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Tuscany is known for its landscapes, traditions, history, artistic legacy and its influence on culture. Tuscany is unrivaled as the center of art. One can find examples of every age and style: from the Etruscan civilization to Roman monuments and ruins; from the Romanesque architecture and impressive Gothic cathedrals to the exceptional artistic explosion of the Renaissance. Florence has preserved its masterpieces and great works of architecture over the centuries.

Tuscany borders the regions of Liguria to the northwest, Emilia-Romagna to the north and east, Umbria to the east and Lazio to the southeast. Tuscany has a western coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea, containing the Tuscan Archipelago, of which the largest island is Elba. The climate is fairly mild in the coastal areas, but much harsher and rainier in the interior, with considerable fluctuations in temperature between winter and summer.

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Florence is the capital of Tuscany. Other important cities are Siena, Pisa, Arezzo, Pistoia, Prato, Lucca, Livorno, Grosseto and Massa Carrara.

The most important collection of paintings in the world is found in the Uffizi Gallery. Great paintings can be seen in the Gallery of Palazzo Pitti, such as Tiziano’s and Raffaello’s masterpieces. Florence also has the Museum of the Costume, the Museum of the Carriages and the beautiful Italian gardens, Giardino di Boboli. In the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, the famous “Pietà” by Michelangelo can be admired.

The Via de' Tornabuoni in Florence, the city's top fashion and shopping street,

The Via de’ Tornabuoni in Florence, the city’s top fashion and shopping street.

The fashion and textile industry are the pillars of the Florentine economy. In the 15th century, Florentines were working with luxury textiles such as wool and silk. Today, the greatest designers in Europe utilize the textile industry in Tuscany, and especially Florence.

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Simplicity is central to the Tuscan cuisine. Legumes, bread, cheese, vegetables, mushrooms and fresh fruit are used. Olive oil is made up of Moraiolo, Leccino and Frantoio olives. White truffles from San Miniato appear in October and November. Beef of the highest quality comes from the Chiana Valley, specifically a breed known as Chianina used for Florentine steak. Pork is also produced and the region is known for its many excellent cured meats. Tuscany’s climate also provides ideal soil for the grapes grown to create the region’s world-renowned Chianti wine.

It is Carnival time in Tuscany

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It was February 1873 when a group sitting around a table at the Caffè del Casino in Viareggio had the great idea to have an annual parade of floats to celebrate carnival time. They wanted a parade out in the piazzas, in the streets and, most of all, among the people. The parade floats take center stage each year and usually represent satirical versions of politicians, figures from popular culture or show business. The floats are always based on the hot topics of the day. The floats parade through the crowds along Viareggio’s seafront every Sunday for 4 weeks until Mardi Gras. For 4 weeks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, the 4 districts of Viareggio hold large open air street parties with music and masked balls until the early hours. Open air restaurants offer local specialities, mainly fresh seafood dishes, and stages are put up on street corners where free live concerts are performed. Bands and DJs give it their all, dressed in costumes and wearing carnival masks.

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Cenci’ are traditional sweets that are often prepared throughout Tuscany during Carnival time. These treats are made with fried dough and covered with powdered sugar. In Italian, their name means ‘rags’ because that’s exactly what these haphazard squares look like! They’re golden, crispy, light and easy to prepare.

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Traditional Tuscan Regional Cooking 

Soups, sauces and stews are the cornerstones of Tuscan cooking, many beginning with and relying upon the mastery of a soffritto on which to build more complex flavors. A soffritto can be considered the Italian verson of mirepoix and is a combination of olive oil and minced browned vegetables (usually onion, carrot and celery) that creates a base for a variety of slow-cooked dishes. Herbs (sage and rosemary) are used in many Tuscan dishes and seasonings can be added to the soffritto as needed to bring out the unique flavors of each different recipe.

Stracotto (braised beef) is a well-known favorite of the area, as are finocchiona (a rustic salami with fennel seeds), cacciucco (a delicate fish stew), pollo al mattone (chicken roasted under heated bricks) and biscotti di prato (hard almond cookies made for dipping in the local dessert wine, vin santo). Borlotti beans, kidney-shaped and pink-speckled, provide a savory flavor to meatless dishes and cannellini beans form the basis for many a pot of slowly simmered soup. Breads are many and varied in Tuscan baking, with varieties including, donzelle (a bread fried in olive oil), filone (an unsalted traditional Tuscan bread) and the sweet schiacciata con l’uva  with grapes and sugar on top. Pastas are not heavily relied upon in Tuscan cooking and pappardelle (a wide egg noodle) is one of the region’s few traditional cuts.

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Tuscan Bread

This is a three-day process.

