#recipe

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!

Certaldo’s Sweet Red Onions

In the XIV century, in one of his most famous novels (VI, 10) from The Decameron, Boccaccio wrote:

Certaldo, as you may have heard, is a castle of Val d’ Elsa situated in our county, which, however small it may be, was once inhabited by noblemen and men of substance; and thither, for that he found good pasture there, one of the friars of the order of St. Anthony was long used to resort once a year, to get in the alms bestowed by simpletons upon him and his brethren. His name was Fra Cipolla (Friar Onion) and he was gladly seen there, doubtless due as much to his name, as to other reasons, for thus it was known that the soil of those fields produces onions, that are famous throughout all Tuscany.”

red-onion-certaldo

This is just a small evidence that Certaldo’s red onion, has been known from way back, even before the middle-ages. We’re talking about a slow food presidium and product of excellence of our territory, which you can find in two varieties: the Stantina, a round purplish onion, with succulent flesh that’s best eaten during the summer months, and the Vernina, the bright red and sour tasting type, harvested from the end of August all through the winter season, and symbol of Certaldo.

red-onions-certaldo

But if we look even further back, way prior to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Friar Onion, the red onion had already been adopted as a symbol of the hardworking strong spirit and sweet temper of Certaldo’s inhabitants, and thus represented on the town’s pennant. So it dominated the white side of the two-tier shield, with the motto: “By nature, I am strong yet sweet and everyone here likes me, those who work and those who sit”. However, in 1633, the Priors running the burgh, decided that it was an unworthy crest for their town, and replaced it with a rampant lion. Later, in the XIX century, the city council would have re-established the original crest that you may see today on our town’s flag.

Ancient mural of Certaldo’s first crest, representing the red onion on a two-tier shield – Source: Wikimedia.org

Anyway, don’t expect to come across onions at every corner, when visiting Certaldo. Almost every farmer here grows its own, for their families’ consumption or local trading. So if you’re curious and looking for these sweet red gems, your only chances are the weekly local markets on Wednesday and Saturday, or the annual Sagra della Cipolla (The Onions’ Festival).

Since we are very proud of this marvelous product of our area, we keep the tradition alive, by celebrating it every year, with a week-long festival. It’s being held in the old burgh of Certaldo Alto, every year around the end of August, when our farmers harvest the Vernina type. Every evening, we gather together to taste the exquisite dishes prepared with the red onion, following ancient recipes that have been passed down through generations. There are people that live here, sitting together with others that came from different counties, or even tourists; banqueting, enjoying the good food and lots of Chianti wine from the local producers, accompanied by theater plays or themed performances.

red-onion-dish-food

Keeping the old recipes and traditions alive is the main purpose of this event, but we also like to look forward to the future generations. So on the second-last day, the festival hosts a food competition between the town’s quarters, which anticipates The Calambur: Certaldo’s medieval Palio, due to take place a few weeks later. During the food competition, every quarter has to come up with a new and creative dish, made with red onions. A committee made by people of the public gets to taste and decide on the best recipe. This year’s competition is not going to be a simple one, as they have to create a desert! I bet you’ve never thought about onions for desert, but let me tell you that you might just be surprised by the genius recipes and mixture of flavors that these people have come up with, over the years.

They’ve gone from making the ordinary soup, pasta and meat dishes with the red onions, to pickling, canning, making jam and jelly, adding them to chutneys, sweet and salted pies and even using them as homeopatic medicine, following ancient remedies left down by our grand-grand-parents. Practically, if you love red onions like we do, you can do just about anything with them!

At the Cooking School we make our most famous -handmade- Certaldo’s Red Onion Jam. It’s a family tradition, that has been taken forward for generations. It has a bitter-sweet taste and pairs perfectly with local pecorino cheese and salami, or Giuseppina’s special pork tenderloin in old-style dry marinade… to die for!

So if all this onion talking has captured your curiosity and you might want to try some onions for desert, here’s a special treat for you. It has been created and shared by a friend of mine and I’m telling you: if you’re into onions, you have to try this one!

caramelized-red-onions-sweet-pie-walnuts

red-onions-wine-caramelized

Did we get you mouth-watering yet? Then here’s the recipe for you!

