October 3, 2010

Project Food Blog - Challenge # 3- Putting on the Ritz

The third challenge for the Project Food Blog is a luxury dinner for four.
It does not have to be expensive--- but special.

Main ingredient- 4 friends
and me as their Italian life coach in the kitchen

Living in Tuscany, we are truly blessed with ingredients. To me, that is the secret of any great meal. Then what you do to these ingredients can change an everyday meal into something special for guests.

I began doing research on recipes and in my reading came upon the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.

In Alice's life with Gertrude Stein in Nazi occupied territory, it was fabulous to see how they kept their passion for food even when they were constrained to cook with rations. Probably the most important part of the book for me was this simple example from their maid, Helenè, on how cooking can make any food, like an egg, special.

"To prepare eggs to honour a guest (an omelette soufflé with an elaborate sauce), to show indifference to him (an omelette with mushrooms or fine hérbes) or to insult him outright (fried eggs)."

The importance of fresh local ingredients, beautiful settings and the careful, sensual appreciation of good food.

All this pre-Alice Waters and the Slow Food movement.

The Dinner Party:

I don't have a dining room.

I live like most of my Italian friends in a small home with a tiny kitchen. Dining out is a treat in Italy and often when friends want to meet for a meal together, they go out. So for my dinner party, I used the Villa Poggiolaia where I teach my classes, it makes me feel like a princess when I cook there!

For my meal, I decided to show you what I teach my students; how to take simple Italian recipes and make them a special meal.

My mother-in-law, Tina, taught me to spend more time shopping and less time cooking. With quality ingredients, less time is needed to prepare them. They shine on their own.

From speaking to my students in the USA having the time to shop is a luxury. Sometimes it takes going to three different stores to shop for a special meal.

Here is our menu:

When I teach classes, I teach  a full Italian menu for each class and part of the class is shopping and organizing the timing for preparing the dinner with no stress. The shopping inspires the menu, based on seasonal ingredients and we go from there.

The  guests wanted a caprese salad, but it is the end of the tomato season. Cherry tomatoes are always fabulous and using them for the with the tiny bocconcini size of the mozzarella make a more elegant presentation instead of huge slices.

buffalo mozzarella is made from water buffalo milk in Naples

 a simple flour and water pasta

turns into hand-rolled Pici, a Tuscan specialty

Creating something which is not available locally to me is priceless and what makes the meal special.
Our first course was Pici pasta with a slow-cooked Tuscan beef ragu, called sugo here, served with grated three-year-old parmesan cheese. 

The main course was Veal Saltimbocca, a very easy dish to make. Here it is easy to find milk-fed veal. The delicate meat needs very little cooking time so is a perfect main course for a party.
We simply topped the veal with a whole fresh sage leaf and a slice of prosciutto and lightly sauteed in butter. The pan is deglazed with vin santo to create a light sauce and contrast in flavor.

One of  my favorite vegetable dishes to teach is my oven roasted vegetables. For a party presentation, I slice my potatoes and leave them in large pieces instead of cubing them as I do for everyday meals.
The Tuscan herb mixture is a classic which I use for roast meats as well. I call it the butcher's blend, often used for porchetta with the addition of fennel seeds and black pepper.

 giving a fan-cut to the potatoes before roasting

While the sugo for the pasta was slowly simmering away, we roasted our potatoes, giving them this special "elegant" cut for presentation, using fresh sage, rosemary from the garden with sea salt and garlic. They roast for about an hour. The herbs can be made ahead and tossed on the potatoes right before cooking.

Then it was time to assemble the saltimbocca, which would be cooked and then rewarmed for serving.

 each scaloppina is covered with a sage leaf and a slice of prosciutto

Together they made a lovely combination

we did a little extra decoration to dress up the crostata

We also created a simple jam pie, crostata, for dessert. We used a local company's fig and almond jam as a filling. The Italian pie crust is almost like a butter cookie and to create one that tastes like someone's mamma made it is a real challenge. I love passing on these old recipes which are mostly found only in homes.

