October 5, 2008
I think Fall is my favorite time to visit Italy. The markets are still alive and offering up the more hearty vegetables of the changing season. The "vendemmia," or wine harvest, is livening up the small towns where colorful banners adorn the buildings announcing the local grape of which each town is so proud.
And the sunlight is somehow milder, though the sun still shines brightly, making the sky a more vivid blue than in the heat of summer, and the cool, crisp autumn air carries the scent of chestnuts and smoke that remind me of cooking over fire and spending more time inside... in the kitchen.
My trip to Italy was a combination of work and play, including accompanying two groups of travellers to a Tuscan cooking school where I got to share my love of Italy with new friends and deepen my understanding of rustic Italian cooking. The groups came to Tuscany to learn to cook with wood-fired ovens as well as visit the area of Tuscany where these ovens were made. I acted as the liason between them and the Italians and learned alot about wood-fired ovens in the process.
Due to a lucky turn of events for me, I was sent to substitute for the owner of the company,Andrea Mugnaini on her Art of Wood-Fired Cooking Course in Tuscany. I didn't have much time to prepare, but my almost 20-year love affair with all things Italian and experience in Italy was preparation enough. My love of cooking and working with people together with my knowledge of the language and the place made for a fruitful and rewarding trip--both for the students and for me. I met some wonderful people and learned many insights into the Tuscan home cook's philosophy (thanks to Carla and Berta, the local experts and my new friends who guided us--and entertained us--in the kitchen).
But most of all, I learned a lot about cooking with a wood-fired oven and I am now a convert.
We made everything from bruschetta to eggplant parmesan, ribollita, risotto, roasted meats, grilled 'bistecca fiorentina' and of course, the best pizzas of all time, and even some desserts --all in these beautiful Tuscan-made ovens, of which Ms. Mungaini is the sole U.S. distributor.
We even visited the factory down the road from our cooking school/hotel where the ovens are made and received a warm welcome from the Valoriani family who've been making ovens by hand in the traditional way for more than 60 years.
It was an amazing trip and a rewarding experience for me. I gained a new appreciation for the simplicity of Italian home cooking, one that already informed my own philosophy, but that I continue to expand and deepen each time I have the opportunity to visit Italy and cook with locals.
I hope to share more of these insights with you here. But I'll start with a recipe for "la Pomarola" --a simple, deeply flavored sauce of tomatoes and vegetables that is the backbone for many Italian dishes. Its versatility lends itself to all sorts of sauces--from a simple red sauce for pizza, to the sauce that thickens eggplant parmigiano, to the liquid base of any ragù (meat sauce).
La Pomarola (recipe courtesy of Carla Bertini)
For the 'soffritto':
1 medium red onion
1 bunch of basil
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley
2 celery stalks
1 large can of good quality Italian whole-peeled tomatoes
salt and pepper
This sauce is built in stages on the basis of slow and low stovetop cooking. Start by mincing together as finely as possible, finer than you normally would, the first 3 ingredients. Heat some extra virgin olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and add the minced onion and herbs. Cook until softened and the aromas blended, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes.
Then chop your carrots and celery, roughly, and add to the mix. Then add your can of tomatoes, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Stir well, turn down the heat and simmer, covered, on the stove for about 1 to 1.5 hours, or until the carrots are soft. Pass the whole thing through a food mill or ricer so you end up with a smooth, red sauce. Season to taste.