumptown fancy schmancy 4 dollar cup to-go but 1.20 at the counter.
Anyways…do you know what lampredotto is? It’s this:
Florence and Tuscany in general should be known for la cucina povera which is a cuisine based on peasant food that most cultures have. Tripe, chitterlings, liver “crostini”, tomato bread soup, minestrone, etc- are all cheap and crucial to real Tuscan cuisine. It’s a no-waste philosophy that dates back to when Italy was limited on resources during post-war depression periods. Because Italians are sticklers for tradition- these foods are still as popular as ever. And sadly, Italy has in a sense returned to a depressed economic state. Meno male that la cucina povera never went out of style. :/
So today I had to do an interview with the Cordon Blu culinary school for an article I am writing and I asked the director if they taught lampredotto in the Tuscan cooking courses. She said no, because most tourists and Americans are scared of it and thinkthat they don’t like it. It made me smile that she said they think because picky eaters drive me crazy- how can you not like something you’ve never tried?!
Then it made her smile when I asked her where her favorite lampredottaio “banco mobile” was. She said near the bronze porcellino near Piazza della Repubblica. I didn’t know what the porcellino was, which apparently is the lucky rub-for-luck tourist attraction bronze pig. So I decided for lunch today I was going. I realized I’ve been here for 4 months and haven’t had lampredotto yet AND I didn’t know what the lucky porcellino was. It was a sign.
This sandwich with a glass of wine will cost under 5 euro. The meat is stewed in a simple broth and then made to order. These innards are then cut up and laid a top a crusty bread roll, doused with salt and pepper.
Then a half of the bread is dipped in the lampredotto stock and topped with a kind of herb paste made mostly of parsley. I chomped on this at the “banco” counter of the food truck, observing the guy make sandwiches and noticing that most of the clientele were men and I was seriously the only woman eating a cow guts sandwich. I felt oddly proud of my “bizarre food” Andrew Zimmern inspired moment.
It was okay. It had a weird fatty consistency and there was too much salt and parsley sauce to really be able to get an idea of what lampredotto tasted like. It was a nice, filling lunch that I think my stomach was confused about how to digest (which enzymes to I make for this thing this crazy lady just ate? lipase or protease?) You could for sure taste that the meat was stewing in a broth yet it was soft and flavorful. And I could see why this would be a pit-stop for the Florentine lunch crowd- especially because there is cheap wine that you should for sure have with it. Why not?
So if you are in Florence or in Tuscany- be adventurous, be curious! Taste everything! Unless you are a vegetarian or celiac- you can’t knock it till you try it:)
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