Sunday, June 2, 2013


More and more of the health food literature is emphasizing the Mediterranean diet as heart healthy and
Panna Cotta: Another dessert for breakfast
delicious. Numerous studies have shown that those people who follow such a diet have fewer incidences of heart disease and stroke and some new studies have shown a link between monounsaturated fats and a lower incidence of cancer. The greatest news of all is that this diet is delicious.

Americans have long had a love affair with Italian food and Italy is perhaps the epitome of the Mediterranean diet. And of all the regions of Italy that we associate with good food, it is Tuscany.

I have a good friend who went on a cooking-school vacation in Tuscany and couldn’t stop talking about the food. She really didn’t have words to describe it, she said. And no wonder. Tuscany is the magical region that is the home of crostini, biscotti, pecorino, pappardelle and panforte; not to mention olives and olive oil.

Enjoying every day and finding a way to celebrate even the mundane days of the week, especially gathering, preparing and sharing food is a goal that I share with the Tuscans. And the Tuscans could almost be credited with inventing “natural” foods—as they are the heart of their cuisine. By natural, I mean fresh, local, unprocessed foods prepared and eaten in as natural a way as possible and welcomed at its “natural” prime. A continuing pleasure cycle that follows the seasons is an art in Tuscany.

Here is a typical Tuscan Spring Menu (Some recipes from Bon Appetit May 2000)

Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi
Chicken with White Wine and Mushrooms
Asparagus and Parmesan Puddings
Panna Cotta with Strawberry-Vin Santo Sauce

Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi (Makes 8)

8 First Course Servings

4 6-ounce packages ready-to-use baby spinach leaves
2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 Cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup flour
2 large egg yolks
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
Generous pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
¼ cup butter, melted

Cook spinach in large pot of boiling salted water just until wilted, stirring occasionally, about 2 minutes. Drain. Squeeze out liquid. Chop spinach. Mix spinach, ricotta, ½ cup Parmesan, ½ cup flour, egg yolks, salt, pepper and nutmeg in bowl until slightly sticky dough forms. Dust baking sheet with flour. Working in batches and using floured hands, roll ¼ cup dough on floured work surface to form 5-inch-long rope. Cut rope into 1-inch pieces. Roll each piece between palms to form oval. Transfer gnocchi to prepared baking sheet. Repeat rolling, cutting and shaping with remaining dough. Working in batches, add gnocchi to pot of boiling salted water; cook until gnocchi rise to surface. Cook 4 minutes longer. Using slotted spoon, remove gnocchi from water; drain. Place in serving dish. Pour butter over gnocchi; toss. Sprinkle with ½ cup Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper.

Chicken with White Wine and Mushrooms (8 servings)

8 chicken breast halves with skin and bone
½ cup olive oil
1 1/3 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup chopped carrot
2/3 cup chopped celery
4 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
2 pounds mushrooms, sliced
2 14 ½ ounce cans diced tomatoes in juice
2 cups dry white wine

Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper; dust with flour. Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken, skin side down and sauté until brown, about 5 minutes. Turn chicken over and sauté 3 minutes. Transfer chicken to bowl. Add onion, carrot, celery, parsley and garlic to skillet; sauté 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté until starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes with juices and wine. Boil sauce until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Return chicken to sauce. Cover skillet, reduce heat to medium and simmer until chicken is cooked through and tender, about 15 minutes. Transfer chicken and sauce to plates and serve.

Asparagus and Parmesan Puddings

½ cup fresh breadcrumbs made from Italian bread with crust cut off
2 pounds asparagus, trimmed
2 Tbsp. butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 3 ounces)
½ cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
¼ cup flour
4 large eggs

Butter 8 ¾-cup custard cups; coat with breadcrumbs. Cut off asparagus tips. Cook tips in large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Drain; reserve tips and 1 cup cooking liquid. Coarsely chop asparagus stalks. Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add onion; sauté until tender, about 6 minutes. Add stalks; sauté until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Add reserved asparagus cooking liquid. Cover; simmer until stalks are tender, about 12 minutes. Uncover; cook until liquid is absorbed, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Transfer to food processor; puree. Add Parmesan, ricotta and flour. Using on/off turns, process just until blended. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk eggs in bowl to blend. Add asparagus puree; whisk to blend. Stir in all but 16 asparagus tips. Divide custard among cups. Place cups in roasting pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour hot water into pan to come 1 inch up sides of cups. Bake puddings until set, about 35 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes. Invert onto plates. Garnish with asparagus tips.

Panna Cotta with Strawberry-Vin Santo Sauce (10 servings)

¼ cup cold water
4 tsp unflavored gelatin
4 cups whipping cream
1 cup sugar
1 Tbsp honey
¼ tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp Vin Santo (An Italian dessert wine available at some liquor stores) or Muscat wine or cream Sherry
2 cups pine nuts
Strawberry-Vin Santo Sauce (see recipe)
Additional pine nuts

Pour ¼ cup water into metal bowl; sprinkle gelatin over. Let stand until gelatin softens, about 10 minutes. Set bowl in saucepan of simmering water. Stir just until gelatin dissolves, about 1 minute. Combine cream, sugar, honey and vanilla in heavy large saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Add gelatin mixture and Vin Santo; whisk until well blended. Divide 2 cups pine nuts among ten ¾-cup custard cups. Divide cream mixture among cups. Chill overnight. Set cups in small bowl of warm water to loosen panna cotta, about 20 seconds each. Run small knife between panna cotta and custard cups. Invert panna cotta onto plates. Spoon sauce over. Sprinkle with additional pine nuts; serve.

Strawberry-Vin Santo Sauce (makes 2 cups)

1 pound fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered
1/3 cup sugar
2 Tbsp Vin Santo
¼ tsp vanilla
¼ tsp (packed grated lemon peel

Puree strawberries in processor. Transfer puree to heavy saucepan. Mix in sugar, Vin Santo, vanilla and lemon peel. Simmer over medium-low heat until sauce is reduced to 2 cups, about 15 minutes. Cool.