Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lunch at Poggio Etrusco

I don't own a home in the Tuscan countryside, but I've got the next best thing -- I know someone who does -- Pamela Sheldon Johns. 

In my New Jersey kitchen, I've prepared a few dishes from her most recent cookbook, Cucina Povera, an homage to the peasant style cooking of Italy where nothing is wasted. Until now, we've never met in person. We've only communicated via the world wide web.

 But when she learned I was headed to Florence for a couple of weeks, she invited me to visit Poggio Etrusco, the home she and her husband Johnny Johns own, not far from Montepulciano. 

It's a house with many beautiful architectural features, like this brick archway. Everywhere you look, there is something to capture your interest.

Including a friendly menagerie of a few cats and dogs.

The house exudes warmth, just like she and her husband. Naturally, when you're the author of 17 cookbooks, owner of a bed and breakfast in Tuscany and run cooking classes too, the kitchen is the center of activity. This is one small corner of the kitchen, where Pamela greeted me with a glass of prosecco and some munchies.

She made a variation of Adri Barr Crocetti's recent post of bruschetta with fava beans, asparagus, peas and ricotta cheese - using really fresh sheep's milk ricotta that was practically warm from mamma's udders. The flavor was heightened with a drizzle of fresh olive oil pressed from Poggio Etrusco's olives. You could have quit right here and I'd have been happier than Bacchus in an unlocked cantina.

But the next dish was what really bowled me over. It started with the blossoms of this tree. Do you recognize it? In Italian, it's a sambuca tree and the flowers are an ingredient in the eponymous anise-flavored liqueur. In English, it's an elder tree.  

These are the blossoms from the elder tree. They look similar to Queen Anne's Lace, but you can easily differentiate them because they grow on a tree, not as the perennial flowering plants that spring up everywhere in the countryside. Elder flowers were new to me, but when I got back to Princeton, armed with the knowledge I gained from Pamela, I spotted an elder tree right in the middle of town -- a prime target for foraging.

Before deep-frying them, Pamela dipped the flowers in a light batter made of flour, eggs and prosecco.

Tasty? yes. Unusual? double yes. I had to fight the temptation to eat every one that was put on the plate. But I tried to make nice and leave some for the others. Besides, there was plenty more food to come.

Including these large sage leaves that Pamela dipped into the same batter and deep fried.

These savory nibbles were also a perfect treat with drinks.

Ready for the first course? - a luscious asparagus timballo, topped with an egg and spears at attention. DEE vine! Pamela's recipe follows at the end of the post.

But wait... the deliciousness continues with savory and tender pieces of pork combined with asparagus and carrots, atop a bed of farro mixed with peas and fava beans, all soaking up the rich sugo. 

Room for dessert? Ma certo, if it's as flavorful as this homemade strawberry gelato Pamela made. Why is it that strawberries taste so much better in Italy than in the U.S.?  Maybe because they're picked when  they're plump and red, rather than when they're still unripe, hard and tasteless, like those in supermarkets here.

Walking around Poggio Etrusco, you could sense the pride taken in everything that's grown for consumption -- from the chickens clucking in their pens....

To the artichokes nearly ready to be picked (I'm growing artichokes for the first time this year and they are teensy compared to these plants.)

The property has lovely patios to sit and enjoy the view of the olive groves and towns in the distance.

 Visitors can rent rooms and apartments here and really immerse themselves in the Tuscan country lifestyle, taking cooking classes from Pamela or just relaxing by the pool.

Sometimes the outdoor wood-burning oven is fired up for pizza.

Johnny's artwork decorates the tins of olive oil and bottles of wine produced at Poggio Etrusco. This is another of his designs hanging on the wall of one of the guest rooms.

He's a talented artist in other ways too and makes these large tote bags using old Italian movie posters made of plastic.They're humorously lined with remnants from his old shirts and pants, complete with original pockets for tucking away cell phones, a wallet or other items.  They'd be right at home at a shop in New York City's Soho. 

And I felt right at home at Poggio Etrusco. It was hard to leave, but I know I'll be back someday to visit these welcoming hosts and their enchanting home. Thank you Johnny and Pam for a memorable afternoon. 

Pamela Sheldon Johns'

Timballo di Asparagi

This is a wonderful appetizer or brunch dish. It
is essentially a coddled egg on top of asparagus purée. The asparagus
purée remains creamy and blends with the egg yolk for a delicious sensation.
If you prefer a thicker asparagus purée, add 2 egg yolks to the mixture
before you pour it into the ramekins.

