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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Breakfast Tel Aviv style

If you want a full on sensory experience, head to Tel Aviv! I was there with Little B and my amazing mum visiting my sister a few months ago. This is not the first time I’ve been to Israel and so I knew what a treat I was in for, and my taste buds and my soul couldn’t wait.

If I could use two words to describe my time there, it would be NOURISHING CHAOS. Nourishing for my body and soul.

My soul was replenished by spending quality time with my sister and seeing her and Little B bond so beautifully. Also, just being in Israel uplifts me – there is something magical about the energy and the authenticity of that place and its people.

My body was of course nourished (more literally) by all the delicious food, the sun on my shoulders and Mediterranean salty air. However, travelling with an almost 2 year old, who has the will of a stubborn teenager, in a city that doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quiet”…. it was not what you would call relaxing.

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Dinner at the “authentic” The Old Man and the Sea in Jaffa

One of the quintessential meals of Israel is the huge buffet breakfast. It apparently originated when the farmers on the kibbutzim (collective communities established in the 1930’s)  would all come back after a morning of work in the fields and enjoy a communal feast of all the produce of the kibbutz. Meat wasn’t traditionally farmed and so dairy and eggs became the main form of protein which were eaten along with all the fresh fruit and vegetables. We also have this to thank for the creation of the delicious spicy breakfast feast – shakshuka! Everyone sits around a big table and digs in, often using bread as their main utensil for moping up all the deliciousness.

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My brother-in-law’s shakshuka with feta and herbs (the best in the world!)

It was this amazing breakfast tradition that I wanted to recreate at home with my friends and the kids. The chaos of Tel Aviv: the noise, the hustle and bustle and never standing still for a minute was the precise energy that I wanted to bring to my breakfast. And lets just say that with 8 chatty adults and 5 busy kids under 2.5, this was definitely achieved!

Smell: When my guests walked into the house, they were greeted with the unmistakable rich smokey aroma of middle eastern cooking – cumin, coriander, paprika and za’atar spices, eggplant roasting over an open flame and freshly chopped mint and parsley. I also lit a fragrant “High Tea” Glasshouse candle, whose exotic perfumes of cardamom and black tea added depth to the aroma of the room.

One of my girlfriends walked in and said that she could smell Israel from outside our front gate – the first mark of a successful breakfast 🙂

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fresh herbs and vibrant radishes ready for chopping

 

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eggplants roasting for babganoush

Sound: I deliberately didn’t have any music playing because I knew it would be drowned out with all the chatter, demanding toddlers and their noisy toys. The sound of people laughing and talking loudly with the occasional child’s cry was the exact backdrop that I wanted for my Tel Aviv breakfast.

Sight: A table full of fresh bread, soft creamy cheeses, and colourful dips, alongside roughly chopped salad, seasonal fruit and cooked eggs – this is what an Israeli breakfast looks like.

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three cheeses and dips
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Spiced chickpea & fresh vegetable salad (Jerusalem, Ottolenghi)
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Mud Australia bowls

The decor and servingware was a mixture of colours and styles, selected to reflect the disorder of life in Israel – nothing is too perfect but it somehow just works. I used different textures – wood, ceramic, glass and metals, as well as lots of bright colours to achieve this. The main colour scheme was that of the Mediterranean – aqua, green and turquoise MUD plates and coloured glasses, with some gorgeous brights thrown in too, as I was so inspired by the colour of the alleys and boulevards of Tel Aviv.

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Touch: How something feels always influences how it tastes – maybe that’s why the soft, warm bread used to scoop up the shakshuka and homemade dips tasted so good. The combination of textures was amazing, with the creamy cheeses and hummus, the slightly grainy roast beetroot dip and and the chunky babaganoush, together with the crunchy bread crust and doughy insides. I explored another aspect of “touch” by combining different temperatures – warm eggs, bread and pastries juxtaposed the cool dips, and fresh salad and fruit.

I can’t end without mentioning the halva cake – I think my favourite dish of the day! Moist buttery cake, layered with slightly chalky but melt-in-your-mouth halva, contrasted by rich crunchy cinnamon walnuts – a texture party in your mouth.

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Walnut and halva cake (Plenty More, Ottolenghi)
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Autumn red fruits

Taste:
On arrival: 

Tahini, date and cinnamon smoothie – gulped up by both adults and kids!

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(The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook, Salma Hage)

Cold:
Homemade dips: hummus, babaganoush, roasted beetroot, cumin and goats curd dip and tuna dip (again store bought – cant beat Pasta Pantry), and fresh homemade zhoug, a fragrant green, firery sauce, with a pesto-like texture
Cheese: homemade Labne, goats cheese, marinated feta
Spiced chickpeas and fresh vegetable salad
Boiled eggs
Spiced maple, pecan and walnut granola served with plain yoghurt and silan (Israeli date honey)
Fresh red fruit salad – Daddy Rich did an amazing job of cutting this up, he even knew to add the garnish of mint!)
Walnut and Halva Cake – after getting somewhat overlooked during the main meal, I brought this onto the dining table when tea was served and it was devoured!

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Spiced maple, pecan and walnut granola (adapted from Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook, Salma Hage)

Hot:
Breads: rosemary and sea salt focaccia, parmesan and garlic focaccia and seeded , all from BakeBar (no, I’m not superwoman who makes my own bread on a day like this, but I did warm them in the oven)
Labne and za’atar mini pastries garnished with rose petals – even fussy Little B loved these
Shakshuka – I made two to accommodate those that love chilli, and those unfortunate people who don’t!

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Shakshuka (Falafel for Breakfast, Kepos Street Kitchen) 

To end:
Nana tea (Fresh mint tea) – we debated whether the drink is served with the teabag in or out. True to Tel Aviv tradition, it was served on the side!

Honest Outcome:
Good: everyone commented on how authentic the meal was – this is the best compliment I could have received!
They also suggested I go into business making and selling my dips and condiments – while I may not be quite ready for this, it felt really good to know their taste buds and tummies were happy 🙂

Not so good: I didn’t get the timing quite right so by the time the guests arrived, and we actually sat down to eat, the shakshuka was slightly overcooked! Lesson learned: prepare everything before but only put the pan on the heat once the guests have arrived

Please let me know (leave a comment) any other recipes that you would love to try xx