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The Tuscan Table : The Simple Food of the Countryside

October 04, 1990|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Tuscan cooking does not belong to the riotous, extravagant school of Italian cooking; it is rigorously plain. As a result, the ingredients it relies on have to be superb: deep-green peppery olive oil, locally cured prosciutto and salami, free-range poultry, feathered game and wild boar, porcini and other wild mushrooms, and greens gathered in the fields. Tuscan tastes are so austere that white and whole-grained breads are baked without salt in the dough. Strange at first encounter, the startling contrast between unsalted bread and salty prosciutto or olives quickly becomes an addiction. And what could be better than this earthy bread and a wedge of snowy Pecorino, a sharp sheep's-milk cheese from the hills of Siena?

Tuscans are basically bread-eaters rather than pasta-eaters. Stale bread goes into some of the favorite country dishes, such as ribollita , a soup of beans, black cabbage and other vegetables reheated with a piece of bread at the bottom to thicken it. Fett'unta is a slice of grilled day-old bread vigorously rubbed with a fresh garlic clove and soaked in good olive oil.

In summer, look for panzanella , a refreshing salad of torn bits of bread tossed with tomatoes and onions in a red wine vinegar and virgin olive oil. You'll see these same dishes again and again, but fewer pasta dishes than in any other region. Pappardelle (wide ribbon noodles in a savory hare or rabbit sauce) is a classic, as are ricotta-filled ravioli in melted butter and sage leaves.

Tuscans like their food livened with fresh herbs and that irresistible olive oil, but unobscured by competing flavors. One of the most famous Tuscan dishes is bistecca alla Fiorentina , a two- to three-inch-thick slab of the native (but increasingly hard-to-find) Chianina beef grilled rare over charcoal. In fact, all kinds of grilled and roasted meats are popular here--rabbits, chickens, game birds, pork and veal chops and especially arista (pork roast with rosemary). The contorno or side dish might be cannellini beans drizzled with olive oil, deep-fried artichokes, or potatoes roasted with bay leaves.

Dessert is the most austere course of all: usually just fruit, or hard almond biscuits from Prato served with a glass of amber vin santo , the Tuscan dessert wine made from semi-dried grapes. During the grape harvest, wine estates serve schiacciata , a sweet flatbread stained with dark grapes. And in chestnut season, castagnaccio , a flat chestnut flour cake flavored with pine nuts and rosemary, appears on trattoria menus.

Chianti Recipes

"Le Fette al Cavolo--a piece of bread, slightly toasted, with olive oil and black cabbage on top--is a typical Tuscan first course," explains Marchese Piero Antinori, who produces a wide range of wines at the family firm's estates in Tuscany and Umbria. This recipe comes from the popular Florentine restaurant Cantinetta Antinori, a showcase for Antinori wines and informal Tuscan fare .

Black cabbage is an elongated, deep-bluish-green cabbage particular to Tuscany; kale or Swiss chard makes a good substitute.

LE FETTE AL CAVOLO (Black Cabbage or Swiss Chard on Toast)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1 bunch black cabbage or Swiss chard, rinsed, patted dry and coarsely chopped (discard stalks)

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 thick slices oven-toasted Italian bread drizzled with olive oil (bruschetta)

Heat olive oil in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and saute 1 to 2 minutes (do not brown). Stir in black cabbage. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook until tender, about 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread mixture over bruschetta and serve immediately. Makes 2 servings.

Another classic dish, almost always on the menu at Cantinetta Antinori, is the famous Tuscan soup Ribollita. Literally meaning "reboiled," it is Tuscan-style minestrone reheated and thickened the next day with day-old bread. It's always an improvised soup that changes through the seasons--including more cabbage one day, more carrots or potatoes the next.

RIBOLLITA (Tuscan-Style Minestrone)

1/2 pound dried white Tuscan beans

Water

1 ham hock or prosciutto bone

3/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 medium carrot, chopped

1 medium celery stalk, chopped

1 small bunch kale, shredded

1 unpeeled potato, cut into small chunks

1 small bunch Swiss chard, chopped

1 large tomato or 1 cup canned tomatoes, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons rosemary leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped parsley

1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

6 thick slices Italian or French bread, toasted

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Place beans in large saucepan and add enough cold water to cover. Let stand at room temperature overnight. Drain beans well and return to saucepan.

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