Extra-virgin olive oil and approx ¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for the ramekins

1 bunch asparagus

¼ cup whole milk (or, if you insist, cream)

½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

salt and pepper to taste

6 eggs

Preheat an oven to 350°F. Lightly oil (I like the
misto sprayer that I can put my own olive oil in) six ramekins and dust
generously with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Place in a baking
dish and set aside.

Cut the asparagus into three parts: the ugly tough
root that you will compost; the top 4 inches of the asparagus; and the
middle part (now known as the butts).  Cook the butts in boiling
salted water until very tender, around 15-20 minutes, depending on the
thickness of your asparagus. Drain and cool. Add the milk and ¼ cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and purée. Season
to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Divide this mixture evenly between
the prepared ramekins. Crack an egg into each ramekin on top of the
purée. Sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top of each
egg to keep it from drying out as it cooks.

Add hot water to the baking dish to reach halfway
up the sides of the ramekins and place in the preheated oven. Bake until
you can see that the egg white is set (the yolk should still be runny),
about 18-22 minutes. If you want a hard yolk, bake for about 22-28 minutes.

While the ramekins are baking, blanch the asparagus
tips in boiling salted water until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain
and set aside.

Remove the ramekins from the oven. Place the ramekins
on individual serving plates. Garnish with the asparagus tips and serve
at once.

Variation for a savory pudding:
If your guests don’t love the fabulous sensation of a soft egg yolk,
blend the eggs into the asparagus purée before distributing among the
ramekins. Cooking time will be slightly longer, about 35 minutes, or
until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 

Bookmark and Share

Friday, May 24, 2013

Ricciarelli From Siena

Siena is a beautiful city in Tuscany known to most foreigners for its palio - a colorful horse race that's held each July and August in the city's main square, or campo. I wasn't there this year for the palio but I  was happy to return to Siena earlier this month for many reasons.

One of them was meeting Patrizia, a blogger friend who writes "Andante Con Gusto" , and who spent some time with me and my son during our visit to Siena. A morning cappuccino was in order, so at Patrizia's suggestion, we headed to Nannini, a historic cafe known for its delicious pastries.

And when you're in Siena, you can't talk about sweets and not try the city's signature cookie-- ricciarelli. They're made with almonds, sugar, egg whites and orange zest, and you'll find them in shops  and bakeries all over town. Nannini's version was about as perfect as you can get - crunchy on the outside with a coating of powdered sugar, yet soft on the inside and bursting with almond flavor. There's a recipe for ricciarelli at the end of this post, but first a detour to Siena's cathedral, one of the most beautiful in the world.

The cathedral dates back to the middle ages is a masterpiece of architecture and art, starting from the ornate marble exterior built in a combination of styles - Tuscan Romanesque on the lower part, and French Gothic above. Many of the features were added in later years, including the three glittering triangular mosaic panels made in Venice in 1878.

Inside the cathedral is so much artwork - from sculptures by a young Michaelangelo, to a magnificent marble pulpit by Nicola Pisano - that it would be easy to include dozens of photos on this post. But I'll confine it to one photo of the stunning Piccolomini Library adjoining the cathedral. The library is surrounded on all four sides by breathtaking frescoes created by Pinturicchio, detailing the life of Siena's favorite son - Cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who eventually became Pope Pius II in 1458

OK, so I lied, there's another photo inside the cathedral, but this was so funny I couldn't help myself. This shows the massive black and white marble columns as well as yours truly dressed for the occasion. The similarity in architecture and sartorial dressing was purely accidental -- honest!

Now on to the more important stuff -- lunch! Patrizia guided us to a restaurant she said a lot of locals frequent, simply called "Osteria." 

Wild boar, or cinghiale, is common on menus at Tuscan restaurants. This plate of tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce was hard to beat.

But I tried. My eyes zoomed in on an unusual main course of cinghiale prepared in "dolce e forte" - translating to "sweet and strong." The waiter told me that the recipe included chocolate, as well as vinegar, and it was heaped with almonds and raisins too. I was sold after he mentioned chocolate. Well, no surprise - I loved it and will try to recreate it when the cooler weather comes. Stay tuned for a post on it later this year.

