Except when I’ve been on duty for cooking classes, I’ve been taking it very easy in the kitchen lately. In great part, it’s due to the heat. Why cook when you can have tasty, nutritious, no-cook meals like prosciutto e melone or insalata caprese. As for dessert, there’s nothing better than biting into fruits like peaches, watermelons and berries for dessert. To a lesser extent, it’s also been due to a need to switch off, enjoy food and cooking for its own sake, and not worry about documenting the results in recipes, words or pictures, here and on social media all the time.
Still, there are two ingredients – one seasonal and one staple – that keep making an appearance in my repertoire of easy, summer meals that I want to share with you. Hmmm, so much for switching off entirely… They are of course, tomatoes – mostly gnarly, twisted cuori di bue or ox hearts – from Corso Brunelleschi or our garden in the countryside and those half-eaten loaves of sourdough bread that my family and I often leave to languish in a paper bag on our kitchen benchtop for several days. A good soak in water is what’s needed to bring the latter back to life. And my inspiration for the two recipes below has been the newly-translated book by my friend, the remarkably talented food writer, photographer and cooking class teacher, Giulia Scarpaleggia (aka Juls’ Kitchen).
Like me, Giulia includes market visits as part of her cooking lessons. For many years, she has taken inspiration from the vendors and farmers there selling their produce. Inevitably, friendships are struck and it’s common for those selling, not to mention the many local nonnas queueing up too, to freely dispense recipes and cooking advice while you make your purchases. This is how she and Tommaso, her life and business partner, came up with the premise of From the Markets of Tuscany, a cookbook which chronicles the markets, the typical produce and the recipes of different towns and areas in Tuscany.
I tested several of Giulia’s recipes while she was writing the original Italian manuscript. There were the pici typical of Siena and the Val d’Orcia, the potato bread from the Garfagnana and Florence’s flagship tripe and lampredotto dishes to name a few. When the book was published in Italian last year, I remember hoping that it would also appear in English at some point. I felt that many readers outside of Italy would appreciate the comprehensive, regional scope of the book, as well as the market-to-table philosophy that underpins its recipes. It’s a book that I refer to constantly and that I cook from regularly. Now that it has been translated (and very well too by Tuscan-based American translator Amy Gulick of The Bittersweet Gourmet) and released in English at last, I’m sharing the two tomato and leftover bread recipes I constantly make from it and… GIVING AWAY A COPY FOR ONE LUCKY READER TO WIN! (feel free to scroll to the bottom of this post for more details on the contest).
Tuscany’s pane sciocco
As Giulia says at the beginning of her book, you can’t talk about Tuscan cuisine without mentioning the region’s characteristic unsalted bread. Legends abound about the the origin of Tuscany’s pane sciocco (meaning, ‘stupid bread’). Some say many centuries ago, Florentines responded to the Pisan high tax on salt by making bread without it. Others, however, point out how well-cured and salty the prosciutto crudo and aged pecorino of the region are, arguing that an unsalted bread balances their intense flavours out.
Whatever its origins, Tuscans take pride in their unsalted bread and it appears repurposed or upcycled in many of the region’s dishes such as the bread and tomato soup known as pappa al pomodoro and, another favourite no-cook summer dish, the tomato and bread salad panzanella. Below you’ll find Giulia’s recipes for making them.
Pappa al pomodoro (serves 4)
As Giulia mentions at the beginning of her recipe, pappa al pomodoro will turn out smoother if you peel your tomatoes beforehand. In the past when making this dish, my solution has generally been to make a tomato puree with my food mill (here’s a link to my July newsletter, which includes instructions on how to do this) before cooking, which is a more typical practice in Florence. In Siena and the Val d’Elsa, where Giulia lives, however, it’s more typical to peel and chop the tomatoes. The former can be done by plunging them in a large pot of water for 30 seconds. Once removed and placed in a bowl with cold water, their skins come off easily. If using a puree base, you’ll end up with a richer, vermillon red colour. The version with chopped tomatoes will be slightly paler in comparison. I also opted to use freshly ground black pepper for my aromatics when revisiting the dish recently. TT, my young daughter is just not used to consuming the chilli Giulia’s uses yet. Anyway, I’m allowing myself these slight tweaks because this is a dish no two people seem to make exactly the same way, not even in the same town, let alone family, in Tuscany.
