Food experiences leave lasting memories. Today we are exposed to numerous cuisines and tastes, but that wasn't always the case in America. What memory do you have of tasting an "exotic" food for the first time that captivated you and exploded your taste buds in a completely new way? (Tell me via email or FB!)
In this week's menu, I remember my own taste bud "explosions" as I tasted some of Tuscany's simple yet powerful flavors in the country-side table of Trattoria i Ricchi, in the small town of Cercina overlooking Florence.
Pasta quills "dragged through" 12-hour Tuscan sugo
Pollo Arrosto al Limone
Oven-roasted chicken with lemon and fresh herbs
Insalata Mista alla Cercina
Mixed Italian greens, tomato, carrot and fennel, extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar
Tuscan foccacia with sliced plum tomatoes, oregano and rosemary
Florentine cream puffs dipped in dark chocolate
Antinori, Pèppoli Chianti Classico 2016, Tuscany
“A Chianti Classico that shows dark plums, raspberries and hints of crushed cherries. Medium body, ripe tannins and a crisp finish. Drink now.” -James Suckling 91 points. Read more...
Food experiences leave lasting memories. It’s hard to believe how culinarily isolated mainstream America was until rather recently. So many ethnic foods that we enjoy today were virtually unknown here thirty years ago. Today we can choose from an endless variety of foods from around the world, not to mention the “fusion” combination of them.
When I first arrived in Italy in 1971, not only was I overwhelmed by what I saw, but was surprised by what I tasted. What Florentines were eating was not the Italian food I knew from growing up in New York. Risotto, polenta, prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, gelato, cappuccino, bright green extra virgin olive oil, and fresh parmigiano were all new flavors for me. In most cases, I can vividly remember the surprise I felt when I experienced them and can recount with great delight the scenarios connected to them.
This week’s menu is a typical example of one of my first food discoveries at Trattoria i Ricchi. It is what they served then (50 years ago!) and it is still an example of a modern day Florentine dinner.
Penne strascicate is probably THE most historic, typical and diffused pasta served in Tuscan trattorias. “Strascicare” means to shuffle or drag through. In this case, the pasta and sugo (Tuscans’ beloved meat sauce) are combined in a pan and tossed together – or the pasta is “dragged through” the sauce creating a delight amalgam of flavors. The secret is the sugo – the sauce. Ours is a family recipe refined over decades to create layered flavors of ingredients that are combined and enriched by 12 hours of slow simmering. The way I would have described it, after tasking it for the first time, would have been a combination of rich meat gravy and tomato sauce. But, it is, in fact, a taste unlike any other.
To start, we mince the “holy trio” of red onions, celery and carrots and begin the long process of sautéing in good Tuscan olive oil. Here we add lemon peel for an acidic contrast and a combination of spices. The ground beef is added and the process continues until the meat resembles dark sand. Then comes red wine. Experience here is what counts most – color, texture and aroma is what tells the cook when it is time to add the next ingredient. At just the right time, a copious amount of tomato paste is added together with water and the slow simmering continues. Total time is usually about 12 hours!
Of all the dishes we could have prepared for ourselves after long hours working in the kitchen in front of the “stufa a legna”/wood burning stove, the favorite and most popular was by far the “Pollo al Limone.” The chicken was stuffed with big chunks of lemon, garlic, sage and rosemary, the skin rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted in a hot oven. When served, the omnipresent roasted rosemary potatoes would benefit from the infusion of rich, lemony juices from the chicken.
Roasted lemon chicken is another example of straightforward, no-frills Tuscan cuisine. This is what Bruna would prepare for our employee meal after all the guests were served. Everyone would stop what they were doing and gather at the table to eat and laugh. It wouldn’t be usual then for many of us to jump in the car (mine was a salmon-color Fiat 500!) to go down to Florence for a midnight gelato!
Another omni-present option was a simple green salad with the addition of ripe tomatoes and, when possible, any other seasonal vegetables. The dressing is always straightforward – excellent olive oil (only from that year’s harvest), red wine vinegar (not the sweet balsamic version from the north), and salt (no pepper.) As we have mentioned before, the salad course is traditionally eaten at the end of the meal, almost as a digestive cleanser in preparation for dessert.
Bongo Bongo. Bongo Bongo? That doesn’t sound very Italian – yet it was one of the first Florentine desserts I ever tasted. There are varied opinions as to the origin of the name of this dessert of chocolate-covered, cream-filled profiteroles, some of which are not very nice. But whatever their origin, it was, and still remains, one of THE most popular desserts in Florence.
I can still clearly remember the first time I tasted sugo, lemon chicken and chocolate-dipped cream puffs in the Tuscan countryside – some of my fondest memories. Maybe as we share in our common dinner tonight, you might take comfort in your own food memories. We have enjoyed receiving photographs and thoughts from your home tables and encourage you this week to share your food memories as well via Facebook @iRicchiRestaurant or via email.