#cuisine

Baby it’s cold outside!

Tis’ the season to get cozy around a warm fireplace and dive into a delicious hot bowl of soup, while watching the bright yellow leaves being blown by the wind outside. It’s everything you need, to warm up a chilly winter day!

Ok, I know it might sound dramatic a little bit, but seriously, with the cold windy and rainy days we’ve had lately, the temperatures went down even here, in the ever-sunny Tuscany. We’ve even had a couple of snowflakes, mostly over the hilly areas. But hey, it’s December! So while Nature is making its way into the long winter slumber, the rhythms slow down and we can enjoy our home and family gatherings a little bit more. It’s one of our favorite things about the cold season.

fireplace-wood-bread-soup

In older times, a chilly winter day in the countryside was often warmed up by a pot of hot vegetables soup, the ‘ribollita’ or ‘minestra di pane’ (bread soup). A typical peasant dish made from scratch, that deepens its roots in the Middle-ages. Farmers used to prepare a big batch of this hearty vegetable and beans soup, usually on a Friday so they would eat it over the weekend. That’s because not only did they had to make it last for as much as possible to feed the entire family, but it turned out to be even better the day after. So initially they ate the soup with a lot of white Tuscan bread chunks dipped into it (‘minestra di pane’- bread soup) and then re-boiled the leftovers the day after (‘la ribollita’ – the re-boiled bread soup).

bread-soup-dish-ribollita

To this day, the Tuscan bread soup still remains the best way to keep us warm during the cold season and load up on our daily helping of vegetables, because of its perfect combination of carbs, legumes and veggies.

The main ingredient, the one that and gives the whole character to this dish, is the Tuscan kale (or lancinato kale). It’s mandatory for an authentic taste, because you can’t name it ‘ribollita’ if you don’t have the black-leaf kale. We call it ‘cavolo nero’ (translated black cabbage), and it’s a leafy, dark-green type of cabbage, packed with more than 50% of the RDA of vitamins A, C and K, and rich in antioxidants and other essential nutrients, not to mention it’s very low in calories. You can find this super ingredient in every Tuscan farmer’s orchard, from November through spring and it’s best eaten freshly picked, during the cold season.

tuscan-black-leaf-kale

So let’s cut to the chase and talk about the best recipe of ‘Tuscan bread soup’ you’ll ever have. This has been passed down through generations and it’s part of our family’s comfort food cookbook. It’s so simple you can’t go wrong, and so delicious that it’ll fill your house with that special dinner smell that’ll make your tummy rumble.

You’ll need:

a generous amount of extravirgin olive oil freshly cold-pressed

300gr of dry borlotti beans

400gr of Tuscan kale

3 carrots

3 potatoes

1 red onion

1 celery stalk

1 twig of thyme

2 cloves of garlic

2 thick slices of Tuscan prosciutto pork ham

bread-soup-recipe-ingredients-ribollita

In a large pot over a livery fire, pour a generous amount of extravirgin olive oil and add the prosciutto, the carrots, the celery and the onion well chopped. Cover with its lid and stir-fry for about 5 minutes. Add in the rest of the vegetables cut into pieces, the thyme and the beans. Make sure you keep the pieces quite small, the soup should be thick but not chunky. Now pour in at least 1 liter of hot water and 3 four-fingered pinches of salt. Lower the flame, and cook for at least 90 minutes, covered with a lid. Serve this soup piping hot, with a grinding of fresh pepper and chunks of Tuscan white bread dipped into it, stingily rubbed with garlic and generously sprinkled with Tuscan extravirgin ‘olio novo’.

bread-soup-cold-ribollita-dish

A night in the fridge will encourage all the flavors to blend together beautifully and all you’ll need to do the next day is bring the whole pot to a boil again, and enjoy a hot bowl of wonderful ribollita.

The season is just right to taste this Tuscan basic recipe, so why not give it a try and amaze your family with a new delicious and super-nutrient dish that will delight your senses and warmup your winter holidays!

Oh, and remember: when in Italy during the summer months, please don’t ask us for a pot of ribollita, it’s definitely off season! Have a holly jolly winter everyone!

P – for Pasta: fresh, handmade & delicious

Raise your hand if you’re a homemade pasta lover!