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 800 g ripe tomatoes, peeled (or pureed)
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- dried chilli pepper (or freshly ground pepper)
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 thick slices of stale (preferably Tuscan) bread
- 20 basil leaves
- sea salt
Cover the bottom of a pot with oil. Finely chop the garlic and saute in the pot along with the dried chilli (if using). Chop the peeled tomatoes and add to the pot. Cook on low heat until the tomatoes begin to soften and come apart. (If using the tomato puree instead, cook until the liquid begins to reduce noticeably).
Meanwhile, soak the bread in cold water, then remove and thoroughly wring out the excess water. Add the bread to the tomato and along with a cup of water (Here some people add broth instead of water but in Giulia’s family they’ve stuck to a simpler version with water).
Adjust for salt. Cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring vigorously from time to time with a whisk to obtain its characteristic creamy, smooth texture.
Remove from the heat, tear in the basil leaves, add some freshly ground pepper (if using) and drizzle with the remaining olive oil.
Let the pappa al pomodoro rest for at least an hour, after which you can reheat it on low if you wish to serve it warm. Otherwise, serve at room temperature.
Once again, panzanella is yet another Tuscan bread based dish which is subject to various interpretations. Before the arrival of tomatoes from the New World in Italy, the poet Bronzino wrote about a panzanella-like dish of ‘washed bread’ made with onion, cucumber, purslane and rocket. These days, the most common ingredients – in addition to the soaked and wrung out stale bread – are tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, oil, red wine vinegar and basil. Yet, as Giulia observes, friends come over and request their own versions. Absolutely no cucumbers or onions for some. Then there is Tommaso, her partner, who often asks for the addition of tuna and capers. Now, I tweaked the above pappa al pomodoro recipe slightly. In the following case though, I remained completely faithful to Giulia’s panzanella. I also added the tuna Tommaso loves when making this for my husband.
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 300 g stale (preferably Tuscan) bread
- 160 g oil-packed tuna (optional)
- 1 red onion
- 2 cuori di bue (‘ox heart’) tomatoes
- 1 cucumber
- 10 basil leaves
- fleur de sel or flaky sea salt
- freshly fround black pepper
- extra virgin olive oil
- red or apple cider vinegar
Break up the bread and place the pieces in a large bowl. Cover with cold water.
Finely slice the onion. If the flavour of your onion is too strong, soak the slices in cold water for about ten minutes to reduce their pungency.
Roughly chop the tomatoes. Peel and finely slice the cucumber.
Drain and wring out the bread to remove all excess liquid, then crumble it using your hands. There’s nothing worse than a too watery panzanella so just when you think you’ve wrung out the liquid sufficiently, go ahead and do it one more time.
Transfer the crumbled bread to a large bowl such as a soup tureen. Drain the tuna (if using) and the onions (if applicable) and add these to the bread along with the tomato and cucumber. Tear in the basil leaves.
Season with salt, pepper, plenty of extra virgin olive oil and a small amount of red wine vinegar. For a more delicate flavour, used apple cider vinegar. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, then toss well and serve.
To win a copy of Giulia Scarpaleggia’s cookbook, From the Markets of Tuscany, simply 1). sign up for my newsletter (if you haven’t already done so) and 2). comment in the comments section below with your favourite way of upcycling leftover bread. The giveaway is open to worldwide entries and closes on Friday 17th August at 11:59pm (GMT +1). The winner, picked randomly from all valid entries, will be announced on Monday 20th August, here and on my Instagram and Facebook accounts. Vi auguro in bocca al lupo (Wishing you all the best of luck)!
In the meantime, here are some links to other recipes I’ve written about, inspired by Giulia’s cookbook and other Tuscan specialties, that you may wish to try your hand at: