Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Review-Cucina Povera-and a Book Giveaway!

Perfect time for a bowl of earthy soup, especially when the soup is Ribollita, the very tasty cannellini and kale soup from Tuscany.  When I was asked by the publicist to review the book Cucina Povera, or Peasant Cuisine, by Pamela Sheldon Johns I was immediately intrigued.  "This book features more than 60 authentic, budget-conscious dishes from the heart of Tuscany.  Each dish is based on a philosophy of not wasting anything edible, while also making every bite as tasty as possible."

Not only I know the food of Tuscany well, but I love its simplicity so I wanted to try the recipes asap.  Tuscany is the region I know best outside of the Veneto, having spent a week in Siena at the end of each summer for years, visiting my mom's middle sister and my cousin Manuela.  My sister lived near Siena for years, and another cousin went to medical school in Siena and is now an emergency medicine resident there.  Should I mention a boyfriend who used to take me around on his Vespa?  I was lucky to later spend many other times there, more recently this summer, traveling with friends from the States. 

Detail near the columns in 
Piazza Del Campo, Siena
Tuscan food is very different from the cuisines of other regions in Italy, the culinary tradition draws from the wild animals living in the extensive woods, the rich olive oil, and the fact that for years people lived off the land.  Siena has an amazing history,  it was at one point more potent than Florence but a serious of horrible plagues in the middle ages killed most of the population and the city never quite recovered.

The Tuscan country side is one of the most beautiful places in the world, rolling hills, ancient farm houses and tiny medieval town perched on the hill tops make this region unique and enchanted.  The rich and simple food contributes to its fame and draws many people to visit this region.  Many well known Italian dishes heel from Tuscany, Ribollita soup, Panzanella, Sciacciata all'uva, and Cantucci (otherwise known as Biscotti in the States).

Pamela Sheldon Johns grew up in a family where everything was used, and when she move to Tuscany she felt at home with the no waste mentality.  In the introduction she talks at length about the traditions of  Tuscany, its cuisine, and the people whose memory she narrates so well. She also give a wonderful overview of some of the different cities and their culinary traditions.

The book is beautiful, small but well designed, the pages are thick, with rough edges.  The book is filled with photos of the dishes and of the people cooking them, which is something I loved.  The instructions are clear, the ingredients all easy to find.  There are few dishes that I know most Americans won't try since they are not part of this country culinary tradition and are still considered weird, like tripe, rabbit, or liver (I am speaking in general terms here, I know plenty of people who would eat them).  There are few recipes I wouldn't try either, like Piccione Farcito allo Spiedo, or squab  simply because in Venice we don't have a good relationship with pigeons, but Pamela suggests to use Cornish Hens instead.

I made few things from this book:  The Ribollita, the Gnudi, (spinach dumplings), the Polpettone or meat loaf,  the Stewed Chickpeas,  the Ricciarelli, all outstanding.  The only recipe that didn't work was the one of the Cantucci and I just run out of steam to try it again. I suspect I over-beat the eggs, the texture was totally off.  The Ribollita was out of this world tasty (I suspect the home made beef broth had to do with it).  The Ricciarelli cookies were really good but they were different than the ones I ate in Siena, less sweet, and lighter, less dense, very good nonetheless.

In summary, the book is a great read about Tuscany, the  cuisine, and its people. The recipes are really original and delicious!  I truly recommend it.

The publisher is giving away a copy of the book, so for a chance to win it please leave a comment, and if you have experienced Tuscany and/or its cuisine let us know what you loved.  A name will be picked randomly and the winner will be revealed next Wednesday.

Disclaimer:  I didn't receive any compensation for this review, besides a free copy of the book.

Two recipes follow, directly from the book.  I made the Ribollita with the beef stock I made for the meat loaf, so it was ever more earthy.

The restaurant Da Delfina in Artimino, just west of Florence, is a reference point for cucina povera. Chef Carlo Cioni understands intimately the relationship between the land and the table. In his hands, a sturdy vegetable soup is transformed into a second dish by layering leftover soup with bread, then into a third dish by baking the leftover layered soup and bread. The fourth and final transformation is ribollita, the remaining vegetable stew cooked in a skillet, a dish that exemplifies the resourcefulness of Tuscan cooks.

Carlo insists it must be made on top of the stove, not in the oven, a version often seen in restaurants. Oil is used sparingly for this is a peasant dish. The ingredients vary according to what is available, but Carlo explains, “There must be a balance between the dolce (sweet), aromatica (aromatic), and amaro (bitter).” The sweet is found in herbs, such as parsley, celery, and purslane; the aromatic is in thyme, borage, and fennel; and the bitter essences come from mustard greens and chicory. A leafy green is always present; in the winter, cavolo nero, and in the summer, cabbage.

