Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Study Of Toscana

Studying about Tuscany is actually one of the things I'd been looking forward to the most since we began our history classes. I've never visited Tuscany and yet I've felt this draw to it for a long time. When Erica and I lived together, we even decorated our apartment in a Tuscan style and we both felt like it was the place we just needed to see at some point in our lives. This is actually the perfect time to mention that I found out my stage placement and guess what...? It's TUSCANY! Yep, I was pretty darn excited about that. I'll be living and working in the town of Lucca, ironically where Cesare is from, and I'm thrilled. The Tuscan cuisine is almost like Italian comfort food and I love every bit of it. It's rich in cheese and meat and the style is slower with a lot of love put into it. I sincerely look forward to being immersed in the culture and learning so much more about it.

An extremely interesting fact about Tuscany is that ages ago, salt was very valuable to the point that it caused fights between Florence and Siena. Over time, it was determined that salt would be saved for things like meat instead of common, everyday preparations like bread. That said, bread in Tuscany is still baked without salt and lemme tell you, it's just not good. The lucky thing is you can use it to sop up delicious sauces or even soups and it's fine but it's just so odd to eat unsalted bread... 

Speaking of soup, Tuscany is known for several of my very favorite Italian soups. Two in particular are ribollita and acquacotta. Ribollita, which actually means re-boiled, is a cabbage based soup with beans, parsley and pancetta. Acquacotta is basically a soup using all the leftover veggies you may have or whatever looks good in the garden that day. Both preparations are super easy but so delicious. The other thing native to Tuscany that I totally love is panzanella, or bread salad. I've made this a few times now and it's just so fresh and delicious with the cucumber, tomato, onion and basil. You add cubes of bread to it and toss everything with simple olive oil and red wine vinegar, that's it! The fun thing is you can make all kinds of panzanella, even in winter with squash and's a neat dish to play around with.

Meat in Tuscany is very important. The area is known for their Chianina beef which is the amazing breed of cow used in the region. There's a group of five cow breeds that are the best throughout Italy but Chianina are at the top. They're beautiful, all-white cows and their meat is tender, a touch sweet and delicious. You might know of the steak preparation 'fiorentina' which is a very large, particular type of steak. Back in the old days, people used to take the steak and leave it sitting out for a day before cooking it. I'm not even sure of the reason but ew. It's like telling me I can eat chicken not cooked through in Italy because it doesn't have salmonella. True, it doesn't, but there's no way I can get my mind around it so no thanks. Pork is not as popular but the cinta senese is the only native pig breed. It's specific because the meat is evenly marbled which is not typical of pork across the board. 

In terms of cheese, pecorino senese is the star in Tuscany. It's made from the milk of a single controlled flock of sheep that's been eating aromatic grass of the Siennese clay soil. It's then made by hand and the rind is treated with olive oil and tomato, then aged a minimum of one year. It's got an unbelievable flavor, very rich and much creamier than regular pecorino. It's not my favorite but it's certainly delicious. 

We all know I'm not a huge dessert person but I actually really love certain Italian desserts, the ones that aren't very sugary. A lot of pastry type desserts are made here with really balanced doughs that make them not too sweet. I'm a big biscotti person both because they aren't overly sweet and they're super crunchy. I'm such a sucker for anything crunchy so I can't stop myself if a place of biscotti are in front of me. In Tuscany, they make something called cantucci which typically have fennel seed and are soaked in vin santo, a particularly sweet and very strong after dinner wine. I absolutely love cantucci and we got to make them in class, too! It's dangerous to have them around me, just ask Trisha. We bought a box from the store and I think I might have eaten ten thousand in one sitting. It's her fault, though. She opened them before we even got on our bikes to head home. 

In terms of our chef demo for Tuscany, I thought I couldn't love a gal more than I did Antonia Klugmann but Chef Valeria Piccini might have edged her out of the running. Chef Valeria, from the famed restaurant Caino, was one of the most exciting and motivating chefs we've seen. She's brilliant, super tough and she makes incredible food. One of the most amazing parts of seeing all these guest chefs is that we are getting a better understanding of excess in the kitchen. Most of these chefs simply have the gift of knowing how much or little a dish needs to make it perfect. They know that one more pinch of salt will be excessive or one more dash of sugar will ruin the balance. It's really incredible to me and it's the thing I'd most love to master in the kitchen. 

My favorite dish of the day was her pecorino and pear ravioli. I felt like this was the most awesome example of balance because I could taste every single element in the filling, pasta itself and the sauce. Plus, the slight sprinkling of poppy seeds on top completely made the dish:
It may look simple but the intricacy of flavors was far from it. 

Another example of balance was in her foie grois mousse with strawberry. Now, I'm not a huge foie grois fan and it's tough for me to stomach a lot of times (except when it tops a steak like at Del Frisco, mmm) but holy moly, not this time. She made a mousse with the foie grois out of some egg white and spices and then topped it with a strawberry jelly for her squab dish:
She talked to us about the importance of balance here specifically so she actually made us each a bite of just the mousse and strawberry:
The tart, sweet strawberry completely cut the thick fattiness of the foie grois and made it delicious, especially for someone like me who doesn't care for it. This, my friends, is what makes you a terrific chef, in my opinion.

I could talk for hours about her but this post would be pages longer than it already is! I'll just share a few more photos because I think they speak for themselves:

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