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Episode #209: Delicious Winter Dishes from Tuscany

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Listen to “Warming Winter Dishes from the Heart of Tuscany” on Spreaker.

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We take you on a culinary journey through the winter delights of Tuscany. When people think of Tuscany they might picture idyllic sunflower-filled summers or the iconic grape harvest, but winter in Tuscany is a magical time. Comforting, hearty food based on seasonal produce abounds, with an array of hearty and flavorful dishes. Steeped in tradition and closely tied to the concept of ‘Cucina Povera’, Tuscan winter cuisine celebrates the simplicity of ingredients while delivering a symphony of taste and comfort with robust stews, nourishing soups, and delectable sweet treats that define the season. 

Show notes
In this episode, we welcome back Giulia Scarpaleggia – a Tuscan food writer, video tutorial creator, and cooking class instructor from Juls’ Kitchen with many years of experience building blogs and online content. Giulia joined us on episode 113 about Tuscan Spring dishes, where she shared the gorgeous story of her daughter Livia’s pear tree. Giulia is returning to the show after the huge success of her cookbook Cucina Povera which revealed some of her favorite recipes accompanied by her beautiful photography and storytelling. She shares with us what produce is in season, some of Tuscany’s most beloved winter dishes and lets us in on some secrets of how to learn to cook them. We celebrate the rustic charm of cavolo nero, the earthy allure of artichokes, and the bountiful harvest of winter vegetables along with hearty stews and soups. 

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What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Giulia is a Tuscan food writer and cooking teacher. She lives in Colle val d’Elsa, between Siena and Florence in the countryside, where she runs her cooking classes. She has been writing her blog, Jules’ Kitchen, for almost 15 years, as well as writing cookbooks with her husband, Tommaso, who is a photographer
  2. Their last cookbook is Cucina Povera is about the peasant cuisine of Italy – the closest term we might have in English is home cooking, but it’s much more – a traditional way of cooking that uses what is available close to you. It has a lot of plant-based dishes with beans and chickpeas being particularly important and when it does use animals, it is nose to tail, fish is sustainable and leftovers are always re-used
  3. The idea is that you cook at home using your pantry, what you have available and comes from nearby or in your vegetable garden. This is the way that Guiulia has always cooked and was learned from her mom and grandmother. A very simple way of cooking, respecting the ingredients!
  4. This is a very different way to how many of us in other countries live – though it is a way that many know we should be getting back to. But some of these skills and habits have just gotten lost along the way
  5. Giulia mainly learned to cook from her family but also due to the fact she loves eating so much. What she didn’t learn from her family, she learned through experimentation during which she made many huge mistakes. Her husband can test that the food has now always been wonderful because of these experiments – until she finally reaches the perfect recipe. She enjoys teaching cooking classes and making the same recipe work for people with different skills. When you understand what the most crucial steps are, then you know  what is important to explain and what can be a difficult part
  6. Sometimes when we try recipes and it doesn’t come out the way that we want, it is easy to get frustrated and not try again, but the resilience to keep trying will eventually pay off. Even for wonderful cooks like Giulia, it takes time
  7. In keeping with the Cucina Povera ethos – eating what is in season is important
  8. Pumpkin and squash are around in fall and winter which are one of Giulia’s favorite ingredients and very versatile

Seasonal ingredients (plus their associated uses and dishes):