One thing I have noticed throughout the years, is that usually making fresh pasta is the favorite part of my cooking classes for our guests. I mean, let’s admit it, everybody loves the italian-style fresh pasta, and if you’re visiting Italy, pasta is one of the reasons why you’re here! So delicious, savory and somewhat chewy, fresh pasta can be complemented with almost everything from cheese to vegetables, meat, fish and even chocolate! Plus, if cleverly accompanied by the right wine, it makes the perfect Italian meal.

It’s been decreed one of the healthiest and most nourishing dishes worldwide, as part of the mediterranean diet, so why be limited to just eating pasta at the restaurant every once in a while, when you can make it from scratch at home, whenever you wish.

Now, I know from my experience that cooking a dish of fresh pasta could sound rather intimidating for those who’ve never tried before, or have only seen it on TV. But I have some good news for you all, and according to my experience again, I can guarantee you that even a ten-year-old can do this, and you’ll never go back to buying fresh pasta again.

fresh-pasta-handmade-ravioli

There’s something magic about making pasta at home the old way, that no one has yet managed to figure out. I myself have been doing it for years now, and every time I still have fun just like the old days.

It could be the marvel of feeling the dough coming together between your hands, or maybe the relaxing process of kneading and shaping, but as soon as you get your hands on and start doing it, you’d never want to stop. Then as you go, your fantasy gets lighten up and you begin experimenting all different kind of shapes and fillings for your dough, and before you know it, you find yourself inviting your friends over for a meal and getting all the compliments and “aaaw”s and “oooh”s for your fresh Italian-style dishes.

It can get really fun and become a social activity to share with your kids too; and don’t worry about the flour dust, streaked aprons and flaky bits of dough crusted on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t have to be a demanding work, so don’t loose heart if you don’t get it the first time. Just go for it and then keep trying. All you need is “an open heart and a positive attitude”, as my son Luca always says to our guests.

pasta-fresh-handmade-flour

If you google fresh pasta you’ll find loads of recipes and every one will be different from the others, because every family has its own tradition when it comes to making pasta. So my intention isn’t just to give you one more fresh pasta recipe, but rather some helpful tips that I always share during my cooking classes.

My guests always appreciate the little tricks and tips I reveal and become more confident as they go, letting loose and having so much fun, which in the end, is the main purpose of this experience, don’t you agree?

So what’s really important is to have the right type of flour. My fail-proof recipe is based on the high-protein, finely milled “00” wheat flour, but if you have issues finding it, you can just go with the plain flour, or mix 2 parts of it with 1 part of semolina flour: this will add that slightly rougher texture that’ll help seasonings stick better to your pasta.

On a wooden or marble counter, start building a so-called “fountain” and break the eggs right in the middle, making sure they are well contained by the flour around them. Then add just a pinch of salt and a sprinkle of extravirgin olive oil. Use a fork to break the eggs and start mixing them reaaally slow, keeping everything inside the flour fountain, until everything is fully incorporated and you get a smooth uniform texture.

fresh-pasta-egg-flour

Now here comes the fun part! I know in modern times you may be used to getting things done quickly and with an extra help from your stand mixer, but kneading by hand is another story. It really makes you feel the dough coming together and it somehow connects you to the whole process. All you have to do is press and push with your wrist, then fold the dough over and again press and push. Just go ahead and knead it like this until it’s smooth and firm, it’ll take no more than 10-12 minutes.

kneading-fresh-pasta-handmade

Using hands gives you the chance to check when your pasta dough is ready – if you feel it’s still sticky, just dust the counter with more flour and keep kneading until firm and dry.

Another important step in making pasta, is to give your dough the necessary time to relax and loose elasticity; that’ll keep it from shrinking or pull back as you stretch it, making it easier for you to roll it flat and shape it. Let’s say about 10 minutes at room temperature, covered by a cotton cloth, should be enough. This’ll also give you the time to reorder the kitchen counter and prepare the pasta machine for shaping, or get the filling ready if you’re into making filled-pasta.

pasta-machine-handmade-fresh

Common forms of fresh pasta have long shapes, such as tagliatelle, fettuccine, spaghetti, linguine or our specialty Tuscan pici, flat shapes such as maltagliati, or sheets for lasagna, short shapes like orecchiette, cavatelli, farfalle, trofie and filled or stuffed shapes such as cannelloni or ravioli, cappelletti and tortellini.

