A trip down Tuscan memory lane

2006. A European heatwave. Three girls braving the backpacker route, and by “braving it” I mean staying in gorgeous old converted monasteries and doing gourmet cooking classes in the heart of country Tuscany…think an Under The Tuscan Sun style love affair with food.

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Gelato in San Gimignano, Tuscany
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Our love affair with red wine started in Guiseppina’s kitchen, 2006

After 10 years, a few uni degrees, overseas life experience, sharing in each others weddings, three toddlers and a couple more on the way, the three girls, who have swapped backpacks for nappy bags, and their awesome husbands, finally got back together in the kitchen and cooked up a true Italian feast, courtesy of Guiseppina’s cooking school,  in Tuscany. I could not have pulled it off without the help of my two beautiful friends.

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All grown up, sipping Prosecco

My Bondi kitchen  was never going to replicate the very traditional Italian kitchen, and so I decided to give my meal a more modern twist, but with elements representative of our memories in Tuscany. I wanted the evening to feel organic and natural, as all Guiseppina’s produce was fresh from her garden, and nothing was too complicated or fancy.

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Tablescape – muted tones and organic shapes, with fragrant lavender and sunflowers
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Sunflower fields in Tuscany

Sight: Linen tableware, in muted tones of blue and stone, dressed the table. Small stone plates in similar tonal colours set the rustic scene, while long, curved platters on which the entrees were served, further created the relaxed feeling. Clustered around the table were vintage blue and green bottles, filled with bright yellow sunflowers and fragrant lavender. The girls immediately noticed this detail which reminded them of walking through the stunning stretches of sunflower fields and the lavender bushes growing in every quaint garden, including that of our hostel. The blue and green  bottles were also a nod to the similar glass vases which were part of our hostel’s decor.
The food was presented on simple white and glass dishes, maintaining the uncomplicated atmosphere. Being able to see the food through the glass dishes creates excitement and the neutral colours showcase the vibrant colours of the fresh produce which are so vital in Guiseppina’s cooking.

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Lavender blooming in Tuscany
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The green and blue bottles at our hostel

Smell: I didn’t have to do much to create the authentic Italian aroma – the fresh basil and juicy ripe tomatoes, together with the fragrant garlic and lemon set the stage pretty well! The yeasty warmth of freshly baked bread sticks further reminded us of being in the Italian mamma’s home. I lit a blood orange candle, which added freshness to the rich aromas.

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Fresh ingredients from Guiseppina’s home – Tuscany, 2006
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My key Italian ingredients in Australia, 2016

Sound: I love Spotify! I selected the playlist Café Europa, which wasn’t too cheesy, but the romantic music with foreign accents and classical nostalgic sounds definitely made us all feel like we were back in the heart of Europe! Of course, the conversation turned to reminiscing about our time spent there. There were many laughs and, when I brought out the old photographs, a few “OMG do you remember that!” exclamations, as well as comments from the occasional shocked sounding husband.

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Friends having lunch – Salute!

Touch: The organic feel of linen on your fingers provided the physical sensation of being in the countryside – understated luxury, a little rough but so romantic.
The different textures of the food, as always, play a vital role in how your “touch” sense is stimulated. It begins with the nibbles eaten with your hands – warm, soft bread sticks contrasted against the sharpness of hard pecorino cheese, which was also complemented by the gooey sweetness of onion jam. Entrees of arancini and fried zucchini flowers both had a crispy coating, the former with a melt-in-your-mouth inside but the latter, firm. These warm dishes were contrasted further by the cool, fresh deconstructed Caprese salad. This principle of hot vs cold, soft vs hard etc, continued throughout the meal, really stimulating your sense of touch.

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Wild mushroom arancini with garlic aioli
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Crispy fried zucchini flowers

Taste: Most of the menu was directly from Guiseppina’s Cooking School, however I substituted a few things to suit dietary requirements and increase diversity. I think the most important ingredient was LOTS of good quality extra virgin olive oil, adding a rich fruity flavour to the dishes.
Each couple brought an Italian drink, to complement one of the courses. I also served ice cold San Pellegrino Aranciata Rossa as the non-alcoholic option.

Nibbles: Homemade breadsticks fresh from the oven, (which my Little B so enjoyed helping to make), with a gourmet olive selection, sharp pecorino cheese and the piece de resistance, delicious onion jam which had the perfect balance of sweet and tangy flavour. Harris Farm Markets make their own, which, luckily, was so similar to Guiseppina’s homemade speciality. It made my week when I found it!
Italian Prosecco perfectly balanced out these rich flavours.

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Little B – my kitchen helper
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Home made grissini fresh from the oven
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Nibbles – grissini, pecorino cheese, onion jam and gourmet olives

Entrees: Wild mushroom arancini and crispy fried zucchini flowers served with a garlic aioli and a tomato dipping sauce. I used dried porcini mushrooms, which gave the most gorgeous depth of flavour. Guiseppina’s original menu included bruschetta. I didn’t want more bread as I had added in the breadsticks earlier, so I decided to re-work the bruschetta ingredients into a deconstructed Caprese salad. I used big balls of rich, creamy burrata, my absolute favourite cheese, and decadent buffalo mozzarella. Served amongst a medley of roughly chopped heirloom tomatoes, with fresh, fragrant basil and a good slug of evoo (extra virgin olive oil), caramelised balsamic vinegar and of course freshly ground himalayan pink salt and black pepper…so so yum! We also opened a bottle of beautiful chianti from Tuscany, a perfect accompaniment.
wild-mushroom-arancini

