In the heart of Italy – home to destinations such as Florence, Pisa and beautiful hilltop towns like Colle Val d’Elsa – Tuscany is the life and soul of rustic Italy. Whenever I travel to a new destination one of my favourite things to do is to try the local cuisine, and Tuscany was no exception. Now, we’re no strangers to Italian cuisine in the UK, but often what doesn’t translate in meals served up here is the Italian attitude to food and cooking. The fundamentals behind a delicious Italian recipe are simplicity and freshness. Made of few yet excellent quality ingredients and using simple cooking methods, a villa holiday is great platform for perfecting the art. The local shops and markets are filled with fresh, seasonal produce bursting with flavour so you shouldn’t miss the chance to browse and take back a little something to whip up in your villa kitchen, or on the barbecue. And in true Italian form, it’s not just the meal that matters, but how you eat it. Taking the time to savour your meal, spending quality time with your family and making the meal a true social occasion of chat and laughter should fill your hearts as well as your stomachs. I can see myself now back in Tuscany dining alfresco on the villa terrace overlooking the countryside, and as I can’t transport myself back there right now, I’m going to relive the experience instead by sharing a few of my favourite dishes to use in your very own Tuscan food creations.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina
There are few dishes more mouthwatering than a classic, hearty T-bone steak cooked to perfection on the barbecue. In Tuscan food, and in the Florence region especially, they serve their steaks rare with a little rosemary – delicious! Give it a go on your villa’s barbecue, with this quick and simple recipe.
2 Porterhouse steaks
¼ Cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Large sprig fresh rosemary (tied at one end)
Get two (or however many you need) porterhouse steaks from a local butcher, and rub them with olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Over a hot barbecue, sear them on each side, rubbing each one with fresh rosemary half way through. You can cook them to your preference, but the Italians like them served pink (or even a little blue), so preparation and cooking times can take only a matter of minutes. For a tasty and traditional Tuscan side dish to go alongside, try the Tuscan-style white beans recipe below.
Tuscan-style white beans
Full of flavour, Tuscan-style white beans are a much-loved Italian side dish. They’re incredibly easy to cook at your villa, plus you can save any leftovers in the fridge for the next day. You’ll need…
2 Smashed garlic cloves
¼ Teaspoon chilli flakes
1 Chopped plum tomato
1 Sprig rosemary
2 Cans drained cannellini beans
½ Cup water
1 Handful chopped parsley
Salt to taste
A sprinkle of parmesan
First, cook your garlic and chilli flakes with a glug of olive oil, in a large pan over a medium-high heat for about 1 minute, then add your chopped tomato and rosemary, and cook for another 2 minutes. You should get a lovely waft of fragrance now. Next, pour in your drained cannellini beans and cook for about 5 minutes, being quite rough with the wooden spoon so that you break up the beans a little. Fish out the rosemary sprig, stir in your water, parsley and salt, and you’re nearly there. Simply sprinkle the top with parmesan and pop it under the grill for a few minutes, until golden, with a drizzle of olive oil to serve – ecco fatto (“that’s done”)!
Pollo al Marsala con peperoni rossi
While Marsala (a type of fortified wine) comes from Sicily, it’s used in cooking throughout Italy, particularly in Florence. Similar in many ways to Madeira, Port and Sherry, Marsala can be golden, amber or ruby in colour, and can be either sweet or dry. This dish pairs the wine with red peppers – a delicious combination.
4 Boneless and skinless chicken breasts
½ Cup plain flour
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Thinly sliced red bell pepper
1 Cup Marsala wine
½ Cup chicken stock
Chopped parsley to garnish
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat the olive oil in a large pan as you butterfly the chicken breasts and sprinkle with flour on both sides, then gently brown the meat, adding salt and pepper as you go. Once browned, remove the chicken breasts from the pan and set them aside. Add the red pepper to the pan and sauté on high heat for 2 or 3 minutes before adding the chicken breasts, Marsala wine and stock. Cover the pan and cook for approximately 6 to 8 minutes, or until the juices from the chicken breasts run clear. When you take the lid off be prepared for a lovely waft of Masala-infused steam, garnish with some chopped parsley and enjoy!
For something a little lighter, panzanella is a cold bread salad which dates back as far as the 14th century. I love ordering this dish in a restaurant as a light lunch, or to accompany a bigger meal. If you serve it at your villa, make sure it’s always served cold.
450g day-old bread, from the local bakery, or ciabatta
3 Diced small tomatoes
2 Thinly sliced red onions
1 Peeled and sliced cucumber
1 Handful fresh basil
Slice up your leftover fresh-baked bread from the day before and soak it in water for 10 minutes, before squeezing it to remove any excess liquid and crumbling it up with your hands into a serving bowl. Add in the rest of your ingredients (except the vinegar) and season with olive oil and salt, to taste, stirring the mixture well. Pop into the fridge so that it gets nice and cold, then when you’re ready to serve, add a little vinegar and mix again. Make sure it’s still cold before eating and you’ll find it a light, refreshing lunch, perfect on a hot day by the pool!
Quick & tasty
If you’re looking for a quick dish that’s fresh and seasonal, try slicing up a large tomato and layering it with thick slices of buffalo mozzarella. Sprinkle on a few basil leaves, add a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, scrunch on a few turns of salt and pepper, and you’ve got a healthy and delicious dish that’s worthy of any Tuscan restaurant menu, served up in minutes at your villa.
Don’t forget the wine
With all the wonderful vineyards scattering the region, your traditional Tuscan food dishes should surely be toasted with a local vintage, si? Look out for Solaia – known as one of Tuscany’s finest; if you can sample a taste of it you’re in for a treat. A full, fruity red, it’s made up of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese and 5% Cabernet Franc. Most will also know the name Chianti, and for good reason. A famous wine exclusively produced in the beautiful Chianti region of Tuscany, Chianti is a dry, rustic wine made from Sangiovese grapes. It goes wonderfully with food, so it’s a must for a traditional dinner spread on a balmy evening on your villa terrace. Saluti!
We love Italian cuisine, but did you know…?
Traditional spaghetti alla carbonara doesn’t use cream! All you need are egg yolks, olive oil, spaghetti, diced guanciale (an Italian cured meat), with a little of your cooked pasta water for a light sauce and parmesan to finish. Trust me – this way is much better, and healthier.
“Spaghetti Bolognese” is traditionally served on tagliatelle, which is thicker and is better at holding the sauce. When you’re perusing the restaurants of Italy, look out for tagliatelle al ragù, which is the dish’s real name. I think it’s best enjoyed simply with minced beef, pancetta, a little tomato passata, carrot and celery – delizioso.