Cava Nero

  • The most typical winter ingredient in Tuscany is Cavolo nero – Tuscan kale
  • You can start seeing Cavolo Nero on the market stalls beginning of fall/autumn
  • The best Cavolo nero is after the first frost because it becomes softer and a little bit sweeter
  • Cavolo nero is really a great ingredient in soup, in a salad, to make pesto, and to cook with meat.
  • A lot of people at the beginning of the year are concentrating on their health and wanting to make some changes – eat less meat and more vegetables perhaps. There’s no better ingredient than Cavola Nero as a healthy winter vegetable
Ribollita
  • Ribollita is a quintessentially Tuscan recipe
  • The word ribollita means reboiled. Its base is a bean and vegetable soup with cannellini beans and cavolo nero, what Giulias nonna called grandmother calls minestra di fagioli
  • You make that soup the first day, then you add the Tuscan bread, and let it soak and rest. Then maybe the day after you reboil it or sometimes you recook it in the oven
  • The real ribollit is a thick soup – so much so that you can stand a spoon into the soup. You have the Cavolo nero, the beans, onions, and leeks and then carrots, potatoes, and chard sometimes
  • The bread makes the soup dense and filling – it is a meal on its own. It’s very affordable, very good for you and very good for the environment because you use what is in season/what you have in your cupboard
  • You finish the soup with a drizzle of oil – new season oil or very good extra virgin olive oil and maybe some fresh, thinly sliced onion
  • There are two more dishes very similar to ribollita. There are two soups made with polenta flour and beans.
Farinata con le Leghe
  • This dish is from Pistoia, near Florence. Leghe means bonds or ties because the strips of kale, the strips of Cavolo nero, hold the Farinata together
  • This is made with borlotti beans rather than cannellini beans, and it’s thicker, not thanks to bread, but thanks to polenta
  • So this dish is delicious like Ribollita and is also gluten-free because it doesn’t include the bread
Farinata di Cavolo Nero
  • In the town of Mugello, they have Farinata di Cavolo nero, which is very similar but with fewer vegetables. It has just onions and leeks, cavolo nero, cannellini beans and polenta
  • What Giulia likes about this soup is that you can cool it down on a tray and because of the polenta – slice it. Then you can either fry that or bake in the oven. So it’s great a day or so after you’ve had to soup – sliced up and baked with olive oil and  like grated pecorino
  • It’s great as a party food or appetizer because it’s easy to serve and it has everything you need for a well-rounded meal 
Cavolo Nero pesto
  • You can make a fantastic pesto with Cavolo Nero. Livia, Giulia’s 3-year-old daughter, eats this pesto. Giulia doesn’t fool her – she explained that it is made with Cavolo nero, not with basil. It is a very different green from the basil pesto
  • You can simply sauté the Cavolo Nero to make it softer and then blend it with almonds and pecorino. It’s a great winter pesto and more affordable than the summer basil also because instead of using pine nuts, you use almonds or sometimes walnuts
  • It’s great on pasta and you can freeze it so I can prepare a big batch of pasta and have that ready through the winter
  • You can also top the pasta and pesto with a few cubes of fried guanciale
  • Many of us are just used to pesto in jars but you will never get the same kind of flavor from a jar
  • It is worth having ago and making it and you can experiment with different combinations of nuts and greens and cheese
  • It’s a great antipasti too – on top of bread, maybe with a soft white egg on top or a few little anchovies
Finding these dishes
  • If you were going to a trattoria in Tuscany, you find Ribollita everywhere, especially in the winter
  • Farinata con le Leghe – you’re more likely to find that in the area of Pistoia and the same with Farinata di Cavolo Nero – you’re more likely to get that as you near Mugello
  • But this kind of Tuscan food, when you make it at home, is slightly different from what you will find in restaurants and trattorias because there are recipes, especially made with vegetables, that you don’t find on the trattoria menu
  • At home, people are cooking with what they have in the garden or what they can find at the market. It can taste different from one week to the next

Braciuole nella scamerita

  • This is a very traditional recipe that can be found in Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well cookbook. Artusi is the father of Italian cuisine and this book might be 100 years old but it is still a lot used in Giulia’s house
  • Scamerita is a slice of pork, usually from the neck of the pork, so it’s fat and delicious
  • The Scamerita is cooked with red wine and cavolo nero. Cavolo nero is associated with the butchering of pork, especially for 17th January, the day of Saint Anthony, traditionally the day the pork is butchered
  • There are many recipes traditionally connected to this ceremony in Italy. In Abruzzo, for instance, you have the pork (maiale) in the dish Cif e Ciaf, pieces of pork cooked with oil and herbs
  • You can service the Scamerita with polenta. Other carbs like bread or pasta you might have before as a separate course

Ordering courses in a restaurant

  • There is a misconception that if you’re in Italy you are going to have a four-course meal (although it can be hard to resist). When you go out to a restaurant, you don’t have to always order the four courses
  • Usually, when Giulia goes to a restaurant with friends, they might have antipasti and share them. Then everyone picks a dish that could be primi (pasta or rice) or second (meat or fish). If she goes with her husband, they might have one appetizer, one primo, one secondo, and share them between them
  • At the restaurant, they know that you can do that and expect you to do that. Build the meal as you desire it. If you’ve got a group, then it definitely makes sense to share the dishes around

Cavolo Nero salad

  • This is the recipe that convinced Giulia’s picky mom to eat Cavolo Nero. She doesn’t eat a lot of vegetables, and she was sure she wouldn’t like Cavolo nero until she tried this salad with raw Cavolo Nero
  • The Cavalo Nero has the stalks removed and the leaves massaged and then is dressed with finely chopped toasted walnuts and hazelnuts, and then some olive oil, vinegar, and a bit of honey
  • It makes a very nice side dish, especially next to roast chicken or pork
  • You can make it in advance – have the Cavolo nero ready, the nuts ready, and you can just assemble maybe an hour before you’re going to eat