Carlo admonishes cooks to handle the beans tenderly and cook them slowly, and “dolcemente,” gently, so they are not broken or crushed. He soaks them overnight with aromatics: whole cloves of garlic, a bay leaf, and a sprig of sage. Use any seasonal vegetables in this soup, and cook them in the order of hardness; start with vegetables such as potatoes that take longer to cook, and finish with the tender herbs.

Classic Tuscan Vegetable-Bread Soup

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 onion, finely chopped, plus 1/2 cup more chopped onion for Day 3
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
10 cups vegetable stock
1 or 2 boiling potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 zucchini, coarsely chopped
4 cups shredded cavolo nero (dinosaur or lacinato kale) or regular kale
1 cup shredded assorted leafy greens (such as Swiss chard, nettles, and spinach)
1 cup coarsely chopped aromatic greens (such as borage, fennel, and mustard)
2 cups cooked cannellini beans
1/4 cup minced mixed aromatic herbs (such as fresh flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, and sage)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound day-old country bread, thinly sliced

Day 1: Minestra di Verdura (Vegetable Soup)
In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onion, carrots, and celery for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the onion is golden. Add the garlic and stock, stirring to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the potatoes and zucchini. Cook for 10 minutes, then add the cavolo nero and leafy greens. Decrease the temperature to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Add the beans and aromatic herbs. Simmer for 10 minutes to heat the beans through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in warmed soup bowls.
Serves 8

Day 2: Minestra di Pane (Bread Soup)
In a saucepan, warm the leftover soup over medium-low heat. Place very thin slices of country-style bread in the bottom of a lightly oiled baking dish. Spoon one-third of the hot soup over the bread, and repeat with two more layers of bread and soup. Cover and let stand or 15 minutes to 1 hour in a warm place before serving.

Day 3: Minestra di Pane al Forno (Baked Bread Soup)
In a preheated 375°F oven, heat the leftover Bread Soup in its baking dish. Sprinkle with chopped onion and drizzle with olive oil. Return to the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the onions are lightly browned.

Day 4: Ribollita (Recooked Vegetable Stew)
Lightly brush a medium skillet with olive oil. Spoon the remaining Baked Bread Soup into the pan and brown over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes, or until crisp on the bottom. Turn and cook for about 4 to 5 minutes to crisp the second side. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with freshly ground black
pepper. The ribollita should be firm enough to eat with a fork. Serve at once.

—From Cucina Povera by Pamela Sheldon John 

Sienese Almond Cookies

When I think of Siena, I think of these cookies. They are too rich to have been part of the daily diet in hard times, but they could have been a special treat for farms with an almond tree. The original recipe is quite lengthy, taking days to prepare, but I think my simplified version is reasonable.

1 cup (6 ounces) blanched almonds
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
4 large egg whites
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted, for coating

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a food processor, place the almonds, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, and flour; process to a fine powder. Add the baking powder and orange zest. Pulse to blend well.

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff, gradually adding the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, beating until glossy peaks form. Add the almond extract.

Remove the almond mixture from the food processor and place in a large bowl. Stir one-third of the egg white mixture into the almond mixture to lighten it, then carefully fold in the rest of the egg white mixture with a rubber spatula.

Drop tablespoonfuls of batter 2 inches apart onto the prepared pan and dust liberally with the powdered sugar. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until lightly golden and firm to the touch. Let cool on the pan for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 weeks.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies


Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Lovely food and great post! That is a book I have already added to my "to buy" list, so I'd love to win a copy of it.



Martissima said...

sono stata in toscana più volte e in varie località e ho sempre mangiato bene e con gusto e poi il territorio toscano offre molto da vedere.........senza togliere niente al Veneto ^ ____ ^ ho sempre pensato che i ricciarelli fossero troppo dolci e complessi ma mi pare che siano invece dei buoni biscotti e fattibili. Ciauzzzzz

FamilySpice said...

What a beautiful post! I'm in love with Italy and dream of visiting (and eating!) this gorgeous country. This cookbook sounds like someone I would love, too.

Simona Carini said...

Nice post! I have eyed a few recipe from the book, but have yet to try them. I like the photos a lot and the traditional knowledge that is recorded in the recipes. I often wish I had recorded some of my aunt's and mother's recipes when I could.

Laura said...

Thanks everyone for participating!

You all have a great chance to win!

Ilva said...

haha i missed this, I so agree with you, it is a very good book and cookbook, and after having lived in the Tuscan province now for 17 years i think I can safely say that the recipes are truly genuine. then there are obvious variants of the recipes spread out through the region...


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