Sunday, February 12, 2012

Saturday Date Night: Winter Tuscan Heartiness

A new tradition, inspired by our recent trip to New Orleans.  After experiencing the distinctive flavors of Cajun cuisine, we decided to make Saturdays a date night where we shop and cook together for a different set of new dishes and new flavors that we have not tried before.  First up was cucina toscana, a taste and a place that I look forward to revisiting soon.  But on this blustery winter night, we settled for a big pot and an indoor grill at home.

The Tuscan region of Italy is known for rustic foods, earthy ingredients, and flavorful combinations simply prepared.  For our first effort, we decided on a winter minestrone with the classic florentine steak.  It would have included a preparation of Brussels sprouts, but halfway through our preparation of the minestrone, we realized that it would be more than we would be able to eat.

The minestrone d'inverno, or winter minestrone, is a typical sort of Italian dish, which relies on seasonal, fresh ingredients, where preparation starts with selecting the right ingredients.  In the case of winter minestrone, it is a combination of potatoes, carrots, leeks, turnips, Swiss chard, and savoy cabbage, the cabbages being in prime season during the winter months.  Particularly for the cabbage varieties, we canvassed the entire fresh produce section of Harris Teeter (our local grocer) and little-by-little found their location, since we have not tried to find them before.  We had an interesting experience shopping for turnips, leeks, Swiss chard, and savoy cabbage in assessing their quality and suitability for the dish.  This step, however simple, would make the dish, as the preparation later that evening consisted of washing and chopping the combination of ingredients, putting them in a big pot with a some water, bringing the mix to a boil, and then simmering for an hour.  The transformation was extraordinary, from an overflowing pot of greens and vegetables where we were concerned there was too little water, to a reducing base of greens swamping the mix, requiring us to take away some of the water that we had originally added beyond the recipe.  Then, with further reduction, the mixture became quite green, making us wary of what the outcome might actually produce.  Fingers crossed, we got to the end of the simmering period and pureed 3 ladlefuls of the soup, mixed that puree back into the soup, and had our first dish.

The bistecca fiorentina, or florentine steak, was easier and more straightforward.  Again, it was a focus on ingredients.  We talked to the butcher at the grocery store to cut from a dry-aged t-bone steak, a 1 1/4 inch cut, for the base of the recipe.  A true bistecca fiorentina can only come from specific cows in the local region (Chianina cows, to be exact), so we approximated that with the best cut that our local grocer could provide.  On our indoor grill, we basically peppered and lightly salted the cut and put it on the grill for 5-6 minutes a side, and placed it on an olive-oil drizzled plate to serve

In the end, the results were in the taste - and it turned out that we made it work.  The minestrone was very healthy (basically vegetables, olive oil, salt, and pepper) and surprisingly tasty; the steak was basically meaty goodness, being one of the better quality cuts of beef.  Accompanied with a young but sturdy 2005 Brunello di Montalcino, one of the classic bold Tuscan red wines, we were feeling great.  It looks like our idea of Saturday date nights was a good one, and I look forward to what new cuisines we will explore this year.

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