Sunday, September 9, 2012

One Month in Tuscany (and Beyond)

Since arriving in the blazing heat of Italy just over a month ago, great fortune has allowed me to delve into the beautiful produce from across Tuscany. After just a few days of getting over jetlag and realizing that the daily 105ºF oven exposure would not get any easier, I wandered west over the hills to visit friends in the countryside near the source of the Arno river, not too far from the medieval hilltown of Poppi. There I sampled incredible Vera Claudia plums (seen below), porchetta from a little butcher in the center of Arezzo, and a little too much of the most perfect burrata I have ever tasted. A wild week traversing the Highlands and inner Hebrides of Scotland with a friend served as kind relief from the stifling heat of August in Italy. But back I came.

Once back in Florence, getting my bearings in my new neighborhood in between Santa Croce and Sant'Ambrogio, my curiosity has drawn me regularly to sample each of the many fruit and vegetable vendors of Mercato Sant'Ambrogio, who vary considerably in charm and quality of individual fruits/vegetables. With most shops in Florence outside the touristy center closed for the August holidays, my options were limited (not always a bad thing). From these early morning scavenging trips, I have been able to assemble soups, fruit salads, sauces, and a variety of contorni, all requiring as little work as possible from me, save a little chopping and combining, so as to highlight the ripe sweetness of these summer treasures. Then, there were pork chops. Now I am still eager to curious to make this salad and this tomato and squash gratin, before the cooler weather (i.e., 75ºF) arrives.

Here are two vegetarian recipes I have discovered since calling Florence my new home. Neither are really Tuscan at all, but the ingredients for them are aplenty here. Buon appetito!

[from Matthew Fort's Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons]
serves 8

10 medium eggplants (aubergines)
250 ml (1 cup) olive oil
1 celery stalk
500g (about 2 cups) green olives, pitted
1kg (2.25 lbs) onions, sliced very thinly
250ml (1 cup) red wine vinegar
5 Tbs caster sugar
1l (4 cups) sugo (tomato sauce)
200g strattu (very concentrated tomato purée)
50g capers

Wash the eggplants and, without peeling, cut them into small cubes. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan. Fry the eggplant cubes until lightly browned. Drain on paper towel. Slice the celery stalk and blanch the celery along with the olives quickly in boiling water, then dunk both into an ice bath to stop cooking. Heat more oil in the frying pan. Fry the onions until soft, then add the vinegar and sugar, cooking until a sweet-sour balance is reached. In a saucepan heat the sugo and the strattu. Add the sweet-sour onions and the olives, celery, capers, and eggplant. Remove from the heat and mix well. Cool for at least 24 hours.

Carrots with Taleggio Cheese
[from Vegetables from an Italian Garden: Season-by-Season Recipes]
serves 4

2 Tbs olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1.75 lbs (800g) carrots, cut into 1/2-in slices
butter, for greasing
6 oz. (180g) Taleggio cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup (240g) grated Parmesan cheese
scant 1/2 cup (118ml) milk
1 Tbs chopped parsley
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the shallot and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until softened and translucent. Stir in the carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and cook for another 5 minutes, then remove from the heat. Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Grease an ovenproof dish with butter. Mash the Taleggio in a bowl until creamy, then beat in the eggs, Parmesan, and milk. Season with salt and pepper. Put the carrots into the prepared dish, spreading them out evenly. Cover with the taleggio cream and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the chopped parsley, and serve.

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