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Authentic Tuscan Recipes from an Italian Chef
Giuseppina Pizzolato is a small woman with twinkling eyes and tendrils of curly hair escaping from a chef's hat. Her hands fly as she chops, kneads, stirs, and pinches, and especially when she talks, in quick, heavily-accented English, sometimes brandishing a knife as she makes a point. At the same time she directs a group of Americans in the preparation of an elaborate four-course meal, she's telling stories, stories about cooking with her family, stories about shopping at the market for fresh ingredients, stories about hunting for truffles with her dogs on the hillsides of Certaldo Alto.
Giuseppina's passion for food and the land from which food comes reflects the philosophy of the Slow Food movement. The movement, which originated in her homeland of Italy and has expanded world-wide, strives to preserve local culinary traditions and promote sustainable food. Giuseppina articulates that philosophy just a little bit differently: "The most important thing is to eat well," she says.
Giuseppina knows all about eating well. She never attended culinary school. She learned to cook from her Sicilian-born mother and aunt, later honing her skills in restaurants throughout Tuscany. Today she runs a successful catering business in Certaldo, Italy, southeast of Florence, serves as a personal chef-for-hire, and offers cooking lessons to those wanting to learn the secrets to authentic Tuscan food. She highlights the importance of good, fresh ingredients and emphasizes that the best food is prepared with love and care. Here are four of her recipes for a delicious meal prepared in what she calls "the time-honored Italian tradition," as shared with one of her lucky classes.
Chef Giuseppina stresses two things about this recipe. First, the "h" in bruschetta is silent; the word is pronounced with a hard "ch" sound as in "school." Second, fresh produce is key. Choose vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes and fresh-picked basil.
6 red tomatoes
Bunch of fresh basil
6 garlic cloves
Salt and pepper
Loaf of Italian bread
Dice the tomatoes. Coarsely chop the basil. (To avoid bruising the tender leaves of the basil, Giuseppina applies the "one chop" method: gather a handful of basil leaves and slice through them in one direction only to create long ribbons of basil.) Mince the garlic. Mix all three ingredients together in a bowl. Add 2 "four-finger pinches" of salt (a pinch of salt using all four fingers and the thumb), several grinds of black pepper, and a generous pour of olive oil. (Giuseppina suggests pouring the olive oil into the bowl in the shape of a large letter "C" to get the right amount.)
Slice the bread "one finger-width" (use your index finger to judge the width) and toast in a 400°F oven for 10 minutes.
Top the toasted bread with the tomato mixture, making sure to get some liquid with the solids, and place on a serving platter. Drizzle more olive oil over top and serve.
Ravioli with Truffles and Sage
When it came time to prepare the pasta dish, Giuseppina delighted her class by pulling out a giant black truffle the family dog had unearthed the day before. While most cooks will not have access to this pricey and elusive fungus, known as the diamond of the kitchen, add a few drops of truffle oil to the finished dish before serving to get a hint of earthy truffle flavor.
To make the pasta:
Use very fine (00 grade) flour for best results. For every 2 servings of pasta, use 100 grams flour and 1 egg. On a clean surface, make a well in the flour and add the eggs. Beat the eggs with a fork and add a pinch of salt and one letter "C"-shaped pour of olive oil. Slowly incorporate the flour into the well until a sticky dough forms. Knead the dough until it attains an elastic feel ("like Play-doh," Giuseppina says). Let rest for 10 minutes.
To make the filling:
Wash 1 pound of fresh spinach then cook the wet spinach in a dry pan until it is wilted. In a bowl, combine the wilted spinach with 1 pound fresh ricotta cheese, 3 "three-finger pinches" of salt (a pinch of salt using three fingers and the thumb), 1/2 whole nutmeg grated, a few grinds of black pepper, and 3 eggs. Mix with a fork and add 1/3 to 1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese.
To make the ravioli:
Roll the dough through a pasta machine three times, then fold over and roll through three more times. Carefully lay the pasta sheet out on a well-floured surface (to prevent sticking). Spoon the filling onto one long half of the sheet, being careful not to use too much filling (use about 1-1/2 teaspoons per ravioli). Fold the other side of the sheet over the filling so the two long edges of the sheet meet with the filling in the middle. Cut the pasta into individual pieces and seal by moistening the seams with a little water.
Cook the ravioli in boiling salted water for seven minutes. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and drain.
While the pasta is cooking, melt butter in a pan over low heat. (Use one tablespoon of butter per serving.) Add fresh sage leaves to the melted butter and continue to cook over low heat until the leaves become slightly crispy. Before serving, toss the ravioli with the sage butter and top with freshly grated black truffle (if available) and Parmesan cheese.
Pork Tenderloin in the Old Style
Pork tenderloin, one of the leanest, tenderest cuts of meat available, is cut from the loin of the pork near the spine. It's cylindrical in shape and measures about a foot long and three to six inches in diameter. Tenderloins often are packaged in pairs and injected with saltwater. For best results, ask the butcher for a fresh cut that has not been brined. Use fresh rosemary and garlic for the dry rub. Smashed red potatoes make a good side dish.
Fresh garlic – 1 clove per three servings of pork
Salt and black pepper
Whole pork tenderloin
Make a dry rub with chopped rosemary, minced garlic, salt and lots of black pepper. Massage the rub into the tenderloin. Let stand.
Cover the bottom of a large skillet in olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Drop a sprig of fresh rosemary into the skillet to test the temperature of the oil. If the rosemary sizzles and crackles, the oil is hot enough to cook the pork.
Cut the pork into medallions the width of a finger and add in a single layer to the hot oil in the pan (cook in batches if necessary). Cook the pork medallions on one side for two minutes, then turn and cook on the other side for two minutes. Add 1/4 cup good quality, dry red wine to the pan. (Giuseppina advises not to pour the wine directly on the meat, but off to the side.) Cook for another minute, then turn again and cook for a final minute on the other side. Remove to a serving platter and garnish with fresh rosemary.
This traditional Italian dessert makes a scrumptious ending to a Tuscan-style feast. Make it several hours or even a day ahead of time to let the flavors soak in.
10 eggs, yolks and whites separated
2 pounds mascarpone cheese
1-1/2 cups sugar
A package of crisp ladyfinger cookies
Espresso or strong coffee
Unsweetened cocoa powder
Note: This recipe makes 10 servings, but Giuseppina offers an easy-to-remember 1:1:1 ratio for increasing or decreasing the recipe. Use 1 part mascarpone cheese (100 grams) to 1 egg to 1 "Italian tablespoon" (heaping tablespoon) of sugar.
Beat the eggs whites into stiff peaks. Add the yolks and beat to combine, then add the sugar. Beat in the mascarpone until just blended (don't beat too long, Giuseppina warns). Set aside.
Dip the bottom half of the cookies in espresso then place in a baking dish, using enough cookies to cover the bottom of the dish in one layer. Pour the egg and cheese mixture over the cookies. Sift unsweetened cocoa powder over the top. Chill for at least 2 hours prior to serving.