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Lunch at Poggio Etrusco

I don’t own a home in the Tuscan countryside, but I’ve got the next best thing — I know someone who does — Pamela Sheldon Johns.
In my New Jersey kitchen, I’ve prepared a few dishes from her most recent cookbook, Cucina Povera, an homage to the peasant style cooking of Italy where nothing is wasted. Until now, we’ve never met in person. We’ve only communicated via the world wide web.
 But when she learned I was headed to Florence for a couple of weeks, she invited me to visit Poggio Etrusco, the home she and her husband Johnny Johns own, not far from Montepulciano.
It’s a house with many beautiful architectural features, like this brick archway. Everywhere you look, there is something to capture your interest.
Including a friendly menagerie of a few cats and dogs.
The house exudes warmth, just like she and her husband. Naturally, when you’re the author of 17 cookbooks, owner of a bed and breakfast in Tuscany and run cooking classes too, the kitchen is the center of activity. This is one small corner of the kitchen, where Pamela greeted me with a glass of prosecco and some munchies.
She made a variation of Adri Barr Crocetti’s recent post of bruschetta with fava beans, asparagus, peas and ricotta cheese – using really fresh sheep’s milk ricotta that was practically warm from mamma’s udders. The flavor was heightened with a drizzle of fresh olive oil pressed from Poggio Etrusco’s olives. You could have quit right here and I’d have been happier than Bacchus in an unlocked cantina.
But the next dish was what really bowled me over. It started with the blossoms of this tree. Do you recognize it? In Italian, it’s a sambuca tree and the flowers are an ingredient in the eponymous anise-flavored liqueur. In English, it’s an elder tree.

 

These are the blossoms from the elder tree. They look similar to Queen Anne’s Lace, but you can easily differentiate them because they grow on a tree, not as the perennial flowering plants that spring up everywhere in the countryside. Elder flowers were new to me, but when I got back to Princeton, armed with the knowledge I gained from Pamela, I spotted an elder tree right in the middle of town — a prime target for foraging.
Before deep-frying them, Pamela dipped the flowers in a light batter made of flour, eggs and prosecco.
Tasty? yes. Unusual? double yes. I had to fight the temptation to eat every one that was put on the plate. But I tried to make nice and leave some for the others. Besides, there was plenty more food to come.
Including these large sage leaves that Pamela dipped into the same batter and deep fried.
These savory nibbles were also a perfect treat with drinks.
Ready for the first course? – a luscious asparagus timballo, topped with an egg and spears at attention. DEE vine! Pamela’s recipe follows at the end of the post.
But wait… the deliciousness continues with savory and tender pieces of pork combined with asparagus and carrots, atop a bed of farro mixed with peas and fava beans, all soaking up the rich sugo.
Room for dessert? Ma certo, if it’s as flavorful as this homemade strawberry gelato Pamela made. Why is it that strawberries taste so much better in Italy than in the U.S.?  Maybe because they’re picked when  they’re plump and red, rather than when they’re still unripe, hard and tasteless, like those in supermarkets here.
Walking around Poggio Etrusco, you could sense the pride taken in everything that’s grown for consumption — from the chickens clucking in their pens….
To the artichokes nearly ready to be picked (I’m growing artichokes for the first time this year and they are teensy compared to these plants.)
The property has lovely patios to sit and enjoy the view of the olive groves and towns in the distance.
 Visitors can rent rooms and apartments here and really immerse themselves in the Tuscan country lifestyle, taking cooking classes from Pamela or just relaxing by the pool.
Sometimes the outdoor wood-burning oven is fired up for pizza.
Johnny’s artwork decorates the tins of olive oil and bottles of wine produced at Poggio Etrusco. This is another of his designs hanging on the wall of one of the guest rooms.
He’s a talented artist in other ways too and makes these large tote bags using old Italian movie posters made of plastic.They’re humorously lined with remnants from his old shirts and pants, complete with original pockets for tucking away cell phones, a wallet or other items.  They’d be right at home at a shop in New York City’s Soho.
And I felt right at home at Poggio Etrusco. It was hard to leave, but I know I’ll be back someday to visit these welcoming hosts and their enchanting home. Thank you Johnny and Pam for a memorable afternoon.

 

Pamela Sheldon Johns’

Timballo di Asparagi

This is a wonderful appetizer or brunch dish. It
is essentially a coddled egg on top of asparagus purée. The asparagus
purée remains creamy and blends with the egg yolk for a delicious sensation.
If you prefer a thicker asparagus purée, add 2 egg yolks to the mixture
before you pour it into the ramekins.

Extra-virgin olive oil and approx ¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for the ramekins

1 bunch asparagus

¼ cup whole milk (or, if you insist, cream)

½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

salt and pepper to taste

6 eggs

Preheat an oven to 350°F. Lightly oil (I like the
misto sprayer that I can put my own olive oil in) six ramekins and dust
generously with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Place in a baking
dish and set aside.

Cut the asparagus into three parts: the ugly tough
root that you will compost; the top 4 inches of the asparagus; and the
middle part (now known as the butts).  Cook the butts in boiling
salted water until very tender, around 15-20 minutes, depending on the
thickness of your asparagus. Drain and cool. Add the milk and ¼ cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and purée. Season
to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Divide this mixture evenly between
the prepared ramekins. Crack an egg into each ramekin on top of the
purée. Sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top of each
egg to keep it from drying out as it cooks.

Add hot water to the baking dish to reach halfway
up the sides of the ramekins and place in the preheated oven. Bake until
you can see that the egg white is set (the yolk should still be runny),
about 18-22 minutes. If you want a hard yolk, bake for about 22-28 minutes.