Artichokes

  • Artichokes take you from winter to spring and they can be fried, or stewed and there are 100s of dishes involving artichokes
  • Artichokes frittata is a great weeknight meal – like an omelet with vegetables. When you want to make something quick, you can simply cut the artichokes into thin wedges, fry them with some flour in olive oil, and then pour a couple of beaten eggs on top
  • In Italy, eggs are dinner or lunch, not breakfast
  • You can stew the artichokes with oil, white wine and herbs – that is a great side dish
  • You can make a risotto with artichokes. Giuilia’s grandmother used to make risotto with artichokes and pieces of prosciutto cotto, the cooked ham
  • Stuff artichokes are another option. Giulia’s grandmother used to stuff the artichokes with bread crumbs, canned tuna, and pecorino. The usual rule is that you don’t pair cheese and fish, but there are many exceptions, and this dish is an exception
  • In Giulia’s last cooking class, they had artichokes two ways. One was carpaccio, so very thinly sliced with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. You can add some shaved Parmigiano if you want. Then they had Carciofi da Romana – stewed artichokes with garlic, mint, parsley, olive oil and white wine

Passato di fagioli or Passato di ceci

  • This is a bean soup or chickpea soup, stripped down to the most essential ingredients: garlic, chickpeas, and rosemary
  • Giulia is very strict about pairing beans and herbs. Beans go with sage and chickpeas go with rosemary as her mother taught her – though for other families it’s different
  • You use already boiled chickpeas or beans. Fry some garlic in olive oil, remove the garlic and add the beans or chickpeas with their cooking water and maybe a teaspoon of tomato paste to turn everything into a pinkish soup, and then blend it
  • You can top it with bread croûtons, or you can add some farro (a historic local grain) or rice
  • You could also have it with short pasta in like Ditalini or broken spaghetti in the soup
  • It is a very warming, smooth and very simple dish

Meat dishes

  • Ossobuco, a dish of braised veal shanks is commonly cooked in winter
  • A dish Giulia likes that is very typical of Florence (although her husband doesn’t like it) is tripe stew. Quinto quarto means offal and it is something extremely affordable, and sustainable to eat because you’re eating the whole animal, and if it is to your taste – delicious, comforting, velvety stew.
  • Eating ofal is a critical part of the Cucina Povera You need to use everything –  it’s a respectful way of eating the animal

Spezzatino

  • Spezzatino is a beef stew, usually with beef cheek. You cook the meat for 2 to 3 hours with tomato sauce, some red wine, and you can add potatoes and carrots. This is a great, hearty winter dish

Sweet treats

Chestnuts

  • Chestnuts are a great winter ingredient – the chesnut itself or using the flour for baking
  • Chestnuts have a very short season – of about a month, but when you have the flour, you can make great desserts
  • To make chestnut flour, you have to dry the chestnuts for at least 40 days, smoke them, and then grind them into flour. The first good flour made from chestnut or marroni, comes around the end of December/beginning of January
  • Chestnut flour is a bit like almond meal/flour – it’s better when It’s done fresh. You don’t want to have it hanging around for many months in your cupboard as it can start to smell rancid but you can freeze it! It still tastes perfectly fresh and you can keep it for over a year
Castagnaccio
  • Using the chestnut flour you can make Castagnaccio – the traditional Tuscan cake. An ancient recipe but it’s also modern in a sense because it’s gluten-free, vegan, and sugar-free
  • It’s made with chestnut flour, water, raisins, pine nuts, sometimes walnuts, and then olive oil and rosemary
  • It is an acquired taste or perhaps one you need to get used to
  • It’s smoky with the texture of bread pudding, crispy on the outside, not overly sweet
  • Giulia grew up eating Castagnaccio, so she absolutely loves it – as does her 3-year-old Livia, who sometimes has it for breakfast
  • To make it a little more accessible (for the uninitiated) Giulia serves the Castagnaccio with some ricotta, whipped with a little sugar in it – so it’s easier at first bite
  • They like to have Castagnaccio for breakfast when they have it leftover – they wouldn’t make it specifically for breakfast
  • You would normally have it on its own, as a desert or it can be a street food. They make Castagnaccio in pizzerias. Places where you can get pizza al taglio, or chickpea cake because making Castagnaccio in a wood-burning oven makes it even better
  • At Christmas time, Giulia cut discs of Castagnaccio and then, like in a sandwich, she put ricotta with candied orange peel and chocolate chips in between, with a sprinkling of icing sugar on top. It looks very nice and elegant, so it’s a great way of serving Castagnaccio during the festivities

