Each day would start with a nice, light breakfast of yogurt, cereal, fresh fruit and a dessert from last night's dinner. We'd take about an hour, eating luxuriously, taking our time to wake up and by the end exchanging fun stories and always some laughs.
Then, we'd spend the day with our host Paolo, who each day took us on unique arts & culture excursions to various regions in Tuscany. Whether a visit to the beautiful Volterra, the home of the ancient Etruscans or a quaint little artists town called Certaldo, there was always something interesting and cultural to absorb. We quickly came to see that Paolo, a very well connected individual, always uncovered a neat little find or a piece of "candy" as he'd call it. And we were eager to eat em up, one piece at a time.
Our excursions with Paolo were followed by a nice family lunch after which we had some time to relax. Shortly after that, it was cooking time. Our time to spend in the kitchen with Pat, a free-spirited Italian food extraordinaire who taught us more tips, recipes and delicious "candies" than we could swallow.
A set menu was presented to us each day, consisting of about 3 (sometimes 4 dishes). Pat would start by talking a little bit about each dish and where it came from, often revealing to us the nuances of each Italian region that we gained inspiration from. During our first cooking lesson, we took a page out of Piedmont.
Cooking Lesson 1 - A Dinner from Piedmont
Our first cooking lesson was inspired by the Italian region of Piedmont, which is located up North near Mont Blanc, Pat's hometown. Since the region is privy to colder weather, its cuisine properly reflects that through its hearty stews, roasts, potato dishes and other starch-based foods. Our Piedmontese dinner included:
Brasato al Chianti (Beef Roast with Chianti-based Sauce) - We worked with a nice sized piece of beef roast for this, which we braised in a local, organic Chianti wine for about an hour and a half. We could've done it for longer and Pat suggests marinating the meat overnight in spices such as cloves, cinnamon, rosemary and thyme, but we did the quicker version of it in our class. Besides the Chianti, we also used chunks of onions, celery and carrots, which we also cooked with the meat and later pureed into a gravy that we poured over the roast. The result was a tender, comforting and juicy meat dish that's wonderful and comforting, especially on those unseasonably cold days we're having.
Potato Ring - At first, I couldn't imagine what this would be - it sounded simple yet also foreign to me. Consisting of three different colored (and flavored) potato layers that were stacked in a bundt pan, the dish was very innovative and also obvious in hindsight. I loved that about Tasty Tuscany...always introducing us to something new, but also something simple enough to recreate at home. I'll tell you how we made this:
Ingredients (serves 8-10)
About 3 lbs of russet potatoes
1/2 cups of tomato sauce (1 can of raw peeled tomatoes)
1 cup of finely chopped parsley
1 clove of garlic, pressed
1 cup of parmesan cheese
2 tbs of butter and 1 more tbs for the mold
2 tbs of breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cook the potatoes in their skin. Let them cool slightly and then remove the skins. Put the potatoes through a press or a ricer to finely mash them and flavor with salt and butter. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon and make sure you get a nice smooth consistency.
Divide the potatoes in thirds and move each one to a separate bowl. Each bowl will be flavored differently. In the first bowl, add the finely chopped parsley and mix well. In the second bowl, add the freshly made tomato sauce (see Tasty Tuscany's recipe here) and in the third bowl, add the pressed garlic and about a 1/4 tsp of grated nutmeg. You can add some parmesan cheese too if you like - it'll melt nicely.
Take the bundt pan and line it with the room temperature butter. Make sure you get the butter in all its crevices, so the potatoes don't stick. Then take your breadcrumbs and sprinkle them all over the inside of the bundt pan - they will stick to the butter.
You can now layer your potatoes. Start with the tomato layer and make sure you even it out with a spoon; then do the same thing with the parsley layer and then top it off with the garlic/cheese/nutmeg layer. Bake for about 40 minutes.
Remove from oven and let cool for a few minutes (about 15 minutes). Flip the bundt pan onto a flat, oven-safe plate and remove the potato ring. You will see the pretty colored layers on the outside. Right before you are ready to serve this, sprinkle it with more parmesan cheese on top and pop it into the broiler for about 3-5 minutes or until the top is nice and golden brown. Let cool for about 10 minutes before serving.
Brutti e Buoni (Ugly but Good) - The name of this dessert cracked me up, but it also represents one of life's great lessons - not all beautiful things are good, as sometimes the ugly ducklings are the real prize. Well such is the case with these rustic hazelnut cookies, which are made up of only 3 ingredients - hazelnuts, sugar and an egg white. They're dropped onto a cookie sheet in a free form fashion, and what comes out is something truly wonderful - soft little, cloud-like meringues that end each bite with a nice crunch.
Tomorrow...I'll cover my second cooking class which is inspired by Sicily. Stay tuned...