December 9, 2014

Agro-Dolce [Sweet and Sour]

I adore this time of year, work slows down to nothing and I have time to cook for pleasure. In Italy, the holiday season really starts on December 8th when the trees and creche scenes are set up and everyone gets in the mood! 

The chilly weather is also an incentive to spend time in the kitchen, revisiting recipes I adore. I think that the cipolline in agro dolce are a favorite of everyone that has tried them in my classes and at my table. They are pretty to look at and only get better if you cook them ahead of time. These are great as appetizers or as a side dish. I love to serve them with chicken breasts cooked with fried sage leaves or a simple Tuscan roast pork with herbs.  Cipolline in Agro Dolce are a classic recipe that you mostly see at home in Tuscany and are harder to find at a restaurant.

The combination of sugar and vinegar is a old recipe to help preserve food. I find versions all over Italy often paired with fish. In Sicily, they tend to use sliced onions and serve on fried fish, a sort of escabeche, perhaps from the Spanish sailors. You find versions in many of the ports in Italy.

I made the recipe, pictured above, with already cleaned cipolline onions I bought at the local COOP grocery store. I adore when my life is simplified.

It is the same concept of making an onion jam, but they are cooked in water with the sugar and vinegar. When the water evaporates, the sugar caramelizes and gives the lovely glaze. I add dried chili peppers to give some heat as well.

Cipolline Agro Dolce
Sweet and Sour Onions

1 1/2 lbs peeled boiling onions (cipolline)
2 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs white wine vinegar or in USA apple cider vinegar.
1 Tbs olive oil
1 dry red chili pepper (optional)

Place onions in a single layer in a large flat saute’ pan, in one layer of possible.
They should be covered with water. 
Add olive oil, salt, sugar, dry red chili pepper, vinegar 
Stir to mix.
Cover and boil for 10 minutes stirring occasionally.

Boil until the water is gone and the onions begin to glaze. Check the onions if they are cooked all the way through, if not, add more water and continue cooking until done.
Stir to prevent burning or sticking.
Remove red chili before serving.

Taste to balance the sweet and sour flavors.You may need to add more sugar or more vinegar.
These are best the next day.

Try balsamic vinegar and honey for a really special version.
For simple onions, just cook in white wine, olive oil, salt and a bay leaf.
Can't find cipolline, use frozen boiling onion. Do not defrost and don't use water.
Try sliced onions, this would be like an onion jam and is wonderful served with cheese.
I have used shallots, peeled and cut in half, they work well too.

Get wild and add things like cranberries and serve with toasted pinenuts, added before serving.

A great recipe for holiday meals.

From my book- Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen- which you can order online from HERE.

The books are in USA and can be shipped right away in time for the holidays!!!

December 5, 2014

Lost Recipes - Sedano Rifatto

I am blessed to have married into a Florentine family. My husband's mother was a fabulous, tough woman who outlived two husbands and raised two lovely men. Tina Barchielli, lost her first husband during WWll, he was taken prisoner and died. Her second husband, Arturo, was the father of her children, Cesare and my husband Andrea.


Many of the recipes in my cookbook, Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen are recipes I learnt from her. This recipe is not in the book. I hope you enjoy this recipe for Sedano Rifatto.

I am starting to do some video recipes, here is one of my personal favorites of a recipe which is almost a "lost recipe". Tina was born and raised in Figline Valdarno, a small village about 30 minutes south of Florence by train. Every year, there is a huge festival called Perdono, Forgiveness, which is held in September.

In the Valdarno area, there are several versions. Often the celery is cooked and left in stalks and then the stalks are breaded and fried, squeezing them into the shape of spools, called rocchette, in Incisa Val D'arno. In Florence, in an old neighborhood trattoria, al Tranvai, near my husband's childhood home, they did a small polpette and served it in a light tomato sauce.

My husband actually prefers them lightly fried and served with a squeeze of lemon and salt.

I follow the same recipe technique that I use for the cardoon polpette I wrote up a while back.

Let me know if you try this recipe.