In keeping with our "simple" but luxurious meal, an elegant place setting, linen runners, white china and silver.


In Italy there is a saying for the perfect meal-

Pane del giorno, vino dell'anno con amici di una vita.
Bread of the day, with wine of the year and friends of a lifetime.

That is what is priceless- Take the time to share a meal with friends. 
Everyone loves being in the kitchen, so perhaps your next party should include cooking with your friends.

And if you liked this post, please take the time to vote for me by clicking on the profile below
Mille Grazie


  1. It looks as though you will be moving to the next round in the competition!!!

  2. It all sounds divine!

  3. Love dinner party indeed. I am ready to make the pasta! Best of luck. Will be voting for you in the next round.

  4. Oh my goodness gracious. Such fabulous ingredients :-) You are, indeed, blessed!

  5. You are so generous with your time and talent. I even learned something from here. That potato and dowel trick is pure genius! GREG

  6. Love it, Judy. Love your mother-in-law's advice to spend more time shopping and less time cooking. Also the Italian saying at the end is so heartwarming. Voting.

  7. Great to see you made your guests roll up their sleeves. You've got a vote from me!

  8. I love how you engaged your guests in preparation--that photo of four sets of hands working together is what cooking is all about! Best of luck in reaching round 4--you certainly have one of my votes!

  9. LOVED the crostata---and the Italians saying;). You have my vote!

  10. Great job, Judy!
    I wish I could dig into pici pasta with sugo - looks divine!
    You've got my vote.

  11. VOTEDDDDDDD! Good luck! Wish you all the best!

    jen @ www.passion4food.ca

  12. The food looks amazing. And that crostata is just adorable. Nicely done. I voted for you! =)

    Good luck. Fingers crossed that we both make it through to the next round!

  13. This is beautiful! I love the homemade (yet simple) pasta! Good luck!

  14. Your pasta looks amazing!! I would invite myself over anytime ;)

  15. "Bread of the day, with wine of the year and friends of a lifetime." Profound and lovely! Thank you for sharing!

  16. Anonymous1:22 AM

    i look forward to making this meal. just started making my own pasta...such a treat. thank you!

  17. This looks like a lovely evening! All the food looks so fresh, and the crostata is just gorgeous!

  18. I love it - a cooking class and dinner party rolled into one. Can I come next time? Well, if I can get myself to Tuscany, that is. :) Good luck in PFB!

  19. Looks simply scrumptious and such a fun time! You've got my vote!


  20. I love the fact you focus on the importance of good ingredients. And the fresh pasta looks amazing.

  21. You party looks beautiful!!! Especially the pie :) And I can tell it was SO much fun... Good luck!! :)


  22. Looks wonderful! Great menu! Hope we both make it to the next round! :-) You have my vote!

  23. What a great meal, and the atmosphere in Tuscany doesn't hurt either!

  24. I wish I had you as a teacher. I have much to learn. You don't even need to work that hard on the "luxury" part, because simply having a meal in Tuscany is luxury in my opinion! But truly, this party is sublime to perfection!

  25. Bellisima ! Simple really is the ultimate luxury. What fun to be able to participate in a dinner like this. Living in France I can sympathise with the small kitchens :)

  26. I love that saying at the end!
    You've got my vote :)

  27. Your crostata design is beautiful! I would've been content to simply crosshatch the topping. Your sugo looks so comforting, I wish I could try a bite! You've got a vote of ours this week, good luck!

    Lick My Spoon

  28. Great post! I love that you cooked with your guests. I would love to attend a dinner party like that!! And that pie looks amazing!

  29. Congrats Congrats going onto challenge #4!!! Must be exciting for you! Good luck and all the best. Happy Thanksgiving to you! You'll be getting the next vote from me :) Your awesome!

    Have a happy thanksgiving!
    jen @ www.passion4food.ca

  30. You are so generous with your time and talent. I even learned something from here. That potato and dowel trick is pure genius! GREG