Friday, July 20, 2012

Recipes and Tales from Chianti--Ciona

Ciona, one of the beautiful homes where we cooked (and dined!).  You can actually see Sienna in the distance.
This is their wine label that is exported to the US.

After a wonderful trip to the Chianti region of Tuscany, I'm home and reeling with ideas, recipes, and beautiful memories. I told you about the famous Butcher in Panzano. Dario, in the butcher world, is a superstar, and we had the full experience. Later that week we had cooking classes with our friends of Tutti a Tavola, and to me these ladies are also culinary superstars!

Early in the week Mimma, our host and one of the 'Mamas' of Tutti a Tavola asked what recipes we would like to prepare. When we didn't have any particular requests (other than a primer in their chicken liver spread that I want to make for my Mom), Mimma proposed a menu of her recent favorite recipes that resulted in a fantastic meal and a great learning experience.

We spent hours working together to turn the beautiful, local produce, meats and cheeses into a meal fit for a Medici. My sister and I were joined in the class by an Italian mother and daughter who now live in Chile and were back visiting relatives. While we spoke little Italian, they spoke little English, but by the end of the evening we were all communicating in culinary-ese.

The recipes we prepared don't sound hard at all, and they're not. Simplicity defines Tuscan cuisine. It relies on hundreds of years of refined technique combined with the freshness and quality of ingredients to produce dishes that are so uniquely superb in their quality.

We are instructed through each recipe.

Chicken Skewers and Grilled Vegetables

Spiedini di Pollo all'olio di Oliva (Carne or Secondi Course)
Chicken Skewers with Olive Oil

1 lb. Chicken breast pieces
1 cup bread crumbs
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano cheese
1 small onion, finely minced
~1 tsp. Salt
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
fresh bay leaves, halved (you could substitute thin slices of onion, pepper or tomato without seeds, but usually you can find the bay leaves in the refrigerated produce with other fresh herbs—we picked ours off their tree)

Preheat oven to 425°.
Use either chicken breast tenders or flattened breast pieces (cover with wax paper when flattening to avoid a mess), and cut into into 2x3 inch pieces. You want these pieces to be fairly thin, and equal in size so they well cook evenly in the same amount of time.
Mix the bread crumbs, grated cheese, onion and salt. Taste and adjust with more salt if needed.
Pour olive oil into a bowl (add more if needed).
Add several chicken pieces at a time to olive oil. Dip them out with your hands and squeeze tightly over the bowl to squeeze out excess oil. Place these pieces into the breadcrumb mixture and press to evenly coat each piece.
Thread each piece onto skewer, folding over and piercing twice. Separate each piece with half a bay leaf. Be sure chicken pieces are spread apart so they will cook evenly.
Arrange skewers in a roasting pan and cook for ~15 minutes.

Verdure alla Griglia (Contorni/Vegetable Course)
Grilled Vegetables

2 or 3 red and yellow bell peppers, seeded and cut into strips
4 or 5 medium zucchini sliced lengthwise
2 or 3 small eggplants, peeled and sliced lengthwise
5 small sweet onions, peeled, and cut into eighths
4 or 5 small tomatoes, seeded and cut into eighths
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Freshly grated black pepper
One-third cup breadcrumbs
One-third cup Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 425°.
Mix breadcrumbs and cheese and set aside.
Oil a large roasting pan, then line with parchment paper and oil the top of the paper well. Place peppers, zucchini and eggplant slices evenly on pan separating a little. Top with onions and tomatoes, spreading evenly. Now drizzle with olive oil. Add salt and pepper and breadcrumb mixture evenly over vegetables.
Place on top rack in oven and roast until vegetables are tender and lightly blackened in spots, about 30 minutes.

Fabulous Radicchio Lasagna
Fresh Creme Dessert

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Recipes and Tales from Chianti--Radda

Orazio overseeing the dinner.
You had to know where to look, or you would never find it!
Cantuccini and Vin Santo

The Chianti region is very similar to the mountains of southwest Virginia, dipping into the foothills at its southern boundary.
As far as I could tell these people are 'living well'. They enjoy life fully. This includes the butcher, the baker and the owners of the beautiful sprawling properties that have been lovingly restored.
We didn't lack for good dining, and splurged on a couple of over the top meals, but the one I enjoyed most was recommended by our hosts. They drew a map. There was no sign-not even a name. It was the restaurant of Orazio, the town baker. Our host told us it was one of the last truly authentic Tuscan dining experiences, where we would find a mix of the people in the village having lunch.We finally found the door after passing it more than once. Inside, down a little hall, up a couple of steps and we walked into what could have been the dining room of a modest home.
We had been told we would be greeted by a very stern look--and we were, but it turned into a beautiful smile. This was the daughter of Orazio. She brought water and wine and asked if we wanted pomodoro or bolognese. That was it--our only choice of the meal.
I could see into the kitchen. She began to peel potatoes and pulled out different meats from the local butcher. The meal went on for three courses when Orazio came in--90 year old Orazio--the baker of the village, dressed in his white baking coat. He reached into the bottom of a sideboard and pulled out an unlabeled bottle of Vin Santo , a very sweet dessert wine, and brought it to the table with a plate of cantuccini he had just baked. They were small biscotti to dip into the vin santo. For other diners a basket of fresh peaches was passed.
The meal couldn't have been fresher or more local, and I think you can imagine the flavor. Everyone had an air of contentment--happiness with their life. As the diners finished their meals they stepped into the kitchen to pay. No check, no cash register, just money on the counter and a grazie and ciao to the cook.
They were all 'living well'! In that moment they were contented with their lives, and so was I. There is a lesson to be learned. 

