Minestra di Ceci
For part 2 of this revisit I thought I’d try one of the quicker recipes from Cooking Secrets of a Tuscan Family. One that can be banged out in about in about an hour. Actually this would be the middle timed version. The long method follows the book precisely by soaking dry chickpeas overnight followed by a 3 hour cooking. The faster method being chickpeas right out of a can and heated up. The way I prepared them was cooking canned Ceci for about an hour.
Ingredients. The list really couldn’t be easier. 1/2 lb. of dry chickpeas, 4 oz. of tomato paste, two garlic cloves some rosemary and extra virgin olive oil.
Substitutions. I’m really embarrassed. Yes gang, I used ‘boxed’ chicken stock. While getting my ingredients together I noticed our last two remaining boxes of Campbell’s low-sodium broth. I figure I’d use it up which would taste better than water. Terra hasn’t let me live it down. I apologize to you and your families.
Method. Either start with a soak or a can opener What you’re looking for are cooked, tender chickpeas. Once cooked, blend the chickpeas to a nice chunky purée. In a separate pot heat the oil and add in the rosemary sprig, crushed chopped garlic and a little salt. When you’re happy with the results, read: you haven’t burned the garlic, add in the tomato paste and mix well. Finally pour in the chickpea purée and heat the whole thing for another half hour. Season and serve.
The eating. I was really curious to taste this soup. I was concerned the tomato paste might take over. Was I ever wrong. The paste gives the soup a huge earthy taste. It tastes like Tuscany! And the rosemary adds a second assertive edge. Finally the little bursts of garlic and olive oil sneak in here and there to round out the overall smack. In fact the tomato taste is so wonderful, I wanted more! Next time I’ll add very ripe roasted tomatoes for even more strength. And cheese. My next bowl will certainly included some grated Parmesan.
Keeping it local. I suppose as long as I’m cooking Italian food I’ll never be able to keep things 100% local. My version of this soup used local rosemary and garlic and that’s about it. The chickpeas and tomato paste were both canned, probably goes without saying where the olive oil came from, and the salt and pepper, who the hell knows. Finally the stock, let’s never bring that up again. Final grade, D- for the grocery list.
Want to blow everyone away before serving your main course? Make this soup. It’s that good. But do yourself a favour, make real chicken stock. It’s so superior to anything you can buy. If you end up using broth from a box, lie.
While in Italy last May I took a cooking class in a small Tuscan town called Creti. It was a beautiful sunny day spent cooking, eating and drinking with the Micheli family on their property, Villa Rosa dei Venti. At the end of the evening I picked up a copy of their family cookbook “Cooking Secrets of a Tuscan Family”. Full of great recipes, it celebrates the Micheli family history as well as the food they grow and prepare. Over the next few posts I plan to revisit my time spent with the Micheli’s by cooking some of my favourites from their book.
“Rosa dei Venti” Sauce
We cook a lot of Italian food here at SixTop Industries. Specifically pasta sauces because they’re quick and so good. Most are really basic but some get more involved. The nice thing about pasta sauces is that once you get the fundamentals down you can improvise. Each additional ingredient adds another level of texture and flavour.
The Micheli’s “house” sauce was unusual for me because it goes beyond the usual procedure of cooking vegetables, meat and tomatoes. Read on:
Ingredients. Normally I only use ground pork or sausage when making a meat sauce. This recipe has those but also some really cool extras. Begin with sautéing chicken and rabbit livers, crushed garlic cloves and fresh thyme sprigs in olive oil. Once nicely browned, finely chop the livers and add them in with the other meats. Those being ground pork, veal and Tuscan sausage meat.
Substitutions. Seeing as I don’t live in the most Italian part of the world, and Tuscan sausages are rare, I substituted “spicy italian” jobs from a local butcher. And not having rabbit livers on hand I just doubled the chicken livers. Doesn’t everyone have a big bag of those in the freezer?