 Here's another dish you might not be familiar with called "agretti" - plural for agretto. They're sometimes called "barba di fratte" translating to "monk's beard" for obvious reasons. Even in Italy, agretti are not all that common and I've had trouble finding seeds for them there too. But this year I discovered an online source and planted some in my garden.  If you're interested in growing agretti, you can buy seeds for them at "Seeds From Italy."  Mine are still a bit immature to pick, but I hope to write a post on them after they're a little sturdier and ready for harvest. Let me know if you've ever eaten them. 

They taste a little like swiss chard, even though they look like thick chives. I've usually eaten them boiled, then tossed with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice, but at Osteria, they were served with a pesto made from anchovies, capers, pistachios and olive oil - delicious, but a little went a long way.

Patrizia also suggested we stop for a late day snack at this place, which sells a lot of Tuscan products and also has a fresh bakery with some of the best flat breads I've ever eaten. 

 The flat bread was delicious in its own right, but also a relief from the typical bland Tuscan bread that's made without salt and that hardens like a rock in no time. Legend has it that salt is omitted because of an ancient salt tax, but Tuscans will tell you it's because the bread is a perfect accompaniment to their regional cuisine.

I would certainly eat it with these cinghiale sausages for instance (even though I'd prefer salted bread.)

 But for dessert, forget about bread and dig into these ricciarelli instead - a true Tuscan treat. 


printable recipe here

Recipe From Story of A Kitchen

  • 3 cups (300g) almond flour (also called almond meal)*

  • 1 1/3 cups (280g) granulated sugar

  • 1 1/4 cups (150g) powdered sugar

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • grated zest of 1 small orange (I used a small orange, but could have used more)

  • 2 egg whites

  • 2 teaspoons almond extract

  • pinch salt


  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.**

  2. Mix the almonds with the sugar, scant 1 cup of the powdered sugar, the baking powder and the orange zest in a bowl. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then stir them into the almond mixture. Using a large spoon, mash the mixture to a wet, sticky mass. Stir in the almond extract.

  3. Using an ice cream scoop (size #60), scoop dough into balls and form into oval shapes. Roll in the remaining powdered sugar, and flatten slightly. Put them onto the parchment-lined baking sheet, allowing room to spread slightly, and sift the remaining powdered sugar over the tops. Leave the cookies at room temperature for about 1 hour to dry a little before baking. (With my #60 scoop, I made 43 1/2 cookies exactly.)

  4. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F (140 degrees C). Bake the cookies for about 30 minutes (or less!), or until they are lightly golden and a little firm on the outside (the insides should still be soft). Cool completely and store in an airtight container. They keep for just over a week if you don’t constantly find another excuse to go to the kitchen and, say, wipe down the counters or check that the milk didn’t escape from the fridge, then sigh and pop open the cookie jar again to nibble.

Important notes

* I bought my almond flour ready-made from Bob’s Red Mill. You can make your own from blanched almonds by grinding 1 tablespoon flour per 1 cup of almonds together in a food processor. The flour prevents the formation of almond butter. However, it also makes it a non-celiac friendly recipe.

** Tip from my testing: You don’t need the parchment, but it’s much better. Cooking directly on the baking sheet will cause the bottoms of the cookies to cook and brown more quickly and you’ll lose the wonderful chew and softness. I would invest in parchment or try to bake on a silicon mat and let me know how that works.

For another recipe and photos of ricciarelli, take a look here:

E per quelli che capiscono l'Italiano, ecco una ricetta da Patrizia con delle belle foto:

Bookmark and Share

Friday, May 17, 2013

Cibreo's Yellow Pepper Soup

Years ago when my daughter was studying in Florence, I had a transformative dining experience there. I ate at Cibrèo. That first dinner at Cibrèo stayed with me forever, so when my brother-in-law and sister-in-law invited me to be their guests at a villa in Florence this month, I knew Cibrèo also had to be in my future. 

After eating dinner at Cibrèo twice in the last two weeks, I'm happy to report that the food is just as good as ever.  But you don't have to fly to Florence to savor one of Cibrèo's signature dishes. Just make the recipe at the end of this post.

In a one-block corner of the city, you'll find several Cibrèo eateries, including the fancy, linen-tablecloth Cibrèo restaurant. Dine there if you want to go more upscale. But to eat the same food at half the price, in a more casual setting, go to the Cibrèo trattoria across the street. No reservations taken, so it's best to line up twenty minutes before it opens at 7 to get a seat. Because it's small and it's not exactly a secret.