Pasta Pomodoro
Pasta Pomodoro

Extra virgin olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan (about 1/4 cup)
1sweet onion chopped
3 garlic cloves minced
6-8 medium tomatoes peeled and chopped
1 tablespoons fresh parsley chopped
1teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
Pinch of red pepper flakes
8 large basil leaves ( or similar quantity) rolled together and cut into tiny strips
12 ounces of pasta, your choice, cooked according to package
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Extra olive oil

Place skillet over medium heat and add olive. When oil is heated add onion and cook stirring occasionally until onions become translucent. Add garlic and cook another minute before adding tomatoes, parsley, salt, pepper, sugar and red pepper flakes. Cook slowly for about 20 minutes until tomatoes lose their shape and sauce thickens.
Drain cooked pasta and add sauce and basil. Serve with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil. 

Recipes and Tales from Chianti--Panzano

Dario Cecchini is the famous butcher at Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti.  Here he is preparing porchetta which will later be served in his restaurant upstairs, along with delicious pork very similar to pulled pork and Beefsteak Fiorentina tartar.

And what meal would be complete without your very own Grappa?

We had several destinations in mind for day trips while in Chianti. One was to Panzano, only 11 km away from home base, to visit Dario, the Rockstar Butcher.  Even with stories on the Internet I was not prepared for the experience.  Dario Cecchini who is the butcher of Panzano now has three restaurants in his small village and has been visited by culinary celebrities and written about in many food magazines.  The butcher shop becomes a stage with frenzied patrons when Dario takes up his knife.  The day we were there he prepared two porchettas for roasting to the blasts of AC/DC.  By the end the wine was flowing and the people who filled the tiny butcher shop were cheering. It was amazing! I bought from the shop fresh tuna that he had preserved and sealed. And that night we prepared a very simple pasta dish using the tuna. (I know, tuna from a butcher shop, but it was one of his unique specialties.)
Several days later we returned to Panzano to eat in one of his restaurants and sample the delicious pork and beef dishes, another experience I will never forget.  We ate with a long table of guests, including many locals. The sample platter included Tuscan beef tartar, cubes of something that tasted like a fancy meatloaf, pulled pork and porchetta, all delicious.
Life is good in the Chianti region of Tuscany!
Easy Summer Pasta Dish with Tuna

Extra virgin olive oil
2 large red onions thinly sliced
4 medium tomatoes diced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 can chickpeas, drained
1/3 cup chopped olives 
1 lb. good canned tuna drained
2 or 3 handfuls of fresh arugula
Salt to taste
Freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
12 oz pasta, your choice, prepared according to pkg directions

Add about 1/4 cup olive oil to large skillet over medium/low heat. Add onions and cook until caramelized. Next add the tomatoes, rosemary, pepper flakes, red wine vinegar, and chickpeas. Taste and add salt if needed. Cook until tomatoes lose their shape. Add tuna being careful not to breakup too much and finally the arugula.  Immediately toss with pasta and serve with grated cheese.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Our Chianti Holiday

This is Muricciaglia, our home away from home between Castellina and Radda in Chianti.  The picture was taken by hiking down through the olive trees and grapevines to the bottom of the property into the surrounding forest.  Road access to the property is from above.  The largest building is the beautiful home of our hosts.  An arch inside dates the home.

This is Fienile, the building at the top of the photo of the overall property.  It was our temporary home, and originally, the hay barn.

This is the view from the backside of Fienile.  Many morning coffees and afternoon wines were enjoyed from here!

One of the beautiful views from the main house.

We have returned to our favorite vacation spot to reunite with old friends and enjoy the country life of Tuscany.  Some things are best remembered rather than revisited, but not Tuscany.  It is even better than I remembered.
I feel so in touch with the current movement to eat healthier--fresh, local, even organic when possible. Now I remember, in Tuscany there is no other way.  The cooking of Tuscany is not complicated, but it does require time and effort.  Everyone grows what they can, whether it's a vineyard or a window box of herbs.
In the small hill towns of the Chianti region there are usually fresh markets once a week if the town is large enough.  Otherwise, it could be only once or twice a month.  There is a small Co-op grocery in most villages where you can buy the necessities.  The people here have used the locally available food for generations.  In their minds there is no other way. When the season is over, you wait for next year.  I wanted fava beans. Too late, I am told. They are already too old and tough to be good.  Oh well, next time we must come earlier in the season!
(I'll be adding more pictures and recipes soon!)