Stay tuned-- I am just putting together my 2015 schedule too--- am starting my Divina Days programs, bringing back my market days and chianti day trips i used to do!

Thank you for following me! I love hearing back from you. Please leave a short note here or on my FB page.

If you have taken a class or tour with me would appreciate you leaving a review on Trip Advisor for me!

November 18, 2014

Big White Cows- Nose to Tail

I was asked to participate in the Vetrina Toscana sharing my recipe for a favorite dish using the Vitellone Bianco dell'Appenino Centrale. What is that? The huge white cattle raised for meat, In Tuscany it is the Chianina, in Emilia Romagna the Romagnola and in Le Marche the Marchigiana.

Once upon a time, over 30 years ago, I was a vegetarian. Hard to believe now, living in Tuscany, not only do I eat meat, but have eaten raw sausage and love the local specialty lampredotto sandwiches, a kind of tripe. I  have worked at a tripe sandwich stand in Florence and at a butcher in Chianti. Living in front of the Central Market in Florence I witnessed daily the pride taken by the butchers selling the best quality of meats and now living out in the countryside, I find the same passion and pride in the farmers raising their animals.

Tuscany is very meat-centric. Dining out the dish which is featured most prominently on the menu is the iconic Bistecca alla Fiorentina. The Bistecca is a huge piece of meat, usually a kilo, 2.2 lbs.  It is what we in America call a T-bone steak which has the filet attached. BEWARE! It is a party on it’s own.

There are several dishes that people go out to eat and steak is one of them. We love to find a place where it is grilled over wood, where it gets a fabulous flavor. It is meant to be shared, not be be ordered for a single diner. They will serve it to you sliced to share. It will be served rare, as the meat, if overcooked will be tough.

The only "sauce" you will be served is extra virgin olive oil, salt and perhaps a lemon slice.

Tuscans love the time spent at the table and long drawn out meals are common. They say “ A tavola non si invecchia”, one doesn’t age at the table. Looking at all the older people still active, it must be true. 

The best quality Tuscan steak comes from the famous Chianina cow, the Tuscan White Steer. I try to eat local and I look for the best quality. The Tuscan White Steer; Vitellone Bianco has been recognized as an IGP, meaning the area where the cattle are raised is protected and governed by laws. It is governed by the Consorzio di tutela del "Vitellone Bianco dell'Appenino Central IGP.

The Consorzio maintains a high level of quality control of the raising of the animals. The area closest to me is the region called the Val di Chiana,which is a long rich valley from the area between Siena, Arezzo and down to Lago Trasimeno. I live in Certaldo, which is not too far from Siena. So my Chianina beef is raised very close to me.

When shopping for meat, normally I don’t buy steak. I firmly believe in the “nose to tail” school of cooking. I try to also buy from butchers that buy the whole animal as the prices are better. A cow only has a few steaks, but the rest of the animal? That is where you can get a  deal.  Italian butchers are artisans and the cuts for the beef are different from USA, so often I need a cow map.

The Consorzio di tutela del "Vitellone Bianco dell'Appenino Centrale IGP" The Consorzio maintains a high level of quality control of the raising of the animals. The area closest to me is the region called the Val di Chiana,which is a long rich valley from the area between Siena, Arezzo and down to Lago Trasimeno.

I picked up the Chianina beef I used for my recipe at the Central Market in Florence. My friends, Piero Soderi and his family are one of the butcher shops selling the IGP Chianina. On the stand is the certificate of where the meat came from. This is guarantee of quality and control. My Chianina came from the Azienda Agricola Abbadia, an estate south of  Siena owned by the Ciuffi family.

The Vitellone is not what we think of as veal, it is red meat from cattle that are from 12-24 months old. Italians do not take the young cows from their mothers, but rather leave the calves feeding on their mother’s milk until weaned, about 6 months and then they are let out to graze. They are also fed some locally grown feed, often produced by the farm itself. When a product is given the IGP rating, it is closely monitored for quality. That includes how it is raised, where it is raised and then when, where and how it is slaughtered. The European Community awarded the IGP to the Vitellone and is it the only fresh meat product in Italy to have been given this denomination. 