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Wild mushroom arancini, crispy zucchini flowers with garlic aioli & roast tomato dipping sauce
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Deconstructed Caprese salad with buratta and buffalo mozzarella

Mains: One of the most memorable pasta dishes I have ever eaten was the creamy pasta, made without any cream, in Guiseppina’s home. Fresh spaghetti with vibrant cherry tomatoes, basil and lots of garlic and parmesan cheese, combined with walnuts, both crushed and chopped, give this dish the most amazing texture and creamy taste. Ground walnuts and the oil they release mixed through pasta is definitely something worth trying! The combined effort and advice from the other girls (who have made this dish countless times) while cooking was so helpful, and not to mention fun.
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Chopped walnuts going into the pan
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Walnut oil becoming creamy
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Guiseppina’s special spaghetti

For a bit of protein to complement all the carbs, I decided on a simple white fish (ling), cooked with good quality olive oil, fresh lemon juice and lots of seasoning, on a bed of thinly sliced red onion and topped with wholesome baby asparagus, all steamed in a foil parcel in the oven. The clean flavours were great together with the rich pasta.
The chianti continued to flow into the main course, balancing out all the beautiful flavours of Italy .

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Oven steamed ling with chilli, red onion and fresh asparagus

Dessert: Another dish that we still talk about, 10 years later, is Guiseppina’s tiramisu. This easy recipe delivers every time, its decadence and deliciousness even convinced the girls who are on a pregnancy “no raw egg” diet, to have a spoonful (or two!). One lesson that I learned that day in Tuscany which I will never forget, is that REAL Italian tiramisu doesn’t contain any alcohol, and I think its even better this way!
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To contrast the rich creamy dessert, I added to the menu a sour cherry granita. The secret ingredient…balsamic vinegar! Both desserts were served in glass bowls, showing off the gorgeous layers of the tiramisu, and the stunning cerise pink colour of the granita. I picked a flower from my garden in the same shade of pink to garnish the chocolate dusted tiramisu – it looked pretty enticing.

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Tiramisu
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Sour cherry granita
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Through the looking glass

I brought out my favourite glasses which I reserve for dessert wine and liqueurs (by now I think I have 16 different types of glasses in my house!), and we salute‘d to lasting friendship and delicious food over chilled limoncello (itself, in an amazing bottle, which will definitely be up-cycled soon).

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Chilled Limoncello is served
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Mum’s almond biscotti

Homemade (by my generous mum) almond biscotti were served to end the meal with fresh peppermint tea…always room for more it seems!

Honest Outcome:
Good:
we laughed and reminisced and had a lot of fun cooking together, just as we had done on our travels 10 years ago – this was the main goal of the evening, so I would say it was a pretty successful night. My girlfriends were of the same sentiment, while the boys were very complimentary of the food and the Italian experience in general. The small touches definitely didn’t go unnoticed. … so I was happy.

Not So Good: I hadn’t anticipated how long everyone would chat for over the nibbles, or how quickly the entrees would take to fry, so by the time we sat down at the table, they were a little cold, but still delicious. Timing is everything!

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Recipes!

I have shepherd’s pie in the oven, a clean kitchen (after cleaning up for the second time today and the 5th time in the last 48 hours!), a sleeping hubby and toddler and I’m sitting down doing something for myself (and for any of you who are interested in reading this). I’m only mentioning this as it is such a rare occasion and it’s pretty awesome, and I’ve been trying to be more grateful for the small things in my every day life.

Ok, back on track – I have been asked by a few people for some of the recipes from my recent blog posts.
I certainly can’t take credit for coming up with most of the recipes, but I’m very happy to share some of my favourites with you and give you my tips and any modifications that I used to better suit my needs and available ingredients.

The Donna Hay Feb/March 2016 issue became my best friend when planning my Winery by the Sea menu. Most of the main course and the delectable dessert were from there.

Honey wood smoked salmon with quick pickled tomato 
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As I mentioned in the last blog post, Daddy Rich was in charge of this one and he did an exceptional job of following the recipe exactly. After two trips to the hardware store, he eventually settled on the Samba seafood smoking chips, which is a bIMG_7918lend of mesquite and alder wood. I used two individual pieces of salmon instead of a whole salmon, as there were only two of us.
click for link to recipe

 

IMG_7919Roasted peach and blueberry ice-cream sandwich 
I replaced the vanilla ice cream with vanilla bean frozen yoghurt which gave the dish a tartness that contrasted the sweet roasted fruit beautifully. I didn’t beat the yoghurt to soften it – instead, I just left it to melt slightly, then gave it a good stir with a wooden spoon before adding the fruit to it. That worked well – just be careful to not over mix it, otherwise you lose the crisp white colour of the ice cream and it becomes purple and the gorgeous combination of colours disappears.
click for recipe

Grilled Avo with Seared Tuna “Salsa” IMG_7681
I took inspiration from a few different recipes for this one. I combined and changed them to suit my menu. It was an experiment, but I was very happy with the result. The quantities in the recipe are based on my personal preference, so please taste and adjust as you go – there is no right or wrong.
click for recipe

I hope these recipes give you as much pleasure as I got from cooking and devouring the products. Please let me know how you go if you do make anything and also if there are any others recipes that you would like.

Happy cooking!