Learn Tuscan cooking from a regional chef.
If you are in love with Italy like I am, you can take a Tuscan cooking class and immerse in an important part of Italian life. Did you know that Tuscan cuisine was born in the countryside and is very different from what you will find in Rome or Milan? Italy was many separate City States until the Risorgimento in the mid 19th Century. Local specialties can vary from castle town to castle town.
Everything but the lamb came from Donatella’s Garden.
When we entered Donatella’s professional kitchen near Cortona she was deboning a leg of lamb, an important meat in Tuscan cooking. I have never seen anyone do that! Once she freed the bones, we placed them in the first-press olive oil in the hot skillet. Next, we cut up the meat and threw that in the pan to begin the preparation of our main dish. The Lamb Stew with Egg and Lemon Sauce would cook during the 3-hour class that had just begun.
We shared the day with 4 Australians, one of whom was an ex-pat Italian. Gianni spoke fluently and translated for Donatella. Some dishes were simple, and others required careful demonstration. We were very excited to enjoy the lunch that was to come from our morning in this welcoming, and now fragrant, Tuscan kitchen.
The peasant cuisine of Tuscany reflects the status of the household.
Tuscan bread and pasta are more substrates for sauces and soups than a delight all their own in Tuscan cooking. Flour and water are all that goes into them with, perhaps, a tiny pinch of salt. Salt and eggs were traditionally used only in upper class kitchens in past centuries. Handle the simple ingredients in pasta, crust or bread to determine their shape and texture. When you combine them with a hand-crafted sauce with garden-fresh ingredients your dish will come alive.
We were surprised when Donatella taught us how to make pici, a tube shaped pasta kind of like a fat spaghetti. We spent 20 minutes hand-rolling the pasta made of only three ingredients. Remarkably, after mixing, chilling, pounding, rolling and cooking the pici, it bubbled away in a scratch marinara sauce for about half an hour without getting limp or falling apart. The pasta absorbed the wonderful fresh flavors from Donatella’s garden while we moved onto the rest of the dishes.
The appetizers are my favorite part of the meal.
September is a great time to tour Italy because the weather is sublime and the gardens and vineyards are in harvest. Donatella’s assistant, Gioia, brought in the herbs and tomatoes from her cook’s garden. We chopped the heirloom tomatoes, including skins, seeds and all, and they joined the olive oil and herbs to begin the “Pappa col Pomodoro” and “Crostini col Pecorino”. These are two typical first courses in Tuscan cooking. Both were quick dishes with tons of flavor created with a handful of ingredients consisting of tomatoes, cheese, bread, butter, herbs, garlic and not much else. These recipes are perfect for the amateur or expert cook.
The lemon Granny’s Cake was light as a feather.
The skin of the lemon, not the juice, is what gives the cream in the center of this dessert its tangy lemon flavor. We added some juice to the crust, but only the peel and the zest cook in the cream. This was a total revelation to me. In the peasant tradition you use every part of the fruits and vegetables possible.
Vanilla, milk, sugar and egg yolks complete the recipe. I could have eaten the custard alone and been satisfied.
Donatella made the lemon sauce for the meat as the dessert baked.
I have never had leg of lamb with an egg and lemon sauce. Donatella baked with the zesty lemon to link the main dish and the dessert. Brilliant! Garlic, rosemary, lemon and white wine give this dish its snappy flavor and compliments the strong and savory lamb perfectly. After the lamb is sautéed and steamed with wine and broth, a little flour, egg and lemon juice and the sauce coats the lamb all in one pan. Delicious!
Here are some cooking tips that we learned during our lesson that I never knew before.
- Tear your herbs by hand, don’t chop them, to release more intense flavor
- Only use the stalest bread as an ingredient in Tuscan style cooking.
- When mixing egg into a warm liquid, raise the temperature of the egg slightly with a teaspoon of warm milk first to avoid curdling.
- Don’t dry handmade pasta. Freeze it immediately to store it. Don’t defrost before cooking.
- When adding stock to meat, pour it down the sides of the pan to get the drippings into your gravy instead of over the meat.
- When cooking with stock or wine, let it completely evaporate with the cover on for the most intense flavor. Then add more liquid to make your sauce.
- For crostini, shred “young” pecorino (made from sheep’s milk). It is softer and melts better than aged cheese.
- Always let kneaded dough sit in the refrigerator from ½ to 1 hour before using it for your recipe.