A little history of the Chianina

They say that the Chianina probably dates back to prehistoric times, having seen the graffiti in several caves in Italy. It is easily recognizable for it's white coat and large size, one of the largest cattle.

Chianina from the Ciuffi Farm in Val di Chiana ( foto from their site)

Since Etruscan and Roman times, the Chianina was also used in parades and offered as a prize to the winners of sport competitions. Today you can see the Chianina in several of the traditional wine parades and the parade in Florence for Calcio in Costume, the historical soccer game played in June, but I don't think they serve it as dinner to the winners anymore.

This huge white steer was used as the tractor in Tuscany to work the fields. When tractors were introduced, the steer was then raised for meat. One of the largest cows,  Donetto, was 1,780 kg, almost 4,000 pounds. That's a lot of meat.

Nose to tail cooking

When you animals have been raised with care, you can eat EVERYTHING. Having suffered for the lack of food during WWll, Florentines know how to transform almost all the of the cow into something delicious, wasting nothing.

There are cuts for grilling, roasting, stewing and boiling.  Always tell the butcher what you are going to be making. They will cut to order for you. I first made the mistake of just pointing to a piece of meat and sauteed it. It was tough as the sole of a shoe. I later found out it was meant for frying.
I only made that mistake once.

Below is a small slide show with some of the traditional dishes.
Braciole are thin slices of beef which can be either cooked very quickly, fried or stewed.
Polpette can be made from freshly ground meat or minced cooked meat.
Stufato is a pot roast.
Shanks are for Osso Bucco ( not in slideshow, but a favorite)

Italians don't do beef ribs, you can find them as part of the meat for boiling, often boneless.
It is also hard to find the cut for fajita's, it is called the diafram

Many of the "poorer" cuts of meat are simply ground for ragu or hamburgers, including the diafram, which should be ordered as there is only one per animal.

Created with flickr slideshow.

Tuscans are know to be great cooks, more than great chefs. I attribute that to the fact that the main ingredients here are so fabulous, little needs to be done to alter the flavors.

Some of the local butchers only buy the Lombata, which is where the steaks are cut. The “rules” for having a Bistecca alla Fiorentina are also strict. The Bistecca always has the filet attached, the t-bone steak. After the filet ends, the steak is then called a Costata.

never overcook a steak in Tuscany, the meat is lean and gets tough with overcooking
I previously wrote about the rules to cooking the perfect Bistecca on my blog.

But there is more to a cow than simply the steak, and those are the recipes I adore. Often I stand at the Central Market in Florence and eavesdrop on the people shopping, gathering recipes. Other times I simply ask my butcher.

The main cuts of the meat come from the two front halves and the two hind halves of the cow, but Florence is especially famous for the quinto quarto, the fifth quarter. When shopping in the market almost all the "other" parts of the cow are also available. Inside the Central Market in Florence you will see one of the historic stands selling offal.  The most popular of the offal is the trippa; cow's stomach. The tripe is sold precooked. A cow has three classic white stomachs, but also a fourth darker more tender tripe called lampredotto. This is used for the street food sandwiches, panino con lampredotto.

But as you look at the stand, you will notice some other parts of  the cow you have probably not seen before. The tendons, cow face, left whole, but also rolled and pressed to be thinly sliced. The whole tongue, pre-cooked cow udder and also the fallopian tubes. "Rocky mountain oysters" the bulls testicals as well as the esophagus. Ok, even I don't know what to do with that! The liver, lungs and the diafram are also sold. The tripe, which is the cow's stomach, all 4 of them, the last and darkest of the stomachs is called lampredotto, is one of the most popular street foods.