Rice Fritters

  • In February it is Carnivale. Giulia gets very excited when in Siena, the hut where they fry the local rice fritters appears in the Piazza del Campo
  • Rice fritters in Siena are different from rice fritters from Florence. Giulia and her husband Tomasso always argue because she believes that the best rice fritters are those from Siena, near her hometown in Colle val d’Elsa and as he is from Florence, he is adamant those are the best. They have come to an agreement to keep the peace – they buy rice fritters from Siena, and she make rice fritters from Florence
Florence rice fritters
  • For rice fritters they use actual grains of rice. They are dense. Sometimes they have raisins inside, they are very sweet and covered with sugar
Frittelle Savelli (the Siene rice fritters)
  • In Siena, the rice fritters are totally different. In Siena, the rice fritters usually appeared around 19th March – the day of Saint Josep, but now they are associated with Carnivale as well – so halfway through January, you start finding them
  • They are made with rice that is cooked 3 or 4 days in advance. They have orange zest, a pinch of salt, but no sugar in the dough – it is just used on the outside
  • They fry these fritters by dropping tablespoons of this rice, sticky dough into cauldrons with hot oil, then they sprinkle that with sugar and you have to eat them steaming hot. It is a secret recipe and the key to them is that the rice fritters are almost hollow inside. They are not dense like the fritters in Florence
  • You don’t usually have these Frittelle Savelli rice fritters everywhere in Siena, just in this hut in Piazza de Campo and a few other places
  • Katy had just re-read the article that Giulia wrote over 10 years ago on her blog about these fritters and loves the way that Giulia has described going through the wintery streets of ancient Siena, in the cold crisp air and then coming out onto the beautiful Piazza Del Campo. There’s a stunning shot of the piazza covered in snow, too. You can read that article here
  • Giulia and family are planning a couple of trips into Siena for the fritters – as it takes them only half an hour to get there. It’s a tradition now for them both and for Giuilia, who went to university in Siena, she nostalgically remembers eating them during her midterm exams

Cenci

  • Cenci means rags and these are the fried bits of dough that are like rags. They are called different names, all over Italy – chiacchiere, galani, frappe and are very typical of a Carnivale treat

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

  • This is a typical of Florence sweet treat in Florence and Giulia’s family calls it Schiacciata Unta, with Unta meaning grease
  • It’s not the typical sweet focaccia – it was traditionally made with lard, not with butter or olive oil hence the grease. It has vanilla and orange zest
  • Again it is traditionally from this time of year when a pig would be butchered and so lard was available
  • It is usually made in a rectangular shape and is very thin
  • Almost all the pastry shops in Florence will have it – stuffed with cream
  • Every year in Florence, there’s a competition for the best Schiacciata alla Fiorentina. Giulia once had the honor and pleasure of being a judge for this competition, getting to try 17 different Schiacciata!
  • Every year she likes to try at least 1 or 2 different ones

Visiting Tuscany in winter

  • This food and the festivities around it all make it well worth visiting Tuscany in winter. If you’re someone who loves food, traditions and culture, then there’s so much to do then

Giulias Fall and Winter cooking classes

  • Giulia used to to her classes mostly in summer, but now with a young daughter and with the summers getting hotter and hotter every year, they have moved classes to also be in the Fall and Winter
  • They have their master classes in October, November, December, and January and will possibly in February and March next year
  • Instead of a 1-day cooking class, they have a 3-day experience. They start on Wednesday, when they shop at the market and at the butcher for all the food they’ll use for the 3 days. Then each day, they define a menu with the people that attend the class. Nothing is fixed – everything is decided at the time according to what they find and according to what people want to learn or their preferences
  • Giulia lives and runs her classes in Colle di Val d’Elsa. It is a small town but with so many restaurants that go from very nice trattorias to 2 Michelin-star restaurants
  • It is half an hour from Siena, San Gimignano, Volterra, and just an hour from Florence and a little bit more from Lucca or from Val d’Orcia. If you  take the 3-day class, you are free in the afternoon so can explore the surroundings of Colle di Val d’Elsa
  • Giulia just suggests people take a week to really enjoy the area. Last week, they had a family from Holland taking the master class, and they went to Volterra and were in awe at it, covered in mist in winter and totally magical
  • You can go to popular places like Volterra or San Gimignano and find virtually empty streets
  • Of course, not everything is open. and it might rain, but if you love food, this is definitely the season you want to be in Tuscany
  • A lot of people visiting Tuscany want to try the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina, but for many eating that much meat doesn’t suit summer… it’s much better as a winter experience

