Thursday, May 15, 2008

Italian Regional Cuisine - Tuscany

Tuscany is arguably the most well known region in Italy. Movies and novels have captured its romantic rural landscape: golden hills planted with grapes and olives, dotted with stone farmhouses and pencil-thin cypress trees.

I had the pleasure of vacationing there recently and it was everything I expected and much more. Tuscany is a rare center of art and culture whose native sons shook up Renaissance art and architecture and whose literary works planted the seeds of the Italian language. Over the centuries, the region has developed a balance between its rustic lifestyle and its urban appeal.

What Tuscans eat today is remarkably unchanged from the meals of decades and even centuries ago. White beans, slow-cooked in a flask or simmered in thick ribollita soup, are so central to the cuisine that they have earned Tuscans the moniker mangiafagioli (bean eaters). Fresh leafy greens, such as Tuscan kale, and fresh herbs including thyme, rosemary and fennel add a distinctly local flavor to soups and crostini. Grilled meats are a revered treat, especially the much loved bistecca alla fiorentina, a two-pound T-bone steak quickly charred over a wood-burning flame, then doused with olive oil infused with rosemary and garlic.

Pork roasts and chops are also common, as are the famous pork sausages flavored with fennel (finocchiona) and melt-in-your-mouth herb-encrusted lardo (cured pork fatback).

Tuscan cuisine, unlike most other regions of Italy, includes lots of chicken. Pan-fried or stewed, or made into rich chicken liver crostini, it is used extensively. The saltless Tuscan style bread can come as a shock, but the locals insist that it pairs perfectly with salty wheels of pecorino, artisanal prosciutto and zesty green olive oil, all washed down with plentiful amounts of red wine. Along the region's coastal areas, seafood dishes like the fish stew, cacciucco alla livornese, are also typical for the region.

As for pasta, the pappardelle with meat ragu, also known as Bolognese sauce, is highly recommended. Pappardelle is a tasty, wide egg noodle that holds the sauce well. Penne is also used with a ragu as well. Here is one of my favorite Bolgnese sauce recipes that I learned while staying in Pisa:

Pappardelle Pasta

Ragu Bolognese

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 ribs celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground pork
4 ounces pancetta or slab bacon, run through the medium holes of the butcher's grinder
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat italian parsley leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound pappardelle pasta

In a 6 to 8 quart heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, carrots and garlic and cook until the vegetables are translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the veal, pork and pancetta, increase heat to medium high, and brown the meat, stirring frequently. Add the tomato paste, milk, wine, thyme, and parsley and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for at least 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Season the ragu to taste with salt and pepper, remove from the heat, and let cool if not using immediately. (Refrigerate the ragu for up to 2 days, or freeze for up to 1 month).

Cook the pappardelle pasta as directed. Toss the cooked pasta with the ragu and serve. Garnish with cheese if you like.

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