More than a century ago, Pellegrino Artusi was a frustrated food writer shopping his manuscript, La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene, to disinterested publishers. In 1891 Florence, he self-published. Today his seminal work is still in print and available as an iTunes app.
That Artusi’s book would find a willing audience in Tuscany was no fluke. The region was distinguished by a jarring contradiction: Noblemen made the best wines and peasant women cooked the best meals. There had to be a bridge between the two worlds and “the science of cooking and the art of eating well” helped accomplish that—and defines Tuscan cooking today.
A dinner staple is the T-bone steak drizzled only in a few drops of golden olive oil. Game dishes include pasta with wild boar or rabbit-based sauces. Hand-rolled pici (water and flour with no egg) pasta provides the hearty texture to withstand those savory flavors.
Tuscans put priority on appetizers and most meals start with oversized platters of crostini (toasted bread) lavished with liver pâtè, black olives, artichoke paste, dried tomatoes or olive oil and garlic. Desserts are shortbreads and dried biscuits such as cantucci, panforte or castagnaccio (chestnut flour cake) to match with Vin Santo.
Coastal Tuscany offers elaborate fish dishes including cacciucco, an-everything-you-can-assemble seafood soup that is a signature dish of Livorno. Today, posh Tuscan seaside restaurants offer some of the best raw fish found in Italy.
Tuscany’s hearty meat dishes are mostly designed for the wonderful red wines of the region, while seafood happily pairs with its white Vernaccia and Vermentino wines. But if there is one item that Tuscans place in highest regard, it is olive oil. It is ubiquitous on the Tuscan table.
The Tuscan Kitchen
Bistecca alla Fiorentina: Succulent, raw and juicy, this thick cut of steak from the Chianina breed of cattle is the standout dish of Tuscany. The key is frollatura (letting the meat soften for seven days after butchering).
Affettati: Cold cuts of meat open the appetite. Artisanal prosciutto, finocchiona (pork sausage with fennel seeds), wild boar salame, and lardo di Colonnata are popular appetizers or snacks.
Fagioli bianchi: White beans were introduced to Tuscany cooking via Spain in the 1500s but now feature in ribollita vegetable soup or as a side dish with olive oil.
Farro: The whole grains of wheat, or farro, are cooked in Lucca as a hearty winter soup or served elsewhere as a summer salad.
Pecorino: Sheep-milk cheese (aged from 60 days to many months) provides the pungent sharpness to pair with bold red wines.
Lamb Marinated in Coffee, with Corn Sauce and Aromatic Sprouts
For the lamb
16 ounces boneless lamb sirloin steak
¼ cup star anise
2 tablespoons juniper berries
2¼ cups hot coffee
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
For the minced corn sauce
2 teaspoons butter
2 tablespoons minced shallot
½ cup fresh corn kernels, drained, and finely chopped
1 scant cup heavy cream
¼ cup roast gravy (pan drippings
from lamb roast), reserved
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Maldon sea salt
½ cup aromatic sprouts (lentil, mung bean, radish sprouts, etc.)
Rinse lamb and pat dry with a paper towel. Place in a stainless steel [non-reactive] saucepan, add spices. Pour hot coffee over the lamb, fully covering the meat. Set aside, uncovered, to cool.
When completely cool, cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Remove lamb from marinade, and thoroughly pat dry with paper towels. Discard marinade. Leave lamb out and bring to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 325ºF Season lamb well with salt and pepper. Add olive oil to a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add lamb, browning well on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Add ¼ cup water to skillet, scraping up the browned bits in the pan. Pour cooking juices into a fat separator and reserve. Return lamb to skillet and finish in the oven, about 5–7 minutes for medium rare.
Remove lamb from oven, cover loosely with foil, and rest 5–10 minutes.
Prepare the minced corn sauce:
Melt butter in a 1-quart saucepan over medium heat.
Add shallot and cook two minutes, until transparent, but not browned.
Add corn and cream. Stir occasionally until slightly reduced and thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Whisk in 1/4 –1/3 cup reserved cooking juices until smooth and blended. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
Once lamb has rested, cut across the grain into 8 slices. Spoon corn sauce onto individual plates or serving platter, and top with sliced lamb. Season lightly with Maldon salt and garnish with aromatic sprouts. Serves 4.
Glacé (Glazed) Pigeon Casserole with I Sodi di San Niccolò, Artichoke Tarte Tatin and Poached Martin Sec Pears
For the pears
2½ cups I Sodi di San Niccolò (super Tuscan, Sangiovese and Malvasia blend)
1 stick cinnamon
5 whole cloves
10 juniper berries
3 tablespoons Acacia honey
4 Martin Sec pears (slightly firm fiorelle pears)
For the pigeons
2 pigeons, 1 pound each (can substitute squab)
2 bay leaves, divided
2 sprigs rosemary, divided, plus extra for garnish
2 sprigs marjoram, divided, plus extra for garnish
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped, about 1 cup
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped, about ½ cup
1 stalk celery, rinsed and finely chopped, about ½ cup
2 cups I Sodi di San Niccolò
1 tablespoon cornstarch
For the artichokes
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 whole artichokes with stem, tough outer leaves, tips, and chokes removed, quartered
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced
9 ounce puff pastry, thawed, rolled out to a 10-inch circle
Preheat a convection oven to 335ºF, or traditional oven to 360ºF.
Make the poached pears:
In a 1½-quart pot, bring wine, cinnamon, cloves, juniper berries and honey to a simmer. Add pears, cover with a circle of parchment paper cut to fit inside the pot with a small hole cut in the middle. Simmer for 20 minutes, until pears are tender enough to be easily pierced with the tip of a knife. Remove from heat, keeping pears submerged in poaching liquid.
Before serving, bring 1 cup liquid to a boil in a small saucepan, and cook until reduced to a slightly thick, syrupy consistency, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Just before serving, spoon over pears.
Roast the pigeons:
Carefully pluck the pigeons, wash and thoroughly pat dry. Season the cavities with ½ bay leaf, ½ sprig each rosemary and marjoram, and salt, and pepper.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a stove-top safe casserole or large, heavy oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the pigeons until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer the pigeons to a plate and set aside.
Remove oil used to brown pigeons from casserole. In the same pan over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon fresh oil. Add onion, celery, carrots and remaining bay leaf, rosemary and marjoram. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 5–8 minutes, until onions are transparent and tender. Remove from heat.
Add pigeons back to casserole, and pour wine over pigeons. Place casserole in preheated oven and bake 20 minutes. To keep the pigeons from burning, remove casserole from oven, cover with parchment paper, and bake 10–15 minutes more. Remove from oven, transfer to a serving plate and keep warm.
Strain cooking liquid and vegetables through a sieve into a bowl. Reserving ¼ cup, add cooking liquid to a small saucepot over medium-high heat, and bring back to a boil. Thoroughly whisk cornstarch into reserved liquid. Add to pot, whisking constantly, until cooking liquid has thickened into a rich gravy. Keep warm.
Prepare the artichoke tarte tatin:
Increase convection oven to 375ºF, or traditional oven to 400ºF. Add olive oil to a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add artichokes, shallot and garlic. Cook 10 minutes, until artichokes are tender, and remove from heat. Cover cooked artichokes in skillet with puff pastry, and bake 20 minutes, until puff pastry is cooked through and golden brown. Carefully invert onto a serving plate.
Cut each pigeon into 4–6 pieces, spooning gravy over the top to glaze. Garnish with fresh rosemary and marjoram. Serve with artichoke tarte tatin and glazed poached pears. Serves 4.