Of course Italy has a very deep-rooted tradition for pasta dishes, and that is why every region has its own traditional pasta shapes and names, that can be totally different from the common ones you are used to. I always suggest to search for and taste the local and regional specialties while visiting any part of Italy, because you’ll never find the same dish cooked alike from one place to another.

pasta-shapes-long-short-flat

Cutting the pasta in the desired shape is also an important part of the process, as you have to pay attention to spread it as thinly as possible and always keep some flour handy, so you won’t get a sticky bundle instead of your tagliatelle nest… I always say to my guests, we want them to be fluffy, fluffy, fluffy, it makes them laugh a lot, but in the end is the one thing they remember the most. So to get that, you need to sprinkle some flour over the shaped pasta and then jiggle it with your hands.

pasta-fresh-handmade

When making filled pasta like ravioli, the most important trick is to press the edges well with your fingertips or a fork to seal the dough, so they won’t open while boiling. And of course, flour again to prevent them from sticking together when cooked.

If you’re not cooking pasta immediately, just let it dry on a baking sheet for a few minutes, sprinkled with flour, then fold it gently to form the nests. You can let it dry some more and then wrap it up and store in the fridge for no more than 2 days. However, I do advise you to taste it fresh, as you make it.

fresh-pasta-nests

Cooking pasta is another important step of the process, as you need to pay attention to the time: it will only take 5-7 minutes to cook fresh pasta, unlike the dried one, which needs considerably more boiling. Dip your shaped pasta into a pot of plentiful salted boiling water and add just a touch of olive oil, so the strands won’t stick together. For fresh filled pasta, always use a gentle flame and keep the water simmering instead of boiling, so your ravioli won’t break.

fresh-pasta-ravioli-cooking

One more thing that I always recommend, is to taste everything you cook; so to make sure it has reached the perfect cooking poin and has a good balance with the salt, just pick a piece of boiling pasta with a fork or some tongs, and give it a bite. Careful though, don’t get burned!

Needless to say that pasta is at its best when cooked “al dente”, so as soon as you feel it’s tender but still firm when bitten, just drain it. At this point, you should keep the sauce or chosen condiment on hand, because pasta needs to be seasoned and stir-fry immediately.

Now all you need is your family and friends gathered around the table and a good glass of wine to go with your wonderful fresh homemade pasta. Enjoy!

S – for Spring and Sprouts

How do we know its springtime here in Tuscany? Just saying “springtime is here” is dull and a little out-of-date, don’t you think?

almond-tree-flowers

Imagine yourself dozing in the warm sunshine, blessed by a breeze under a blooming almond tree, on the bright green grass carpet covering the hills of the outlying countryside of Certaldo; the small vibrant daisies, primroses and violets slowly popping out here and there, filling the air with their delighting scent, while birds’ and bees’ is the only buzz you can perceive around you. Can you picture yourself immersed into this fairy Tuscan spring scenery?

tree-spring-flowers-violets

Now, I guess that’s what it takes to describe the arrival of Spring when it comes to nature’s awakening here in Tuscany, but wait! Here at Giuseppina’s Cooking School, we have one more good green reason to say “Yay springtime!

It’s when the wild asparagus sprouts pop out. The delicious and tender weed that grows abundant in the Tuscan countryside, mostly in arid environments, on open fields that haven’t been farmed in a while, or wherever there’s a cluster of trees. Its unique taste has been accompanying our great Tuscan culinary tradition since ages, and its multitude of uses in the kitchen have been passed on through generations in our family.

wild-asparagus

However, don’t get tricked by the name: wild asparagus sprouts are nothing like their cultivated peers, the common asparagus you can easily find at the greengrocers’. In fact, unlike the thick and woody sprouts of the common asparagus, the wild one is almost as thin as a grass blade, with a slightly bitter and pungent taste. Grandma’ always said “where there’s one there are hundreds”, and truly it is so, as wild asparagus grows rampant in big thick clusters, that we usually call “asparagiaie”.

field-wild-asparagus

As you may already know, we are passionate about keeping our traditions alive, so this is the time of the year, when we’re very likely to gather on Sundays, put on some rubber boots and go hiking in the woods, in search of this nature’s delicacy. Sometimes we even have fun making up a competition and whoever fills up their basket first wins, leaving the looser to do the grunt work, like cleanse and cook the spoils for all of us once home. It’s a really fun way to spend some time with family or friends, and bring home freshly picked goods for a meal.

