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Corby's Table
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A True Taste of Tuscany
Tuscan Beans for Soup or on Their Own
High-Summer Risotto
Peppery Grilled Chicken
Lemon Chicken

May 6, 1998

Flavors of Tuscany No one writes about Tuscany better or more truly than Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who for twenty-five years has studied and lived in a hillside Tuscan farmhouse (without central heating -- and winter is her favorite season). Summer is for rentals, when, as Jenkins describes in her new book, Flavors of Tuscany, the region is "crowded with tourists, both Italians and foreigners, many of whom consider themselves honorary Tuscans because they own a little piece of Tuscan land, though it takes more than that to make a real Tuscan."

Jenkins knows about the frugality and hard work that make real Tuscans, and recognizes both from her Maine upbringing: "I think of the plain-spoken Tuscans as the Yankees of Italy, which may be one reason why Tuscany appeals so much to rock-ribbed Yankees like me." And what Tuscans eat reflects their character. "The food of Tuscany is (like the people) simple, direct, honest, and straightforward. This is a masculine cuisine, not subtle or elusive but full of flavors that declare themselves at the first taste: rich green olive oil, pungent herbs like rosemary and sage, the full-bodied flavors of sheep's milk cheeses, of game and wild mushrooms roasted over the embers of a hardwood fire."
Discuss this column in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Corby's Table:

  • Comfort Food -- April 1998
    New reasons not to get out of bed in the morning.

  • Survival Cooking -- February 1998
    In Ruth Reichl's new memoir, Tender at the Bone, food is about more than eating.

  • A Moveable Fiesta -- January 1998
    South America's well-traveled cuisine.

  • The Joy of Cookbooks -- December 1997
    Just in time for the holidays, a look back over the year's best.

  • Culinary Arts & Sciences -- November 1997
    A book to help one get wise to the whys of cooking.

  • Paradise Found -- October 1997
    Fred Plotkin shows why Liguria's is "the great undiscovered cuisine of Italy."

    More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound
  • One of the many reasons to celebrate the publication of Flavors of Tuscany is the corrective it offers to romanticism about both Italy and its food. Other books lovingly picture stone farmhouses, like the one Jenkins restored, with bunches of rosemary on the counters and wooden boards covered with pecorino cheese and rustic bread beside the hearth. Jenkins knows better. She writes of how eagerly Italians are rushing to embrace a unified Europe and modernity in general. At a festive country lunch cooked by Mita Antolini, an Ur-country wife who luckily has been Jenkins's neighbor and instructor, Antolini's daughter remarks on the hand-picked wild greens in a big salad, which her brother has called organic. "With all the crap you put on your tobacco fields, you think there's anything [organic] left around here?" she asks dismissively. Another unromantic truth is that the chief cash crop of most farms that have survived in the region is tobacco.

    jenkpic picture
    Nancy Harmon Jenkins

    The stone farmhouses with their single large rooms that serve as kitchen, dining room, and family room are themselves ideals that only rich and misty-eyed foreigners can maintain. After describing the traditional construction of Tuscan farmhouses, Jenkins adds, "It is hard to know whether to speak of these things in the present tense or in the past. Twenty-five years ago, every Tuscan country home could be fit into the description above, but fifteen years ago, even traditional and conservative families like my neighbors were closing off one end of the great room to make a separate kitchen and installing gas ranges and Formica-clad cabinetry in the most up-to-date color combinations."

    Today a farm wife will arrive home bearing many of what a friend of Jenkins's calls "the ubiquitous Mediterranean plastic bag," and will unload her purchases -- likely, yes, to come from one of the still-thriving country street markets -- onto fiberboard shelves. At Mita Antolini's country lunch, Jenkins notices pretty violets strewn in the salad, and asks why, since in her decades in Tuscany she has never seen flowers in a salad. "Oh, I saw it on television last week," Antolini replies. "It looked like a nice idea."

    Carefully, then, Jenkins presents the closest things she can find to authentic Tuscan food, drawing on neighbors, friends, and a few reliable Italian cookbooks.