Red wine caramelized onions & dark chocolate tartlets

Finely chop 2-3 sweet red onions from Certaldo and add them in a pan with a small piece of unsaltened butter and 2-3 generous tablespoons of muscovado brown sugar. Put it over low heat until softened but not brown. Add a glass of Chianti red wine, a pinch of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, a few cardamom seeds and some pink pepper granules (or any other spices you prefer). Allow the liquid to cook off and the alcohol to evaporate, and then add in a chunk of dark chocolate. Set aside and prepare your favorite recipe of shortcrust pastry. The one you see, had a touch of rustic taste, due to replacing half of the plain white flour with buckwheat flour. Blind-bake your pastry in a preheated oven, let it cool before removing it from the pan and fill each pastry case with the caramelized onions. Add some chopped walnuts and top with goat cheese creme fraiche or vanilla ice-cream. Enjoy!

Have you tried this? Post your photos in the comments below and let us know how it was!

B – for Baccelli & Pecorino

With all this nice and warm springtime weather, people start roaming the countryside basking in the sun, away from the traffic rush, enjoying nature’s bountiful colors and sounds. This reminds me of the time when, as a child, we used to dive into the rich fields of favas, for a bellyful of these pods, risking the wrath of the farmers, for having destroyed their harvest. That’s right, because the fava beans pods were a very precious nourishment for the farmers’ cattle, but if picked up at the beginning of the season, they would make a greedy treat for us too.

baccelli-favas-beans-pods-plant

I’m talking about an ancient member of the pea family, called “vicia faba” – fava beans, or broath beans or better yet “baccelli” as we use to call them here in Tuscany. Of pale green color with a slightly nutty flavor, these pods grow from late March all throughout the beginning of May.

It’s been proven they have been farmed since very ancient times, and have had an important part in the culture of many nations around the world. They were very appreciated in ancient Rome, so much that one of the most important noble family in the history of Romans, took their surname “i Fabi” from these pulses (vicia faba). Tracks have been found even in Troy and Crete and some say in ancient Greece, eating them was even prohibited, as the black stains on the pods were associated to death. However, their important nutritional value has been rediscovered more recently, as over time favas went from being appreciated by the wealthy class to being used for commoners and cattle feeding. Many legends have been around throughout the years on these pulses, but the most curious one that is still circulating nowadays around here, is the legend of the “leap pod”; it’s about the strange growth that favas have on a leap year. Farmers believe that on a leap year’s harvest, the fava beans inside the pods grow backwards; meaning that if you shell one, you’ll find the beans attached downward, as opposed to the stem. It’s truly just a funny legend, but you know what they say, passing on myths and legends keeps one nation’s story alive, and it can even get fun spending a lazy Sunday afternoon shelling pods to see who finds the backwards beans, on a leap year!

baccelli-fava-broath-beans

Coming back to these days, the tender fresh picked favas are a great treat for a springtime pic nic. In Tuscany we love them raw with just a pinch of salt and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, combined to its inseparable companion, the Tuscan Pecorino DOP cheese; it makes the perfect snack to go with a nice glass of Chianti wine.

fava-beans-olive-oil-salad

We like them so much, we even have a one-day festival called “la baccellata” that is held in Certaldo Alto, on the 25th of April this year, and helps the local church of San Tommaso e Prospero raise funds for another important occurrence, the procession of Beata Giulia in September. During the “baccellata” day, people gather to enjoy these tasty fresh pods together with Pecorino Marzolino cheese, a Tuscan type of fresh Pecorino, that hasn’t been seasoned and blends together beautifully with favas, in a unique delight for all senses.

fava-beans-baccelli-salad-salt-pepper

Another interesting way to taste your favas raw, is to make an easy and fast but very nutritious pesto out of them. All you need is 250gr of fresh shelled fava beans, a clove of garlic, 80gr of Pecorino cheese, a pinch of salt and some fresh basil leaves if you like it. Just blend everything together and then add a splash of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, to get a creamy texture. You can enjoy this delight on a piece of toasted bread (crostini), as a side dish for meat or fish or make a generous portion of pasta: just boil it until “al dente” and stir-fry everything for one minute, adding just a drop of the boiling water if necessary. You can get creative and add some pine nuts or almonds to the mixture if you like, or just add them on top of the dish, slightly toasted.

pesto-baccelii-favas-pecorino

So our last tip is: when buying favas at the marketplace, if you’re in Tuscany ask for baccelli and if you wish to taste them raw, search for tender, firm pods with a velvety fuzz and small thin skinned beans inside, otherwise you’ll have to peel the skin off and to do so you’ll have to boil them for a few minutes.

fava-beans-salad-rustic

I guess all that’s left to say is buona baccellata (happy favas day)!!!

Enjoy!