Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Third Day in Tuscany - Really Eating Like a Tuscan

As my time in Tuscany progressed, the cooking got more involved and challenging, which I loved.  But before I get into the hefty menu we created that day, I want to briefly talk about the wonderful daytime excursion we had with Paolo at a Baroque monastery in a town called Calci.

Also located in an off-the-beaten-path area, one probably wouldn't know to uncover this treasure unless you were with a true Tuscan.  We were lucky in this way, as Paolo discovered this piece of history and all its "candy" years ago, when he and Pat opened up Tasty Tuscany. 

The most notable part of Calci was the aforementioned Baroque monastery he took us to, which included breathtaking frescoes of religious and secular scenes, opulent halls where the monks gathered and the modest quarters in which they lived.  We also had the pleasure of seeing an old pharmacy, which was run by the monks and was still functioning until about 30 years ago.  It was all so fascinating and truly unreal to imagine that we were looking at and touching pieces of history originating in the 13th century.

When we got back to the villa, we were pretty tired and took a luxurious cat nap after lunch under some trees, overlooking the beautiful rolling hills of Tuscany.  After a dose of R&R, it was back to the kitchen we went to create our 3rd meal.

Cooking Lesson 3 - A Real Taste of Tuscany

Our third cooking lesson was the most involved and took the most amount of time, but we enjoyed every minute of it.  After glancing at the menu, we were nearly squealing with excitement for today was the day we'd make fresh pasta.  I've made a form of fresh pasta before with my grandmother in Slovakia and I've always had a really hard time rolling out the dough. I was hoping to learn how to do it properly here.  But aside from the pasta, there were other lovely dishes we learned--from the stuffed and baked zucchini to a refreshing Tuscan salad and Cantuccini (aka Biscotti)--that by the end of this meal, we were three very happy (and full) travelers.

Handmade Tagliatelle with Sweet Tomato Sauce - Pat did a great job demonstrating the simplicity and the magic behind making fresh pasta.  For all of you who are intimidated by this process, I hope this description changes your mind, for you don't need any special equipment or ingredients.  All you need is flour, egg and a good roller.  While the process was a little time consuming, it was so much fun and we really enjoyed putting our own spin on each batch of tagliatelle - mine were all helter skelter while Angela's and Marjorie's were perfectly straight and beautiful.  But in the end it didn't matter, as they all looked gorgeous in our bowls, mixed in with the sweet tomato sauce we made.  Here's how you make the pasta:

Ingredients: (Serves 6)
1 egg per serving
Approximately 6 tbs of flour per serving

Place your egg in a bowl with 2 heaping tbs of flour.  Whisk with a fork until incorporated.  Add 1 or 2 tbs of flour, depending on the consistency you get.  The goal is to get a firm dough ball where you don't see the yellow in the egg.  Continue to beat your dough until you get the desired firm but still malleable consistency.

In the meantime, set a large pot of water to boil.

Kneed the dough with your hand, pressing down and stretching it, but at the same time ensuring that you keep it round.  If the dough starts to stick, sprinkle it with more flour.

Then take your rolling pin (flour it lightly) and start stretching the dough by using a steady forward motion.  Turn the dough 90 degrees after each roll to make sure you preserve its round shape.  Steady the dough on one side with your forearm and work the opposite part of the dough with your rolling pin (i.e. if you are steadying the top of the dough with your arm, roll out the bottom with your floured roller).  Switch sides and continue to roll out the dough until its about about 1/8 inch thick or thin enough to eat as pasta. 

Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter) and then take your knife and cut into 1/4 inch strips with a fast chopping motion.  Unfold the pasta strips so they are long and then cut them in half, as to make them more manageable to eat. 

Place the pre-cut pasta into the boiling water and cook for about 3-5 minutes or until al dente.  Try one to make sure you are happy with it.  Remember, it's always best to undercook pasta, as it continues to cook even after you take it out of the pot.

Drain the pasta and stir in the freshly made sweet tomato sauce.  See recipe for the sweet tomato sauce here. 

Stuffed and Baked Zucchine - Besides the pasta, this was my other close favorite.  It was healthy and hearty, combining all vegetable ingredients such as carrots, onions, the inside of a zucchine and breadcrumbs.  Pat wasn't happy with the outcome because she thought the bread we used was wrong, but I thought it was pretty darn delicious.  Pat suggests using a crustier bread for the stuffing, but we used a softer Pugliese bread that almost reminded me of potato bread.  Additionally to to the amazing taste of this dish, I loved the bite-sized zucchine, as we used small organic zucchine, instead of the larger, darker variety we are used to in the States.  I have no doubt that you can find these adorable minis at your local farmer's market or a CSA.

Tuscan Salad - As mentioned yesterday, I was totally smitten with Pat's salads and this one was no exception.  A very light, fruity creation, containing plump raisins soaked in Vin Santo wine, thin slices of pears or apples (we used the latter), pine nuts and chunky pecorino cheese, it made me reach for seconds and thirds.  Dressed simply with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, it was a most delightful pairing with the stuffed zucchine.

Cantuccini - Essentially the same thing as Biscotti, just named differently and meaning "corners," we had a great time making these.  Just for fun and for variety, we created 2 types including a classic version with lemon zest, almonds and anise seeds, while in the other, we ditched the last ingredient and added dark chocolate chunks.  Since I'm such a chocoholic, I thought I'd enjoy the chocolate chip cantuccini more, but I actually preferred the more classic version because of its clean taste and a hint of something intereting at the end of each bite, which came from the anise.  Yum!

While my Tasty Tuscany experiences will come to an end with this post, I will continue coverage about my Italian adventure later in the week with some Florentine and Venetian restaurant reviews. Stay tuned...

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