For my recipe, I chose a classic favorite of my Florentine husband, Andrea. I wanted to do a slow cooked meat, using a less noble cut of beef. I was thinking of doing a historical dish, the Peposo, a beef stew, slowly cooked in red wine and lots of black pepper. But when I arrived at the butcher, the correct cut was no longer available.

removing the scoperchiatura 

This is when your butcher comes in handy. I asked what piece could I use for a slow cooked recipe.
Immediately he took out the lombata of the bistecca and showed me the scoperchiatura della bistecca, a layer of meat and fat on top of the rack that the steak is cut from. Many butchers leave it on the steak, but it can also be taken off and used for part of the bollito misto. Traditionally I make this for Christmas dinner as it provides us with several great meals, with one large pot of boiled beef.

This led me to think about making my favorite recipe the Francesina, a simple stew, recooking the boiled beef with onions.

Scoperchiatura della bistecca

Bollito Misto:

When you are going to make the classic boiled beef, you must decide if you want flavorful broth or flavorful meat. If you prefer the broth to be more flavorful, place the meat in cold water, add 2 carrots, 2 celery stalks , 2 onions, peeled and some parsley. Salt the water to taste and bring to a boil. Normally it takes 2 hours for the meat to become tender.

boiling the meat with vegetable broth

Francesina or Lesso Rifatto

The piece of meat weighed 1 kilo, so I thinly sliced 2 kilos of red onions and sauteed in extra virgin olive oil in a clay pot with some chopped sage, garlic, rosemary and a sliced chili pepper.

Let the onions cook down, covered, until fully cooked. If they get dry, add a little of the beef broth.Then add some tomato paste and stir it to dissolve in the broth.

Cut the boiled beef into pieces and place on top of the onion mixture.

The Francesina is served simply, with a nice Tuscan bread to soak up the juices, but would be really nice as a one course meal served on a bed of polenta or mashed potatoes.

The other reason I adore making bollito, is that the you also have a nice big pot of broth. After boiling the meat, I strain the broth, removing any bits of vegetables or meat left. Refrigerate over night and it is easy to remove the fat layer which will solidify on the top.

To serve, reheat. You can use this to make tortellini in brodo, serving the broth with tortellini in it as a nice first course or a simple minestrina in brodo, with the tiny little pasta boiled in the broth. Most people think that everyone eats pasta all the time in Italy, but Florentines tend to also like a bowl of light soup with or without pasta.

simple pastina in brodo, a light supper
When you use the various cuts of meat for the broth, you will have more meat left over. Another popular dish is polpette, mincing the meat and mixing with mashed potatoes to create a "meatball" which is rolled in breadcrumbs and fried.

The brisket cut is often used to make a boiled beef sandwich served as a street food from the carts serving the lampredotto. Both meats are boiled as the above recipe with the vegetables and tomato paste is added to the broth while cooking.

The boiled beef also called bollito, is served thinly sliced and on a roll as street food. Some of the bread is removed from the top of the roll and then you ask for salt, pepper, chili sauce- peperoncino and or salsa verde. My favorite way is with everything and also dipping the top of the roll in the broth. This is called bagnata. It is served in a small bag which prevents the sauces from dripping out.

For a fun finger food for parties, I do a Tuscan slider, making a mini panino with the left over Francesina stew. Normally in America, the slider is made with pulled pork or brisket, heated together with a BBQ sauce, which is tomato based with a sweet and spicy tang.

I live in Certaldo, famous for their red onions. Here they make a red onion jam to serve with the local pecorino cheese, I use it as a spread on the bread.

Twisted-Tuscan Sliders
My Tuscan-American version of street food

Take the beef pieces from the stew and shred them like you would for pulled pork. The meat is very tender and falls apart easily using two forks.

Stir in the rest of the sauce with the onions and reheat to serve adding a little chili pepper if you like some heat.

Grill the small panini.
Spread the red onion jam on the bread.
Spoon the shredded beef on top and add grated aged pecorino cheese or chili sauce.
Cover with the other half of the panino.

Serve warm.

Mille Grazie to Vetrina Toscana for inviting me to participate.

November 14, 2014

Liquid Gold- video

I have a dream.

I want to share my cooking classes online with video. I don't want to do "live  classes" so thought that the best way was to do a fun light recipe video and share online. I recently took an online class to make my own videos and here is my first practice video on the process of making extra virgin olive oil. Take a look and please share with your friends. Sign up to follow my YouTube channel.

