I always tuck a book into my bag. Always. So, when I have a spare moment, or I'm waiting for my family to do something, I have something to read.
In this case, I had My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith* in my bag when we headed to the beach on the afternoon of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day last week. And I was able to read a few chapters of it while they explored the tidepools. Then I finished it throughout the late afternoon and made an Italian stew for dinner.
On the Page
I inherited this book over the holidays when a friend was getting rid of books on her bookshelf to make room for her 2021 reads. She put this one aside specifically for me and I did love it.
We meet Paul Stuart, a Scottish food and wine writer, whose girlfriend has just let him for her personal trainer. To help him get over his heartbreak, and to finish his book, he takes a trip to Tuscany where hilarity - and romance - ensue. I'll admit: I laughed aloud at more than a few parts, especially the debacle that had him rent a bulldozer instead of a car to get him through his three weeks in the country. That eponymous vehicle ended up being a sweet part of the story and is almost a character in its own right. Is it silly? Sure. But is it charming? Definitely.
"The caprese salad arrived, and Paul began to eat, watched silently by those at the neighbouring tables. ...He ate the pasta in similar conditions and then signalled to the owner of the trattoria that he was ready to pay the bill. He stood up. 'Well, I must continue with my journey,' he said. 'One never gets anywhere unless one leaves,' said the alimentari woman" (pg. 62). Lots of wisdom in that, in my opinion.
The chapter titles were fun as well, including: You Can Never Eat Enough Garlic, A Very Famous Pincher of Women, and I Have Deleted the World Love.
I don't know if I've ever read any of his other books. Apparently he's prolific. But The Quiet Side of Passion* was also in that box of books. So, I'll move that to the top of my to-read pile because well-written, fun reads are nice to have on-hand.
There were two passages that had me thinking about Tuscan bean dishes.
Ella, the hotel proprietor, tells Paul that she was going to serve Fagioli con Salsiccia for dinner one evening. "'Cucina povera,' he would write. 'The poor kitchen. At the heart of this Tuscan tradition of plain cooking lie beans in their simplicity. And what better than a simple dish of beans and strong, home-cured saussage, washed down with a glass of Chianti while the sun sets on the distant hills and the last of the homing birds dart across the sky..." (page 89).
Tonio serves Paul a Tuscan bean soup. "The soup was straightforward Tuscan fare, but a perfect illustration, Paul thought, of the merits of simple recipes. The key, he imagined, was the stock. ...'Not necessary, ' said Tonio. 'Traditional Tuscan bean soup has only white beans, parsley, garlic and olive oil. We use water. With us, the really important thing is the beans'" (page 106).
I didn't end up making either Fagioli con Salsiccia or bean soup. Not exactly anyway. I have some leftover bread, so I settled on Ribollita, a thick, hearty Tuscan stew rife with dark leafy greens and meaty beans. And what makes it a perfect revamp is that it's made with crusty, day-old bread that is torn into rustic pieces. The bread simmers and absorbs the broth, transforming into almost pillowy dumplings. I should mention that ribollita is one of those Italian dishes that has as many variation as there are Italian nonne! So, this may look different than versions you've had before. Really, my pots look different depending on the season.
For this pot, I used some leftover sourdough bread. It's rare that we actually have leftover bread because as soon as I pull it out of the oven, they are asking when they can slice it. One time I thought I was hiding the bread in the fruit basket on top of the fridge until my 6'2" child asked why I put things "at eye level" if it I didn't intend for him to find it. Oye. Okay! It's not at my eye level!
Also, if you do not save the rind from your wedges of parmigiano reggiano, shame on you! It imparts a beautiful flavor to your soups. I also used precooked beans as a shortcut. Feel free to cook your beans from scratch, like this.
Ingredients serves 6
- 1 organic onion, peeled and diced, approximately 1-1/2 cups
- 3 to 4 celery stalks, trimmed and chopped, approximately 1 cup
- 1 Tablespoon + 1/4 cup olive oil + more for drizzling
- 6 to 7 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 2 cups diced tomatoes
- 4 cups water (or you can use chicken stock, or a combination of water and stock)
- 2 bunches organic lacinto kale (also called Tuscan kale or cavolo nero, black cabbage), destemmed and torn into 2" pieces
- 1 wedge of parmigiano reggiano with rind sliced off
- 1-1/2 cups cooked beans (I used cannellini beans), drained
- 4 cups torn day-old bread
- pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
- freshly ground salt
Make sure that your pot can fit into the oven. I use a Dutch oven and had to move my rack one notch lower. Preheat to oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil in your pot and add onions and celery. Cook until the onions are softened and translucent. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute. Pour in additional 1/4 cup olive oil and stir in your tomatoes. Let the tomatoes soften and become soupy, approximately 8 to 10 minutes.
Pour in water stir in the kale and the beans. Then tuck your parmigiano reggiano rind into the liquid and bring to a simmer. Cook until the kale wilts and the beans are warmed through. Stir 2 cup of the bread into the stew and season with salt and red pepper flakes. Place the remaining 2 cups bread on top of the stew and drizzle generously with olive oil.
Place the pot, uncovered, into the preheated oven and bake until thickened and bubbling, approximately 10 to 12 minutes.
Ladle stew into bowls. Drizzle each serving with more olive oil. And let diners grate Parmesan over the top.
Rosso di Montalcino
When Paul finishes his book, he goes to visit Onesto and Stefano who requested that he bring his bulldozer. After he helps them move a mound of dirt, they put a bottle of Tonio's wine on the table. "Paul read what had been written, Rosso di Montalcino had been printed on the label, under Tonio's crest. Now, beneath those crossed-out words, was written Brunello di Montalcino. The latter is a wine that commands a much higher price.
'I told you I'd explain,' said Stefano. 'You see, the boundary of the Brunello zone of production runs right along the edge of my brother's vineyard. ...Now the boundary was marked by an imaginary line drawn between a small hillock' - he paused to allow his words to sink in - 'and the top of the hillock is in - how shall we put this - a more advantageous position. If you draw that line now, it means that my brother's vineyard is in the Brunello zone of production'" (page 228).
And there was one more pearl of wisdom from that exchange: "The world doesn't have to be the way it is; we can change it" (page 229). So true!
This Rosso di Montalcino had heady mineral aromas at the forefront, but it's layered with red fruits and warming spices. You get the sensation of warmth on the tongue with notes of clay, leather, and mace (or nutmeg). A full-bodied wine with a lingering finish, Jake and I sipped this for dinner and throughout the evening. What a great pour!
Click to see what everyone else read in January 2021: here.