Review and Recipe Selection by JENNIFER GAGEL
Most cookbooks are written by chefs who become authors. Frances Mayes is a well-known author and poet who has already captivated readers with her tales of an American living in Italy. Along with her husband Edward, she renovated a Tuscan farmhouse and wrote a bestselling book about it. Seeing that most of their adventures in the beautiful Italian countryside revolved around the preparation, preservation and celebration of food, they gathered those recipes into The Tuscan Sun Cookbook: Recipes from Our Italian Kitchen (Frances Mayes & Edward Mayes, Clarkson Potter 2012, $31.99 CDN). The author of that earlier book (Under the Tuscan Sun) has always loved the Italian approach to food and has woven their cuisine into many of her stories. Now she and her husband have gathered those recipes into a rustic, homey collection that walks us through their 20-year Italian dream. It was here that they learned to cook the best food they’d ever made, even when their kitchen table was a door on sawhorses. From there, they added olive groves and a wood-fired bread oven, from which they prepare feasts to share with their dear friends and neighbours.
Both writers use their considerable skill with language to transport us to Tuscany, and stunningly beautiful photographs by Steven Rothfeld help to bring the journey to life. What foodie hasn’t dreamed of baking bread in a wood-fired oven in an Italian olive grove? As outsiders, the Mayes have access to members of all walks of life in their region, dining with politicians and shepherds, businessmen, chefs and grandmothers. Some of the recipes they offer are their own, some come from other chefs they know, and some are traditional Tuscan fare, such as Guisi’s Ragu.
Mayes explains that in Tuscany it’s common to forage for food, combing fields and woods for chestnuts, green almonds, blackberries, and porcini mushrooms. This approach is so far removed from our culture of supermarkets with fluorescent lights that readers may feel they’ve entered a different world. The authors also explain that there are often local festivals, called sagre, dedicated to a specific food in its season. Ingredients are few but of the best quality. Time and love shine through in every bite. The recipes in this book are about so much more than getting food on the table; they are about building (or at least, imagining) a life that one can love for the simple joy of it. The cooking and preparation are as much a part of that joy as the consumption of the food. Italians love life too much not to eat well. Vegetables are at the centre of many of the recipes, reflecting the Italian love of fresh, seasonal produce. Along with that passion comes the drive to preserve that produce, providing the home with a well-stocked pantry, la dispensa. It’s this that allows the Tuscans to prepare large meals every evening with ease, considering it a relaxing event. A variety of meat recipes include the expected beef, lamb, veal and ham, but also rabbit and chicken livers. Wine pairings are often suggested. Mayes has a gift with words that can transform the simplest ingredient list into a dish you crave the minute you read it. Over 150 recipes are organized in the order of a traditional Italian meal, from the antipasti (appetizers) to the dolci (desserts). You’ll find instructions for cooking fresh or dried pasta — and yes, Italians use both. There are directions for making fresh pasta by hand or by the more modern food processor method. They all have their place. Pour yourself a glass of wine and spend a long slow afternoon enjoying life under The Tuscan Sun with the Mayes. Better yet, bring the bottle and invite some friends to share the adventure.
JENNIFER GAGEL is a freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com.
All Rights Reserved. RECIPES courtesy of The Tuscan Sun Cookbook, by Frances Mayes and Edward Mayes
Italians love the involtini concept — something filled and rolled. I experimented with this idea, since I had a nice firm gigantic eggplant. For this dish, choose the brick-shaped part-skim mozzarella as it has less moisture. For beauty, tie the involtini with chives.
3 tablespoons (40 mL) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the parchment
1 large eggplant, cut lengthwise into 8 slices
1 tablespoon (15 mL) fresh oregano leaves or 1 ½ teaspoons (7 mL) dried
1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt
½ teaspoon (2 mL) pepper
8 tomatoes or 1 28-ounce (796 mL) can whole tomatoes almost drained of liquid, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 garlic glove, minced
8 slices prosciutto
8 slices part-skim mozzarella
¼ cup (1 ounce or 25-30 g) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Oil a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Place the eggplant slices on the pan and brush both sides with 2 tablespoons (25 mL) of the olive oil. Sprinkle on the oregano, salt, and pepper. Bake for 10 minutes, turning once. They will then be supple.
While the eggplant is in the oven, make a simple tomato sauce by whirring the tomatoes briefly in a food processor. In a medium skillet over medium heat, sauté the onion for 2 to 3 minutes in the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, then add the garlic and sauté for another minute. Stir in the tomatoes and cook the mixture briefly, just to blend flavours, about 2 minutes.
Remove the eggplant from the oven. Lower the oven temperature to 350ºF.
On each eggplant piece, place a slice of prosciutto and a slice of mozzarella. Roll the pieces from the small end forward, and secure the neat little bundle with a toothpick or by tying a chive around it.
Slather the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with some of the tomato sauce, and arrange the involtini seam side down. Over each bundle spread some more tomato sauce and a scattering of the Parmigiano. Warm well in the oven, about 15 minutes. Finito!
Roasted Veal Shank
Your butcher may have to order this cut, which is ossobuco left whole. This is our number-one house favourite—fall-off-your-chair tasty and so very easy. Our friend Riccardo Baracchi’s Ardito, made from Syrah and cabernet sauvignon grapes, is a perfect choice for this meltingly tender vitello.
1 veal shank, about 3 pounds (1.5 Kg)
2 tablespoons (25 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon (15 mL) fresh thyme leaves or 1 ½ teaspoons (7 mL) dried
1 tablespoon (15 mL) minced fresh rosemary or 1 ½ teaspoons (7 mL) dried
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt
1 teaspoon (5 mL) pepper
½ cup (125 mL) water
½ cup (125 mL) white wine
Preheat oven to 275ºF.
In an 8-quart (8-litre) enameled casserole with a lid, over medium heat, brown the shank all over in the olive oil for about 8 minutes.
Remove from the heat. Let it cool enough so that you can pat the herbs, garlic, and seasonings onto the meat. Return it to the pot, cover and slow-roast for 1 ½ hours.
Gently turn the meat and pour the water over it. Continue to roast for 30 more minutes, and then pour the wine over it. Roast for 1 hour more (3 hours total).
The meat will have shrunk away from the bone somewhat and will almost fall off. Let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Serve whole on a platter and pull pieces off with a large fork. Serve the pan juices in a separate bowl or douse the veal all at once.