I just returned from Sicily, where I simply shot a few very short clips of the process at two different frantoio, the olive oil mills. Both had new modern state of the art presses. It is not easy to find the old stone presses anymore or they may press with stone and then process the paste in a more modern machine. Air is an enemy to oil as is light so the new machines protect the oil from the first crush.

This year Tuscany and Umbria both are suffering from a lack of olives to make the oil. Here in Tuscany, in Spring, we had horrible rain and wind which blew off many of the olive blossoms and driving around you could see that there were trees totally bare of olives. Then the trees with olives were attached by a fly, which ruins for olives for oil making.

Everyone is in a panic. Olive oil is like blood running through the bodies of the Italians. Obviously, the prices on olive oil will go up. Normally, it is hard to know where your oil is coming from, as there is no real truth in labeling. I have always gotten mine from local producers.

Here we do have it labeled in the grocery store if it is Tuscan oil or Italian oil. Most of the olive oil comes from Puglia and is often blended to stretch the Tuscan oil., as well as using oils from Greece, Tunisia and Spain.

I find that the the oil tends to match the cuisine of the region. In Tuscany, we love an olive oil with a peppery green "bite", it balances well with our simply grilled meats and acts as black pepper on salads. You will almost never see black pepper on a table in Tuscany, we have the olive oil and we use chili pepper in cooking instead of black pepper.

Near the sea, Liguria, Sicily and Puglia have milder oils which are perfect for a fish and vegetable based diet.

Like wine, it reflects the terroir of a place. I have several oils from several regions as I don't cook just Tuscany style.

It is possible now to also get half liter bottles of extra virgin oil from several fabulous importers in the USA. I know Beatrice from Gustiamo and also heard of the Oil2go people from a friend.

In Italy, we spend more on food than on clothing or accessories. Buying first quality extra virgin olive oil is not cheap, especially when imported to the USA. I consider it to be like a Chanel No 5, not to be poured on heavily, but used with a delicate hand and for special occasions.

We tend to spend a lot of money going out to eat but not on ingredients for our own cooking at home to make our own food spectacular.

My mother-in-law always said, "Spend more time shopping and less time cooking". Essentially, the better the ingredients, the less you have to do to make them taste great.

Build your pantry:
GREAT extra virgin olive oil as a finishing oil. Drizzled on at the end for the best flavor.
Sea Salt. I get mine from Trapani in Sicily. It has more minerals and less sodium , you use less.

Please leave feedback on the video on youtube!!! thanks for following me.

November 4, 2014

Sharing the Love- plans for 2015

This season has flown by, there has been no time for blogging.

I am in the process of changing how I work and it is working well! I have been offering more week-long programs in Tuscany and in Sicily and this year I added Puglia to my list.

I don't write about it online much, but many of my week-long programs are custom for cooking schools, culinary groups, chefs and their clients or just friends that want to have a special time together.

truffle hunting

wine tasting in chianti

Probably one of the most moving places we visited on our trip to Puglia, was Matera.If you haven't gone--- GO NOW. We did a little moving around, first based in Bari, then Alberobello and to Matera for 2 days and slept there in an incredible hotel where the rooms are in the old caves where they people lived.

The week-long programs allow me to share my experiences from living here for the past 30 years.
I am just pulling out the calendar to start to plan for next year. I adore creating special memories.

I  already have some of my private clients booking again, but will repeat my St Joseph's day  tour in Sicily in March for sure. There is nothing better than being in Italy for a festival. St Joseph, San Giuseppe, is also Father's day. Food alters are built and there are special dishes created for the celebrations including incredible ornate decorated breads.

I leave next week for Sicily again, and when I return will be posting the dates for all my programs.

from one of the new artisan shops upstairs at the Central Market in Florence

As part of my weeklong programs, we also send a day at the Central Market in Florence. The market was first opened in 1865 and has just had a new rebirth--- in April, when the upstairs artisan market was opened. It is heaven on earth! I will be writing a post on it soon.