There's nary a pasta dish or pizza on the menu, but what does come out of the kitchen can only be described as divine, including their yellow pepper soup, or passata di peperoni gialli.

 If silk and sunshine were edible, this is how it would be done. 

Start the evening at the Cibrèo cafe with a glass of prosecco or an Aperol spritz, to get you ready for the main event.  Maybe you'd prefer to spend the evening at the Cibrèo dinner theater, where it helps to know Italian.

Fabbio Picchi is the mastermind behind all these delicious eateries, and you'll see him constantly scurrying back and forth among diners to make sure everything remains to his high standards.

 I have to confess when I showed him photos from my recent preparation of his yellow pepper soup, he scolded me because I had roasted and peeled the peppers, instead of running them through a food mill  to separate the skins from the pulp. Italians frequently use this tool (a mouli) when making tomato sauce too.

 But since I don't own one, I roasted the peppers and peeled the skin. Sorry Fabio.

The soup was just as good as what I remembered eating at Cibrèo, even if I adapted the recipe to suit my lack of a mouli. It freezes beautifully too, so you can stockpile some for when company's arriving, or when you've got a busy day and don't have time to cook. A little heavy cream makes it luxurious.

Everything on the menu at Cibrèo is really special.

 The polenta is one of my favorites. I don't how they manage to get it so soft and creamy. I just know I had to have it, with its dribble of olive oil and scattering of parmigiano on top. So I did. I would happily eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This ricotta and potato sformato was pretty darn special too, served with a rich ragù on the side.

And who'd have thought that crab soup would be a specialty you'd crave in Florence? Well, take my word for it, it may look drab, but any other crab soup you've had will pale beside this intensely flavored version.  

The main courses were equally delicious, including this casserole of sausages and beans - a classic Tuscan dish.

The roast pork loin with potatoes and spinach looked delicious too, but the one criticism was that it was served at room temperature.

I have to confess the stuffed chicken neck (replete with chicken head in the presentation) didn't sound too appealing, but it tasted like a very good chicken paté. Be prepared - so much of the food at Cibrèo is mousse-like in texture.

But I couldn't say no when I heard that stuffed rabbit was one of the night's specials - with sweet cipolline onions on the side. It was tender, flavorful and I would order it again in a heartbeat. Actually, I did order again on my second visit in two weeks.

The desserts were also every bit as delicious as I remembered. The cheesecake smeared with orange marmalade was a standout.

But then again, so was the cream-filled tart topped with the tiny strawberries (fragoline) that are a specialty in Italy this time of year.

But this was the dessert I had been dreaming about since my last visit - a coffee flavored bavarian cream smothered in dark chocolate. One bite and you're in la-la land. It's light and luscious and rich all at the same time.

I didn't think Cibrèo could top that, a new dessert on the menu comes close - a vanilla bavarian cream served with a puddle of reduced, sweet grape must called saba.  Now I've got a real problem. What to order for dessert next time?

Cibreo's Yellow Pepper Soup

Total time: 45 minutes

1 red onion

1 carrot

1 stalk celery

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 yellow peppers (I used 3 and roasted them, then peeled them)

4 medium-size potatoes (I used 1 large and it was plenty)

2 cups water or chicken stock

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 glass of milk (It's good with just milk, but use heavy cream if you want a really rich taste)

2 bay leaves

Homemade croutons to garnish.

1. Chop onion, carrot and celery. Fry them in olive oil until golden in a heavy casserole large enough to hold all the vegetables.

2. Devein and chop peppers. (I roasted the peppers and peeled them, then added them to the blender along with the other cooked vegetables) Peel and chop potatoes. Add to casserole along with about two cups of water or stock (or half water and half stock), enough to cover vegetables. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Simmer 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Pass the vegetables through a shredder or a Mouli to remove skins. Puree in a blender or food processor. (After soup has been liquified, it should not be boiled again or it will lose its color and taste).

4. Return soup to heat and add milk, which will remove any remaining acidity in the peppers and give the soup a smoother consistency. Add bay leaves. Heat through without boiling. Correct seasoning and remove from heat.

5. Take out the bay leaves. Serve soup in heated individual bowls garnished with croutons. If you need to reheat the soup, heat it in a double boiler.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Bookmark and Share