Keeping it local. Yes we remain committed to keeping it close to home where we can. So obvious items aside like the olive oil, s/p and cheese, this was a very local sauce. We bought the carrots, onion and garlic at the Halifax Seaport Market from various stands. The ground pork came from the Canning Village Meat Market. The veal and sausages were labelled “Nova Scotia” from Pete’s and the chicken livers came from chickens at Windy View. I just realized two non-local items, the celery was grocery store and the jarred tomatoes also from Pete’s. So I give us a B+. It’s a list as mixed as the locations and people involved. An Italian family’s recipe cooked in Nova Scotia by a Alberta girl and Montreal boy.
Tomaotoes. Ornella (Mama) Micheli and daughter Barbara taught us a specific approach to adding the tomatoes. To start, use bottled tomatoes, not canned. When everything is browned, instead of just dumping in the whole bottle, you do something different. Without disturbing the meat and vegetables too much, create wells and pour in about half a cup of tomatoes into each. Do this in about seven or eight spots. Mama declared this procedure extremely critical! Only after some time of undisturbed cooking do you gently start to mix everything together and empty the bottle. I asked if less agitation makes the meat more tender. Yes, it does.
The eating. After a good hour of slow and low cooking the sauce turns a deep red and tastes smooth and mellow, yet strong. The liver bits melt slightly and add that familiar taste. When completed, sauce the pasta (not too much!), crack on some pepper and grated Grana Podano. With a final hit of extra virgin olive oil you’ll have yourself a meal. We ate ours with chilled Fontella Orvieto Classico.
Try this pasta sauce! It’s a nice change from the usual and doesn’t require tons of work. Now kick back, tuck in and stay tuned for Part 2…
Looking back now, one of the best things about our trip to Italy was our lack of planning. Sure there were short to-do lists, but we all agreed early on that running around like the Griswalds was not what any of us wanted. Aside of a manic day and a half of sight-seeing in Rome, I think we pulled it off. Personally, I only had a few must-dos, most of which were food related. I wanted to sample a variety of local dishes, attempt to maintain a wine buzz the whole trip and most importantly, take a cooking class while in food heaven.
After some searching online I found a class at Villa Rosa dei Venti, owned and operated by the Micheli family in Creti di Cortona. They’ve been there for over three generations and it shows. They grow apples, vegetables and sunflowers, raise chickens, rabbits and ducks and make their own family branded olive oil. As you would expect, they also have superb family red and white wines. There is pride, love and hard work in everything on their property. Villa Rosa dei Venti is sublime.
Class started at 10 am at their brand new facility for cooking courses where I was joined by a very sweet family from Calgary. Our instructors were daughter Barbara and mother Ornella who were so incredibly welcoming and friendly. They both made the course move along while still being fun. After introductions we all got right to work cutting, chopping and mixing ingredients for our eventual meal.
And what a menu! It followed the classic Italian food form of serving an antipasto, a pasta, then roast meat and veg followed by dessert. We started making the three antipastos we would eventually pile on bread. First was a Cannelloni bean and onion mix marinated in olive oil, then a bruschetta of tomato, finely chopped onion and basil. Third was chicken breast sautéed in butter, which after being cooled down, was processed with pickled vegetables and mixed with mayonnaise. Fantastic! The second course was a Tagliatelli pasta with a three meat sauce.
Homemade Tagliatelle (our first video recipe!)
While this happened we prepared the main course; roast rabbit, roast duck stuffed with olives and a huge tray of roasted vegetables. Dessert was a gorgeous lemon/olive oil cake. I asked Barbara when the 27 people other were showing up to eat all this, which she translated for her mom and got a big laugh. But I kind of wasn’t kidding, this was an insane amount of food!
After a break and a wonderful tour of the property with Barbara’s brother Stefano, the rest of the family showed up to join our gigantic Italian feast. We ate and drank, talked, translated, shared stories and connected. Surprisingly there were leftovers!
Villa Rosa die Venti epitomizes what I loved so much about Tuscany. There’s a real sense of connection between the land, food and people who live there. Much like the connection made during that meal with the generous Micheli family. It’s an afternoon I won’t forget.