Food, Glorious Food!
Okay, I realize that not everyone is as food obsessed as I am, but I love to cook (and eat) and it is such a big part of the culture in Italy that we wanted to write about it.
The very first delicious treat we encountered on that first night in Florence was store after store selling gelato and fresh waffles with Nutella, which is a chocolate hazelnut spread! Wow! The number of gelato flavors offered is vast and amazing! Thank goodness for all of the walking to burn off the calories!!
That first night, we also tried our first bowl or Ribolitta (which means re-boiled) or bread soup. As the people that I work with can attest, I love soup. I bring homemade soup for lunch almost every day and I’m always looking for new soup recipes/discoveries. We absolutely loved the version of Riboletta served at Giglio Rossi. We later found that there are as many versions of this soup in Florence and Tuscany as there are flavors of gelato! Most contain white beans, cabbage, carrots, chicken broth and stale bread. Some is very thick and others have a thinner base. The story behind the soup is that long ago, the people in Tuscany who did not have a lot of money or food ate this pretty much as their daily meal. The homemade bread in Tuscany is a crusty, dense loaf that usually does not contain salt. The absence of salt (which acts as a preservative) attributes to the bread getting very hard and stale by the end of the day. The Tuscan people could not afford to waste anything, so they would make soup using the remnants of whatever meal they had the day before. On the rare days that they would have meat, they would use the drippings in their soup as well as vegetables from their gardens. The stale bread would be broken up and added to the soup at the end of its cooking time for a wonderful thickness and to make it more filling. Here is a link to the recipe for Ina Garten’s version of Riboletta.
Another version of bread soup that has a tomato base and basil is called Pappa col Pomodoro. This was a favorite of mine, but Vince favored the Ribollita. Here is a link to one of the many recipes for this.
One of the other Florence specialties is the Florentine Steak. This is an aged to perfection T-bone simply grilled and served very rare. It is usually priced by the gram. Vince had to have this and our steak was delicious, but a bit too rare for my taste. It was perfect for Vince. I loved the fact that most of the people that I observed with the steak, picked up the bones and gnawed off any last remnants of the tender beef. How can you not love a culture of people that is that serious about enjoying their food! A traditional accompaniment for this dish is cannellini beans sautéed in olive oil, garlic and rosemary or thyme.
There were two things that we noticed a lack of in Italy as opposed to what we are used to in the US. The first is free drinking water. As someone who drinks a lot of water throughout the day, I noticed that you had to pay for water at every restaurant we went to. You can buy it with or without “gas”, meaning sparkling or plain water. The tap water is not very tasty and you will never automatically get a glass of water when you sit down at a restaurant. The other was particularly startling to me, being from Seattle. No Starbucks!! Rarely do you see people walking around with their coffee in a to-go cup. This is mostly because people drink small shots of espresso right when they are served or linger over a cappuccino while finishing a meal. Italy is not nearly the “eat on the run” culture that we are in America. I came across one shop that had a sign in the window saying that they had “American” coffee in cups to go.
Fulvio from our cooking class had lots to say about “American” coffee! He said, “Here you have coffee! In America they have brown water and call it an Americano! Unforgivable!! “
How do you make it?
Our cooking class at Il Vicario was truly the highlight of our trip for both Vince and me. We so enjoyed the company of Fulvio, Katia and the two other people taking the class. I learned so much! I love to cook and have been told that I’m not too bad at it. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood and spent many hours watching my next door neighbor, who was from Italy, cook and have made a number of her Italian dishes as an adult, but I had to laugh every time Katia asked me how I made something at home. Almost every time I told her, she’d say, “Oh, never do that!” I found out that my neighbors were most likely from Northern Italy and in Tuscany; many of the same dishes are made very differently. When I told her about the kind of sauce I usually make for pasta, which I learned from my neighbor Mrs. Ruggeri, she immediately said that they must be from Northern Italy. Mrs. Ruggeri never called it pasta with meat sauce. She called it macaroni and gravy. Katia looked stumped at that, so this must have been something they picked up in America. It seemed that most of my Italian neighbors in upstate New York called it that. The meat sauce and meatballs would simmer on the stove all day long, while in Tuscany, the sauce is put together very quickly, with a few simple ingredients. Here are some other tips I learned:
- I learned that you should never put both onion and garlic in a dish…one or the other. In Tuscan cooking they do not like to have lots of complicated ingredients in their dishes. They want to be able to taste each element of the dish.
- Never use a garlic press, always hand chop your garlic as a press wastes too much of the juice from the garlic. With chopped, the pieces of garlic release the juice into your dish.
- Ingredients should be layered for each flavor to come out, so ingredients should be put into a dish in stages.
- Olive oil should never be heated up prior to putting onions or other ingredients in to sauté. The exception to that is meat, which should not be put into the pan until the oil is very hot.
- You should never put olive oil into the water for boiling pasta, but add lots of salt
- Pasta should never be rinsed after cooking and you should never serve the sauce on top of the plate of pasta…the pasta should immediately be mixed in with the sauce and served that way.
- You should never use an inferior wine for cooking…if it tastes bad to drink; it’s not good enough to put in a dish.
- When making Tiramisu, you should add the cocoa right before serving and the dish does not need to contain liquor. The consensus from both the US and UK students is that we’re ignoring that bit of advice. I make Tiramisu quite often and I use Kahlua in it. I know that my friends would be very disappointed if there was no liquor in the recipe!
- Adjust your dishes and recipes to use what is in season and local.
- NEVER waste food! Use everything that you have on hand for the day’s recipes.
While I don’t feel right posting the recipes of what we made during our cooking class as they are the property of Fulvio and Katia, here are the dishes we made:
- Bruschetta, which is toasted bread topped with various things. We made one with Mascarpone cheese and Italian sausage and one with pancetta (Italian version of bacon) and another kind of cheese that I can’t remember the name of.
- Panzanella, which is a delicious salad that also has stale bread in it (like the soup), along with cucumber, onion and tomato. Here is a link to a recipe that is not the same recipe we used, but very close. http://www.tuscanrecipes.com/recipes/panzanella.html
- Two kinds of homemade pasta, one with egg and one without.
- Two kinds of pasta sauce, one with tomatoes, onion, pancetta and black olives and the other with Italian sausage, saffron and parmesan cheese.
- Chicken cutlets with sliced garlic, sage and prosciutto layered onto them, dredged in flour and then sautéed and finished with an Italian wine that I cannot remember the name of, but while it was not too expensive there, it is very expensive in the US. I substituted Marsala wine for it and while still good, it completely changed the flavor.
This class was so much fun, so informative and getting to spend time with the instructors and other students was a wonderful experience. The meal that we all prepared was absolutely amazing, too. If you ever have the chance to take a class while traveling in Italy (or wherever you travel) we highly recommend it. Hey…maybe Scottevest should design an apron!!