I have also been writing more. I recently wrote an article on the market for Dream of Italy, the fabulous newsletter for Italophiles.

For The Florentine, Florence's free English language paper, I recently wrote up the recipe for a traditional Tuscan dessert, Zuccotto, a personal favorite. It is lovely for the holidays. More recipes will be coming up for their site too.

the duomo shaped dessert, Zuccotto

The winery Dievole in Chianti also had me write up some of my favorite things for their blog. Try my recipe for Salsa Verde. I love to serve it simply on hot potatoes, boiled or baked or with the classic boiled beef dinner we make for the holidays.

If you get homesick for Italy, you can follow my Instagram account.

See you when I return from Sicily!!! 

PS did you see that my friends, the Planeta Family, finally published their recipes?
I will publish the link for the English version when it is online.

I have made many of the recipes from the book while taking classes at the hotel/winery in Menfi, and am trying some of the other recipes and will post a sample recipe I have tried soon.

November is going to fly by and before you know it, Christmas will be at the door. This year I want to be ready with some new cookies for the holidays.

I will be doing a cookie cooking class at my friends new teaching center, Il Cipollino Felice in Colle Val D'Elsa and also preparing a Thanksgiving feast with my friend Chiara at I Latini near Certaldo.

Get ready for the holiday spirit, share your table with friends... there is no greater gift.

September 15, 2014

Big Red Tents and Dreams

This summer has flown by like a dream. We had very little heat so it was rather surreal most of the time. Then I attended MAD, a culinary think-tank in Copenhagen organized by Renee' Redzepi of Noma restaurant and David Chang of Momofuku in NY..This years curator and guest host was Chef Alex Atala from Brazil. My trip was also very dreamlike. I didn't have a lot of extra time, so flew in the day before. Copenhagen was the opposite of Italy. Everyone was tall and blond, riding bikes and smiling. The city was spotless. My mind is still spinning from the event. Immagine two days of culinary summer camp, with 600 fabulous incredible people all hyped for the event. Each day was packed with inspirational speakers. Subjects varying, but the subject was "What's Cooking?" There was the huge big read tent for the lectures and the other tents were for our breaks. We shuttled over to the island for the meetings and each trip back and forth was also time to bond. Here by chance is Farmer Lee Jones and Ron Finley. No one wears tags saying who you are or what you do, it is all about just talking and sharing information. Before the conference, I was lucky to be invited to AMASS for lunch with a friend and her friends. The chef, an American who had cooked with Thomas Keller and with Renee Redzepi, created a relaxing fun spot, just down from where they tents were for the conference. We had the tasting menu and it was really lovely. No ants, no foam. Intese flavors and simplicity. But back to the meetings. The speakers were over the top and covered such a vast area of thought on what is cooking in various parts of the world and who is cooking as well as problems such as a lack of food and waste. I highly recommend you watching the video's that they have put online. The program began in silence with the preparation of Soba by Tatsura Rai. He owns a small 12 seater restaurant and prepares the soba to order. If only everyone had such respect for the art of pasta making and feeding people. If you go to the MAD FEED, you will be able to watch all the videos and hopefully be as inspired to do something as I am. It is really impossible to list all the incredible speakers, I think each of us attending got something different from each one. My biggest jolt was from Ron Finley and his lecture on Guerilla Gardening in South LA. I am blessed to live in Italy where almost everyone has an "orto" their small gardens anywhere they can. I think they invented the Guerilla gardening-- first plant it, then see if anybody cares. But the most important thing is to grow your own. When I came home, I went down to the local city gardens, you can rent a space 110sq meters, for 40 euro a year, including the water. "growing your own food is like printing your own money" - Ron Finley I want to be a part of the revolution-- getting everyone in the garden and then in the kitchen. Does this video speak to you too??? I will be posting and writing about the other speakers that really impressed me-- but now have to go plant something!
My friend, Dario Cecchini, opened MAD last year and here is is with Ron. Such positive energy, please let it be contagious.