    Here is a method, new to me, for cooking the Tuscan survival food, beans. (Pasta is an atypical luxury in Tuscany, where the staples are beans and saltless bread; Tuscans are known as mangiafagioli, or bean-eaters.) I also include a recipe for an appealing risotto (even though rice isn't terribly Tuscan, either), using another new technique I want to try -- stirring in fresh tomatoes and minced garlic and cheese after the risotto is cooked, and letting the pot sit for ten minutes so the flavors blend; one for pollo al mattone, a practical, delicious way to grill chicken that's been flattened with a brick or a cleaver and steeped in a simple, very peppery marinade; and, last, for chicken baked with lemon, herbs, and wine. All these recipes perfectly exemplify the simplicity and frugality of the true Tuscany, which Jenkins writes about with rare grace and clarity.

        -- Corby Kummer

    Excerpts from Flavors of Tuscany, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (Broadway Books)

    Tuscan Beans for Soup or on Their Own
    fagioli alla toscana

    4 to 5 cups beans; 3 to 4 cups liquid
    2 cups dried beans
    2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with a flat knife blade
    3 sprigs fresh sage
    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    Freshly ground black pepper to taste
    Salt to taste
    Rinse the beans under running water if they look a little dusty. Place in a large bowl and add 2 cups of water (preferably spring water), or enough to cover the beans to a depth of about 1 1/2 inches. Cover with plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours or overnight. Next day, check the beans and add more water if necessary -- this time just top them up to a depth of 1/2 inch. Put back in the refrigerator and leave overnight again. They should soak for two days, more or less, and should be checked from time to time to see that they haven't absorbed all the water during this period. (Refrigeration is necessary to keep the beans from either fermenting or sprouting.)

    When ready to cook, transfer the beans, with their soaking liquid, to a large, heavy pot -- enameled cast-iron is perfect. Add more water if necessary, to a depth of about 1/2 inch, and the garlic, sage, oil, and pepper. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, let boil for 60 seconds, then lower the heat and cook without removing the lid very, very gently, just barely simmering, for 1 hour. At the end of the hour, stir in salt to taste. Test the beans and if they are not sufficiently tender, continue to simmer gently until done. (It is hard to predict what beans will do, since so much depends on the age of the beans, a factor that, unless you've grown them yourself, is hard to determine.)

    The beans may be served as is, with a drizzle of fresh green olive oil and, if you wish, chopped raw garlic, chopped anchovies, flaked canned tuna, thinly sliced red onion, and plenty of black pepper, along with slices of grilled bread. Beans like this are often served as a side dish to accompany roast pork, game, or grilled sausages. Or they may become the basis of other dishes.

    High-Summer Risotto
    risotto al sol d'agosto

    This is based on a recipe in Giovanni Righi Parenti's great book La Cucina Toscana, which should be in the library of anyone who loves Tuscany and Tuscan food. "Sol d'agosto" refers to the leonine sun of August, when tomatoes are at their peak of perfection. I have changed the recipe a little in order to use the aromatics available in American markets and gardens, but that brilliant touch at the end, the addition of raw tomatoes and aromatics to finish the dish, is straight from Righi Parenti's description.

    Serves 8
    1 medium white onion, finely chopped
    1/4 cup finely chopped basil, plus 2 tablespoons slivered basil leaves
    1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leafed parsley
    2 tablespoons finely chopped sage
    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    2 cups arborio, carnaroli, or vialone nano rice
    Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
    1/2 cup dry white wine
    2 1/2 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped perfectly ripe, sweet, fresh tomatoes
    1 cup hot chicken stock, or more if necessary
    1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Toscano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
    2 cloves garlic, finely minced
    In a large heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, sweat the onion with the finely chopped basil (the slivered basil will be added later), parsley, and sage in the oil until the vegetables are very soft. Do not let them brown. Mix the rice into the vegetables and add salt and pepper. Stir slowly and when the rice starts to turn opaque, pour in the wine.