But what to do with a great amount of such an exquisiteness, you might be wondering; well, as much wild sprouts we might have gathered in our baskets, it’s hardly ever enough. We enjoy this bounty in many different ways, from eating them raw – freshly picked – or just seared, with a drizzle of olive oil, black pepper and salt, to dipping them into poached eggs; combine them with the classic pasta, and a generous sprinkle of Parmesan shavings or add them to a beaten egg or two, and with the right seasoning enjoy an exquisite Italian omelet with just a splash of fine balsamic vinegar.

wild-asparagus-pan-fried

We could say there are as many recipes to experiment, as the sprouts of an asparagus cluster. However, we kept the best for last, because there is one particular dish that has been in our family for decades, and keeps inspiring us: it’s the smooth, creamy risotto con gli asparagi – Giuseppina’s signature dish when it comes to wild asparagus – and the reason we go crazy about wild sprouts hunting every year! Believe me, once you’ve had a taste of this beautiful spring dish, you won’t ever get enough of it. It’s nothing like the same old risotto you’re used to, it’s just so scented and delicate, yet distinctive and savory. Giuseppina holds tight to her family tradition recipe of course, and you can only experience this live in her kitchen; but there’s one hint about it I’m going to share with you though: I know you may find this unusual, but she never adds wine to simmer her wild asparagus risotto! Curious isn’t it?!

C – for Carnevale

… and other ancient Tuscan traditions

Semel in anno licet insanire” (once a year, it is allowed to act like crazy) – our ancestors used to say on February, during the most bizarre and outgoing celebration of the year.

The Carnival season is a tradition that we are carrying on since medieval times, when jesters used to run through the village, encouraging people – who were then oppressed by the system and used to live in extreme poverty – to parody the values of the society they lived in, and the authority of the severe political and religious commandments, by inverting the roles and creating the Backwards World, where they could disobey the rules and become whatever they wanted for a day, wearing the “clothes” of the character they were joking on, living in redundancy and acting like fools in the cheapest and most rumorous possible way.

MedievalCarnival

This rebellion would help them prepare for the forthcoming Lent season – the austere 40 days of Lent during which they had to abstain from eating meat and follow other ascetic practices, in order to purify their bodies and souls before the Easter festivity. In fact, the word Carnival seems to have Latin origins, as “carne levare” or “carnelevarium” means “giving up on meat”, a practice apparently dated back to the Romans era.

In order to be able to carry on such a commitment of great sacrifice, the Middle Age people would celebrate the Carnival not only by joking and feasting around, but mostly by overindulging on substantial and greasy meals, pints of wine and the sweetest desserts.

In Tuscany we are very bound to our ancient traditions, and fortunately some of them are still an important part of our cultural heritage. When the Carnival festivity comes up, local bakeries fill up their counters with greedy sweet and fried holiday treats, together with the traditional Tuscan dessert, which to this day has kept its original Renaissance recipe. We are talking about the Berlingozzo (berlinˈgɔttso), a soft, moist and flavored donut cake, with one of the quickest and simplest recipes ever, just like our grandmothers used to do it!

This carnival dessert disguised as a breakfast donut, used to be served on Fat Thursday, which in Florence was the day known as Berligaccio. This funny word, was the name of a fifteen-century Tuscan mask, used in Florence during Fat Thursday, and represented by a mascot carried out in effigy through the city’s streets, among the loudest shouts, most colored dances and funny acting.

Berlingaccio Firenze

Just like “Carnevale”, it seems to have a Latin origin as well, from the word “berlengo” which means “table”; this takes us back to the feasting and overindulging tradition of the Medieval period.

We also have a verb descended from it, that you can easily find in most of Boccaccio’s tales, as a proof of the ancient origins of this Tuscan custom. It’s “berlingare” and it means to chatter, or to blather about things with no sense, right after having had a substantial meal and several pints of wine. Giovanni Boccaccio, Certaldo’s local and most famous Late Medieval novelist, poet and humanist, used to make great use of this verb in his works, mostly when talking about or describing a female character, as he would associate it to women’s being so gossipy about everything.

lasciamo stare l’alte e grandi millanterie ch’ella fa quando berlinga coll’altre femmine”() “Ma solamente per voglia di berlingare (…) di che ella è vaghissima, sì ben dir le pare” – Il Corbaccio (Laberinto d’Amore) di Giovanni Boccaccio

