Friday, April 1, 2011

florentine success... and failure

I can't believe it's been nearly four years since I was lucky enough to study abroad in Florence. It was a wonderful summer: I got a beautiful tan, saw just about everything covered in a Renaissance art text book, traveled to nearly 30 cities in about two months, and ate some goddamn amazing food.

As you probably know, my Italian American heritage informs most of my cooking. However, going home to the motherland, I found that there were many traditional Italian dishes that, while wonderful, were quite unfamiliar to me. Discovering new foods was definitely one of the best parts of the trip, and all those amazing meals were one of the things I missed most upon returning home.

There's nowhere in New York that makes the homely-yet-amazing lampredotto sandwich, which is basically the cow's lowest stomach boiled until tender and served on a roll dipped in the meaty juices. You can buy it with plastic cups of red wine from these little carts that are essentially the Florentine equivalent of a gyro truck. Street meat is a beautiful thing. I also loved the trippa alla fiorentina, melt in your mouth tripe cooked in tomato sauce. (Luckily that you can get as an appetizer at this amazing restaurant Peasant, but it is still a comparative rarity stateside.) I know we have steak houses all over the place, but a thick, crispy, rare bistecca alla fiorentina is a horse of a different color. Even a simple dish like ravioli with butter and sage is not something that I really come across here.

I may have plenty of opportunities to eat ragu, or eggplant parmesean, or polenta, or even pasta fagioli, but the food I ate in Florence remains sadly elusive nearly four years later. So, today I'm going to tell you m about my attempts to recreate Florentine cooking in my Harlem apartment.

ribolita bread soup

The first attempt was to make ribolita, a hearty bread soup with leafy greens and tomatoes. Unfortunately, this was a bit of a failure, though it was not for lack of trying. I scoured the interwebs, drawing from not one, not two, but THREE different recipes for ribolita. I spent a lot of time cooking up a big pot of deliciously wilted kale from the food co-op. I added lots of stewed tomatoes and delicious cannellini beans. I used homemade chicken stock. I was excited to relive some Florentine goodness!

I was ultimately brought down by an unfamiliar loaf of bread. I knew even as I purchased the off-brand supermarket whole wheat loaf that this was not what they would use in Italy, but I could never of imagined just how bad it would taste. I normally like Arnold's Stoneground Whole Wheat, but I got some random other brand instead. Once I tore up that loaf, the whole stew tasted like awful too-sweet whole wheat bread. It was a mess. This was definitely an instance of a bad ingredient bringing down what probably would have been a great dish! I definitely have to try this again with good Italian bread!

Needless to say I was crushed, but we all have our disappointments in the kitchen. I would not accept culinary defeat at the hands of my ancestral homeland!

Another dish that I adored in Florence was tonno e fagioli, or tuna and cannellini beans. I found the above recipe in Saveur, and it takes about 5 minutes to prepare and is fantastically delicious!

Smash up a garlic clove, and then mix it in to a can of tuna packed in oil, a rinsed can of cannellini beans, and a tablespoon or two of red wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with chopped parsley, and you have a beautiful antipasti!

A taste of Florence that anyone can recreate with a few cheap canned goods, tonno e fagioli is wonderful in everyway– except for what that raw garlic does to your breath!

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