While the ramekins are baking, blanch the asparagus
tips in boiling salted water until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain
and set aside.

Remove the ramekins from the oven. Place the ramekins
on individual serving plates. Garnish with the asparagus tips and serve
at once.

Variation for a savory pudding:
If your guests don’t love the fabulous sensation of a soft egg yolk,
blend the eggs into the asparagus purée before distributing among the
ramekins. Cooking time will be slightly longer, about 35 minutes, or
until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.


Involtini di Maiale and A Giveaway

I’m becoming obsessed with this cookbook – Cucina Povera. I already posted a recipe for sfratti from it that will now become part of my permanent cookie repertoire. Having read all the first-hand stories in this book about Tuscan people who struggled to make ends meet and used every scrap of food available, whether grown in their gardens or foraged in the wild, I am working my way through the recipes, some of which I grew up eating in my parents’ home. I have childhood memories of hunting for wild asparagus and wild greens, of my mother canning tomatoes for the winter, of my parents making soppressata and of course home-made wine.  Maybe that’s why these recipes and stories are so resonant with me. Because food was – is – sacred and should not be wasted. Because you can make a delicious and nutritious meal out of the simplest ingredients.

If you haven’t already purchased this cookbook (or if you have and want to gift one), here’s your chance to own a copy. Leave a comment at the bottom of the blog (Not in email) and you’ll be entered to win a copy, selected by a random number generator. That’s it. You don’t have to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter – everybody gets the same odds. But if you did, I’d be grateful.
But so you don’t have to wait to make this recipe, here’s the step-by-step. Start with a one-pound pork tenderloin and divide it into eight pieces, then pound each piece flat between parchment paper until it’s pretty thin.
Spread the ricotta and spinach mixture on top. I added a sage leaf, not called for in the cookbook recipe.
Wrap with a slice of pancetta and secure with a toothpick.
Saute for a few minutes with some wine.
Sit down to a great meal.
Involtini di Maiale
 
From the cookbook “Cucina Povera” by Pamela Sheldon Johns
  • 8 ounces spinach, steamed and finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 pound boneless pork loin, sliced into 8 pieces
  • 8 thin slices pancetta
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  1. In a medium, bowl, combine the spinach and ricotta and stir to blend. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Set aside.
  2. Place a slice of pork between 2 pieces of parchment paper, and roll with a rolling pin until flattened to an even thickness, about 1/8 inch. Repeat to flatten the remaining slices.
  3. Spread a think layer of the spinach mixture on top of a slice of pork, leaving a 1/4 inch border. Roll it and wrap with a slice of pancetta, then fasten with a toothpick. Repeat with the remaining pork, filling and pancetta.
  4. In a large, heavy saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, and sear the rolls for about 2 minutes on each side. Add the wine and stir to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Simmer briskly for 7 to 8 minutes, turning the rolls once or twice to heat them through. Serve at once.

Sfratti

 When I received a copy of Cucina Povera, a new cookbook by Pamela Sheldon Johns, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Not because it has glossy pages with slick copy – it doesn’t. I was drawn to it because of the rustic, matte feel of the paper, the jagged, deckle edges of each page and most of all, the beautiful photos, recipes and stories of the people whose very lives and traditions are outlined in this book.

For these people, cucina povera (peasant cooking) was a necessity. And even though most of us can afford to indulge in small culinary luxuries nowadays, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect the bounty that’s available or waste food either. Eating what’s in season, making simple dishes from the freshest ingredients, and preserving foods for the lean days of winter are lessons we can all benefit from in order to live healthier lives and preserve resources.

Cucina Povera contains delicious recipes – from soups to pastas, meats and vegetables to desserts like this cookie called “sfratti,” plural of the word “sfratto,” which means eviction. These cookies are one of the old recipes from Pitigliano, a Tuscan town that once housed a large Jewish population. Sadly, many of the Jews were forced to flee during World War II, following Mussolini’s racial laws. This recipe is a traditional Rosh Hashanah treat from Pitigliano’s Jewish heritage.

Sfratti may be considered “cucina povera” but there’s no feeling of deprivation once you’ve tried these. Here’s a visual guide on how to make them, followed by the recipe.

After you’ve madethe filling, spread it out on the rolled-out dough.

 

Roll the dough over the filling.
Continue rolling until you have something that looks like a large cigar. The shape is meant to evoke the batons that officials used to bang on the doors of Jews to evict them.
Brush with beaten egg yolk and bake.
Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.
Betcha’ can’t eat just one.

Sfratti
From Pamela Sheldon Johns’ “Cucina Povera”
Printable Recipe Here

Pastry

  • 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • pinch of slat
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2/3 cup sweet white wine
Filling
  • 1 cup honey
  • 4 cups walnuts, chopped
  • 2 tsps. grated orange zest
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 egg yolk, beaten
  1. For the pastry: In a large bowl, combine, the flour, sugar and salt. Stir with a whisk to blend. Stir in the olive oil and wine to make a smooth dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. For the filling: In a medium saucepan, heat the honey over medium heat. Add the walnuts, orange zest, cinnamon and cloves, and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes, or until thickened. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
  4. Divide the chilled dough into 8 pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll a piece of dough into a 4 x 10-inch rectangle. Spoon 1/2 cup of the filling along the center of the length of the dough and roll it up. Place on the prepared baking sheet, seam side down. Repeat with the remaining pastry and filling. Brush the pastry with the egg yolk, and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
  5. Transfer the pastries from the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. To serve, cut each pastry into 1-inch thick slices and dust with confectioner’s sugar. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.
Makes about 6 dozen slices