 “forget about her great bragging about (herself) she does when she chatters with other females (…) But only for the wish to chatter is she famous, even if she thinks she speaks out right” – Il Corbaccio (Laberinto d’Amore) by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Tuscan Berlingozzo

berlingozzo toscano

This year’s Fat Thursday is approaching, and after telling you all about this special time of the year here in Tuscany, we couldn’t just leave you there craving for a taste of some Tuscan Carnival treats. As we’re preparing for our traditional feast – next 23th of February – here in Certaldo, we want to share with you the joy of preparing and having a byte of this typical Tuscan dessert. So let’s not “chatter” any further and come to our nice and cheerful donut.

It’s all about a couple of fresh egg yolks, beaten with some sugar until pale, mixed with lemon zest and a tablespoon or two of freshly squeezed lemon juice, some extravirgin olive oil and a nice cup of Vin Santo – now this is the secret right here!

berlingozzo toscano

We like our Carnival desserts to be sweet and flavored, but our ancestors didn’t have any artificial flavors at the time; they simply used the home-made products they had, and that’s just what makes it so special. So following the ancient customs, we add in our Tuscan traditional home-made directly-from-our-vineyard Vin Santo: a type of italian dessert wine, usually made from white grape varieties such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, hanged and left to dry out on racks, in a warm and well ventilated area. If you ever come to Certaldo or anywhere near in Tuscany, you can have a taste of this marvelous sweet wine, together with the Cantuccini – our traditional home-made almond cookies, served as a dessert, at the end of your meal. It’s one of our most important landmarks around here, don’t miss it!

berlingozzo toscano

At this point, we just pour in the flour, mixed to some potato starch and a pinch of salt, together with a bit of baking powder. Then gently incorporate the beaten egg whites and pour the dough into a donut shaped baking tin, and into the oven, to bake for about a half an hour… Just enough time for us to sit and sip a nice glass of Vin Santo, while preparing our mask and costumes for the feast. Cheers!

Ingredients: berlingozzo toscano

for a 20 cm. diameter baking tin

2 fresh eggs

75gr. Sugar

1 lemon

50 ml. Vin Santo

50 ml. Extra virgin olive oil

150 gr. Flour

25 gr. Potato starch

6gr. Baking powder

1 pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 170 C degrees

Bake for about 25-30 minutes

Enjoy!

V – for vineyards

 “While Nature Awakens” – behind the scenes

Every January is a new beginning here at Giuseppina’s Cooking School; as the nature awakens, we are preparing for a whole new year, load of great new recipes, delicious home-made preserves and fine tasty Chianti wine directly from our vineyards.

colline all'alba

There’s a great buzz in the air around here, and as Giuseppina is preparing to welcome and delight her guests this season, with new kitchen tricks and tips about her Tuscan recipes, we’re about to kick off with preparing our vineyards for a new great harvest year of fresh, marvelous wine that will go beautifully with our local cuisine dishes.

And because Nature can’t wait, the moment is right for us to cuddle our vines so that they will give us back their best rewards. It is a moment of great devotion, and attention given to the process of the vine’s new vegetative growth, the same as we would give to one of our home-made pasta dishes or bread. We start off by “kneading” the soil just enough so it can breathe out after a long cold winter; next, we add in the “spices” (winter fertilizer) that will help the vine’s heart grow its best harvest, giving the wine just that perfect mix of tastes that makes Chianti wine world wide famous and appreciated. At this point we are almost done, and we start trimming the vine, restoring it to keep the growth shape. It’s probably the most important part of the work, because keeping a clean shaped vine means a richer harvest; as an old saying states, once a vine said to its owner:
Chianti vineyards

fammi povera e ti farò ricco

(Keep me poor -of unwanted trims- and I will make you rich -of the best grapes-).

The vine is abundance, is love for the land in the shape of a grape and it takes a great passion and perseverance to produce the best wine possible, by making the most of the amazing properties that the land of Chianti has to give.

The wine-harvest and tasting is just the final act of a year-long process of hard work and caring, that we are going to share with our guests, making them go beyond the scenes, further than the popular tourist attractions, the simple wine tasting or just a local visit to the vineyards.

We stay out in front and give them the real deal about growing the Chianti vines, together with making them a real part of the story.

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