Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer Time in Tuscany

The Gourmet Girlfriends gathered at my home on a warm Sunday afternoon / evening in July.  I had decided on an Italian-themed summer menu that would show off some of the cooking skills I’d picked up while living in Tuscany, as well as allow us to spend time together outdoors in the garden. My basic philosophy about cooking is: less is more. By that I mean less cooking time means more time to spend chatting, catching up with friends, and sipping Prosecco!
We started the evening with antipasti: bresaola stuffed with fresh ricotta and arugula; endive topped with mascarpone cheese and toasted walnuts; aged peccorino cheese and fresh pears; and prosciutto e melone. We sat pool side happily chatting, sipping, and eating antipasti, and then promptly declared ourselves full! Well…, I still had a kitchen full of food to be prepared for our primo and secondo courses, as well as contorni e dolci, so I decided it was time for a field trip to see my newly planted herb garden!

The 20-second “hike” around the pool to the herb planter was enough to restore our appetites (did I say this is a group of ladies that can really eat?).
We began the meal with our pasta course, spaghetti alla caprese, which is a wonderful no-cook summer pasta dish. Just combine fresh tomatoes, fresh buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, a hint of garlic and salt, add hot cooked spaghetti and top with fresh basil. The result is a light and refreshing pasta version of the classic caprese salad (named after a dish first popularized on the island of Capri).
After our primo course, we took a moment for some impromptu olive oil tasting (I had brought back a small assortment of artiginal olive oils from my last trip to Tuscany).  We discussed the various flavors and, for the uninitiated, I spent some time extolling the virtues of first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil above all others.  We shared tips for finding the best olive oil at great prices, and debated whether (besides the price) there was a real difference between good Spanish and good Italian olive oil (especially now that Italy imports a lot of its olives from Spain!).
But enough talk about oil, time for more food! Earlier we had fired up the grill and prepped our main course, spiedini of marinated chicken breast alternated with homemade (by my butcher, not me) hot Italian sausage. Along with the spiedini, we prepared a Sicilian orange salad with red onions and olives, assorted roasted vegetables (red, yellow, and green bell peppers; asparagus; eggplant; red onion) and, a classic Tuscan staple, roasted potatoes with rosemary and garlic. This was all accompanied by copious amounts of a Badia di Coltibuono Chianti Classico Reserva.
Now we were really stuffed…, some of us even tried to beg off dessert, but we were past the point of no return and my solution was to serve vin santo and cantucci (a/k/a biscotti di Prato), a classic and traditional Tuscan dessert of crunchy almond cookies dipped into a delicious golden colored dessert wine.  The second wind created by the cantucci and vin santo allowed me to bring out our second “light dessert” (hah!) of assorted gelati e sorbetti  with mixed frutti di bosco (seasonal berries).  From there we descended into a silent torpor… also known as a food coma.
We’d started at 5pm and it was now about 10:30pm… a marathon of cooking, eating, and drinking in true GG style. The point of my menu was to transport us to summer time in Italy, spending time together, and enjoying some easy to prepare dishes. When the weather cools off we can tackle some of the more complex and hearty offerings from the Tuscan kitchen.
About Susan: 
I was born in New Orleans, LA, but have lived in Los Angeles since the tender age of 6 months, so I consider myself a Californian.  My style of cooking reflects the laid-back lifestyle of year-round sunshine and living close to the ocean, so I’m as likely to throw things on a grill as whip up my family’s killer secret recipe gumbo. Like most Angelenos, I grew up eating Mexican food and enjoy preparing homemade guacamole, tacos, enchiladas, and margaritas with fresh lime juice. My second “spiritual home” is Italy, and I really learned to cook while living, studying, and working there in my early twenties. I return to Italy at least twice a year and the infinite variety of regional Italian cooking is what continues to draw me back and inspire my palate.

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