Makes 2 Loaves

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 4 cups warm water (110 F)
  • 9 cups unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • Olive Oil
  • Semolina or cornmeal to flour the work board

Directions

To make the biga:

Combine the yeast and ½ cup of water in a bowl; stir and set aside. Measure 2 cups of the unbleached flour into a large bowl. Make a hole in the center of the flour with your hands and pour in the yeast mixture. Move the flour from the sides of the bowl into the yeast mixture and combine. Gradually pour in 1 cup of water. Use a wooden spoon to mix the flour and yeast mixture together to form a thick paste. Sprinkle another cup of the unbleached flour over the top and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Set aside in a cool place to rise for 6 to 8 hours or overnight.

The next day, add the whole wheat flour, 1 cup of warm water and another cup of the unbleached all-purpose flour to the bowl and mix, kneading the dough slightly in the bowl with your hands. The dough will be very sticky. Cover and set aside again to rise for 6 to 8 hours or overnight.

On the third day, stir in the remaining 1 1/2 cups of water. Work in the remaining flour, leaving a little of it aside to spread on the board or work surface. Turn the dough onto the floured surface and knead it for 10 to 15 minutes or until the dough is silky and springy and has lost its stickiness. Place the dough in a large bowl sprayed with olive oil. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place the dough in a warm place (75 F) to rise for 2 to 3 hours.

It is best to bake the dough on a baking stone. To do this, preheat the oven stone at 450 degrees F for 30 minutes prior to baking the bread.
Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, punch it down, knead it briefly and divide in half. Form each into an oval or round loaf. Set the loaves on 2 oven peels lined with cornmeal. Cover the loaves with a clean towel and allow them to rise for 45 minutes while the oven is heating.

Transfer the loaves from the peel to the stone; if you only have one peel, form one at a time and set one on a piece of parchment paper.

Bake the loaves for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 degrees F and continue baking another 40 to 45 minutes or until the bread is browned and sounds hollow when tapped with your knuckles.

To bake the loaves without a stone, form the loaves as above and place each one on a lightly oiled and cornmeal lined baking sheet. Cover as above and let rise. Bake as above. Cool the bread on a rack before slicing.

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Ribollita

Servings: 8

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dried cannellini beans, uncooked
  • Olive oil
  • 1 large red onion, sliced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 4 potatoes, diced
  • 10 zucchini, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups swiss chard, shredded
  • 1 leek
  • 1 savoy cabbage, shredded
  • 1 bunch kale, shredded
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • Loaf of stale Tuscan bread

Directions

Soak the beans overnight and then cook over low heat. It will take approximately 1 hour for them to cook.

In a soup pot, gently saute the onion, carrot and celery in a little olive oil. Add the other vegetables, with the exception of the cabbage, kale and beans which are added at a later point. When the vegetables have sweated out their juice, cover the ingredients with hot water and then add all the cabbage and kale. Cover and simmer for an hour over medium heat.

Add the cooked beans, salt and pepper. Let simmer for another 20 minutes, stirring frequently because the beans tend to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add the tomato paste.

Slice the stale bread and, in an earthenware casserole, alternate layers of bread with the soup until the bread is soaked. Cover and refrigerate the soup until the next day.

To serve, reheat it or “re-boil” it, as the name in Italian suggests.

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Lemon and Black Pepper Grilled Chicken Legs

Serves: 4 as a main course

Ingredients

  • 8 chicken legs with thighs
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Directions

Arrange the chicken in a shallow bowl or baking dish. Whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, rosemary, salt and pepper. Pour over the chicken, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours.

Heat the grill to medium-high heat. Place the chicken on the grill and cook until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes, turning once or twice. If using a gas grill reduce the heat to low and cook 20 minutes. If using a charcoal grill, move the chicken to the edges of the grill, cover and cook over indirect heat. Check for doneness after 20 minutes.

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Ricciarelli – Tuscan Almond Cookies

These cookies just happen to be gluten-free.

Makes about eighteen 3-inch cookies

Ingredients

  • 1-1/4 cups sliced or slivered almonds
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Grated zest of 1 medium orange
  • Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Grind the almonds in a food processor until reduced to a semi-fine powder. Set aside.

In a bowl, beat the egg whites on high-speed, adding the sugar a little at a time. Once all of the sugar has been incorporated, add the vanilla.  Continue beating the whites until very thick and glossy, at least 5 minutes.

With a rubber spatula, fold in the ground almonds and orange zest.

Use 2 tablespoons to scoop the mixture onto the prepared baking sheets.  The cookies should be oval-shaped, about 2-1/2 inches long x 1 inch wide.  Only put about 9 cookies on each baking sheet as they will spread a little. Dust the tops of the cookies with confectioners’ sugar.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until firm to the touch, but pale in color, not brown.

Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool.  When completely cool, re-dust the tops with confectioners’ sugar.

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