Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Tuscan Cuisine’s Kindest Course

Looking out of my kitchen window the clouds look like cannon smoke as Philip Larkin adroitly observed. A fractious wind keeps whipping itself around the house and I am staring at the photograph from my Flavours cooking holiday in July, which is propped up on the kitchen shelves. It may well have been taken on Mars. There I am in short sleeves and bathed in sunshine.

What happened? October happened that’s what, the clocks have changed and that can only mean one thing: dumplings, gnocchi or flavoursome soups. Don’t say I’m not one to make the very best of a dull situation!

I am actually still effervescing all over my kitchen, having been inspired by my Tuscan sojourn. I am very much an intuitive cook and therefore like to mix and match according to mood. But one recipe I often follow, more or less to the letter, comes from a book published back in 1977 entitled rather grandly, it has to be said: ‘The Fine Art Of Italian Cooking' by Giuliano Bugialli. Sure, it was updated in 1990 but the focus is definitely Tuscan cooking rather than generic Italian. There are interesting notes on olive oil and cheeses which take into account the increased fascination and knowledge generated since the late '70s about Italian food.

Having attended my Flavours cookery course and experienced Tuscany in the flesh I returned to the book with renewed vigour this autumn and decided soup was the order of the day at this time of year.

Bugialli is not for the faint hearted in many ways, but the recipe for Ministrone alla Contadina takes some beating.

Usually Tuscan Minestrone is made in vast quantities, therefore you can even transform it into Ribollita the next day. If this is the case, simply make, leave, allow to thicken, then bring to the boil again for around a minute the next day; break up some bread slices so the texture is almost homogenous. A generous drizzle of good-quality olive oil finishes that dish off nicely and gives you a two for one autumn special.

But back to the main event: Tuscan Minestrone Country Style. This melange is everything an autumn soup should be and makes use of cannellini beans, ham or bacon, onions, celery, garlic cloves, carrots, flat leaf parsley, savoy cabbage, kale, potatoes, tomatoes, Swiss chard and Parmesan cheese. These ingredients symbolise my autumn veg box and this recipe does justice to all the greens that fill it at this time of the year, also allowing me to utilise garden tomatoes ripening in their cocoons.

So, your list of ingredients looks like this:
250g cannellini beans soaked overnight in cold water
2-3 litres of water
6 tbsp olive oil
1 large red onion, stick of celery, carrot, coarsely shopped
2 large garlic cloves chopped
7-8 sprigs of flat leaved parsley chopped
Half a Savoy cabbage quartered, cored and shredded
1kg kale stripped from stems
1 potato diced
250g tomatoes, skinned
500g Swiss chard stripped from stems and shredded
Freshly ground pepper
12 large thick slices of stale(ish) bread
6-8 tbsp freshly grated parmesan cheese

Having soaked beans overnight in cold water they should be drained and cooked in a large casserole with 2 litres of salt water and your choice of ham or bacon. More water should be added during the cooking time as 2 litres is still required at the end of this process. It will take around an hour for the beans to tenderise. They should then be removed from the heat and left to stand when cooked.

Then sauté the onion, celery, garlic, carrot, and parsley in olive oil for around 10 min until browned. Add the cabbage, kale, potato and tomatoes. Cover and simmer gently for 15 min then add the Swiss chard.

Remove the ham or bacon, this can be used for something else, then puree two thirds of the beans and add them to the vegetables. Simmer for 20 min to ensure the cabbage is cooked unless you like it al dente. Drain the remaining beans but keep the broth which you then gradually add to the vegetables. At the end, add the remaining beans and season with salt and pepper as appropriate.

Personally I think all the timings here are down to a matter of opinion, so do your own thing and adjust according to your own taste.

If you decide to use bread at this stage, put slices on the bottom of a tureen and cover with soup. Keep adding more layers and more soup and allow the fusion to stand for a quarter of an hour. Add freshly grated Parmesan cheese to serve. Gnocchi next time, I promise.

Flavours offer Italian cooking holidays, Pilates, and painting holidays in Tuscany, where you can find inspiration in a Tuscan kitchen contact us to learn more! Flavours also offer holidays in Sicily, Umbria, and Puglia.

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