Giulia’s Tuscan food resources

  • If you would to discover more about Tuscan food to cook at home or if you are planning a trip to Tuscany, then Giulia and Tommaso have created some fantastic resources. The place where they share most of their new recipes, content and stories is the newsletter Letters from Tuscany on Substack (10% discount off annual subscriptions for Untold Italy listeners)
  • Jul’s Kitchen, their blog has a fantastic array of recipes and information on Tuscany and with Tomasso being a photographer, it is well worth following them on Instagram
  • They also have a podcast that has been going for just a couple of years, with around 50 episodes available. It’s called Cooking with an Italian accent because Giulia not only speaks English with an Italian accent but cooks with an Italian accent. A great way to get to know them better and hear delicious stories from their Tuscan kitchen
  • Our Untold Italy Tuscany Tours travelers are lucky enough to be joining Giulia in her kitchen as part of our Spring and Fall tour activities in this beautiful area of Tuscany

Subscribe to Giulia’s bi-monthly newsletter “Letters from Tuscany for Tuscan recipes and stories. Giulia has kindly provided Untold Italy listeners with a 10% discount off annual subscriptions.

About our guest – Giulia Scarpaleggia from Juls’ Kitchen

Giulia is a Tuscan-born and bred food writer, cookbook author, food photographer, and cooking class instructor.

She started from a deeply rooted passion for food and heritage which turned into her blog, Juls’ Kitchen, in 2009. She was later joined by web designer and photographer Tommaso, who is now her husband and they’ve been working together since 2015. They restored an old out-building to create the Juls’ Kitchen Studio, a space where they film video recipes and host authentic Tuscan cookery workshops, as well as offering short courses in food writing, photography and branding. She has had well-deserved, great success with her fabulous cookbook Cucina Povera: The Italian Way of Transforming Humble Ingredients into Unforgettable Meals.

They teach Tuscan cooking classes, now also virtually, and has a newsletter Letters from Tuscany and podcast in English called Cooking with an Italian Accent. They also consult and work for food brands and magazines to develop recipes and film video recipes and tutorials.

Giulia is very kindly offering Untold Italy listeners a 10% discount off annual subscriptions to Letters from Tuscany. It’s normally $US 45 for the year but it’s reduced to $40.50 for you. You can find all the details at https://untolditaly.com/recommends/julskitchen/

You can find Giulia on these channels:

Cook Books

From the Markets of Tuscany: A Cookbook

Cucina Povera: The Italian Way of Transforming Humble Ingredients into Unforgettable Meals

Find Giulia’s other cookbooks here.

Places mentioned in the show

  • Pistoia – a city around 19 miles northwest of Florence in Tuscany
  • Mugello – Tuscan town located 16 miles north of Florence
  • Piazza del Campo – the main square of the historic center of Siena
  • Colle val d’Elsa – town where Giulia lives, meaning ‘Hill of Elsa Valley’
  • San Gimignano – famous Tuscan town popular with tourists
  • Volterra – walled mountaintop town in Tuscany dating from before the 8th century BC
  • Lucca – charming hill top town in Tuscany 

Food & Drink

  • ribolitta – a hearty Tuscan bread and vegetable soup, including locally grown cavolo nero (black kale)
  • olio nuovo – newly harvested olive oil 
  • farinata con le leghe – dish from Pisoia
  • farinata di cavolo nero – dish from Mugello 
  • Cif e Ciaf – pork dish from Abruzzo served hot in the pan it is made in
  • Passato di fagioli or Passato di ceci – bean/chick pea soup
  • Ditalini – pasta also known as tubettini, shaped like small tubes
  • Ossobuco – dish of braised veal shanks
  • quinto quarto – in Italian means the “fifth quarter” refers to offal
  • pajata – Rome dish of veal or lamb intestines cooked in a tomato sauce and served with pasta, nutmeg and pecorino
  • lampredotto – a tripe sandwich beloved in Florence
  • castagnaccio – a chestnut flour cake made with new olive oil, raisins, and pine nuts (is gluten-free and vegan)
  • frittelle savelli – rice fritters of Siena available in select places for Carnevale
  • Schiacciata alla Fiorentina – Florentine sweet treat for Carnevale
  • Bistecca alla Fiorentina – chiannina cows from the Val di Chiana

Resources

  • cucina povera – meaning poor cooking – it’s food from rural Italy and for the peasants, where there is no waste
  • Pellegrino Artusi – an Italian businessman and cookbook writer, best known as the author of the 1891 cookbook La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well)

Resources from Untold Italy

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