    As soon as most of the wine has been absorbed by the rice, add about half the tomatoes to the dish, stirring to mix well. Continue to cook the rice, stirring frequently; as the liquid in the tomatoes is absorbed, add hot chicken stock, 1/4 cup at a time. (You may not need all the chicken stock to finish the risotto.)

    The risotto is cooked when the grains of rice are still separate and slightly resistant to the bite but bathed in a thick sauce. At this point remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the cheese, the remaining tomatoes, the slivered basil, and minced garlic. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes, then serve immediately.

    Peppery Grilled Chicken
    pollo al mattone o pollo alla diavolo

    This is called pollo al mattone because the bird is flattened with a brick for ease of grilling, or pollo alla diavolo (deviled chicken) because the peppery seasoning of crushed black peppercorns and crumbled dried hot chile peppers is torrid as the dickens.

    Serves 6
    1 cup extra virgin olive oil
    1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns, or to taste
    1 tablespoon crumbled hot red chile pepper or crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
    1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
    3 or 4 sage leaves, coarsely chopped
    1 teaspoon salt
    3 small chickens, split in half
    Juice of 1 lemon
    Lemon wedges, for garnish

    Mix the oil with the black and red peppers, rosemary, sage, and salt and set aside, covered, for several hours or overnight.

    Prepare the chicken halves by cutting away and discarding excess yellow fat from the insides of the birds. Flatten them by laying each half, skin side up, on a board and pounding it smartly with the flat side of a cleaver. This should crack the breast bone so that the birds will lie flat on the grill and cook more evenly.

    Put the chicken halves on a platter or in an oven dish and cover with the peppery olive oil. Leave to marinate, turning occasionally, for at least 1 hour. Or refrigerate, covered, for several hours or overnight.

    When ready to cook, prepare the grill, leaving plenty of time for it to heat up if you're using charcoal or wood. When the coals are hot, place the chicken halves, skin side down, on the grill and set the grill a good 8 inches from the source of the heat. Stir the lemon juice into the savory oil remaining in the platter and use this to brush over the chickens as they cook. Grill for 15 minutes on each side, turning once, brushing frequently with the oil and lemon juice. Test for doneness: The juices should run clear yellow when the chicken is thoroughly cooked.

    Serve immediately, piled on a platter garnished with lemon wedges.

    Lemon Chicken
    pollo al limone

    This was a favorite recipe of my friend and neighbor, the late Nika Hazelton, whose crusty wit could not conceal a love of Tuscany that was as strong as her love for almost anything made with lemons. Use any fresh herbs that are available -- even plain parsley is delicious, and in summer fresh basil gives the dish an entirely new perspective.

    Serves 4 to 6
    2 fresh lemons, preferably organically raised
    1 cup dry white wine
    1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    5 tablespoons minced fresh herbs: sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley, or others according to what's available
    2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
    3 to 4 pounds chicken, preferably free-range, cut in serving pieces (a whole bird, cut up, or chicken parts, according to your preference)
    Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

    Grate the zest of the lemons into a bowl large enough to hold all the chicken pieces then squeeze in all the lemon juice, holding back the seeds. Whisk in the wine, 1/4 cup of the olive oil, the herbs, and the garlic. Add the chicken pieces, turning them to coat well with the marinade. Set aside, covered, in a cool place to marinate for several hours. (Or prepare the chickens in the morning and refrigerate them until time to start dinner.)

    When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

    Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan. Drain the chicken halves, reserving the marinade, and sauté them over medium heat until they are golden and crisp on all sides, about 5 to 7 minutes on a side. Place the chicken in an oven dish large enough to hold all the pieces in one layer. Pour the remaining marinade into the frying pan and bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits remaining in the pan. Pour the marinade over the chicken pieces and set the dish in the oven. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken pieces are done (juices will run clear yellow when you prick a piece with a fork). Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if desired.

    Serve immediately in the dish in which the chicken was baked, or remove to a heated platter and pour the pan juices over.

  • More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

    Copyright © 1998 by Corby Kummer.
    Recipes from Flavors of Tuscany by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Broadway Books: New York 1998. Hardcover, 282 pages. ISBN: 0767901444. $19.95. Copyright © by Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
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