Did I mention that I’m trying to incorporate many of our future travel destinations into our alphabetical global adventure this year? This means that Italian and Mediterranean destinations are going to be well represented in the next little while. Fortunately for us, we love the food and culture of this region. There is so much variety in the various regions of Italy that it’s easy to find enough material on each individual city to fill a week.
This week was mainly focused on the food of Florence and instead of a craft I got the kids involved in preparing the meal. Florence was my first stop in Italy on my very first visit to Europe way back in college and one of my favourite food memories was my very first taste of real Italian gelato. Now obviously I don’t have the equipment to replicate the real thing, but the recipes for gelato tend to be quite simple, focusing on fresh, quality ingredients and we decided to incorporate a bit of science into our activity this week. We used instructions from the internet to construct a simple ice cream maker by putting milk, cream, sugar and vanilla into a one litre zipper bag, then put the bag into a four litre bag filled with ice and salt. We put on our mitts (since the ice and salt got super cold) and rolled the bags around. After about 15 minutes we opened the inner bag and an amazing transformation had occurred. It wasn’t quite real gelato, but it made a great dessert for our Florentine supper. (And yes, the kids were in their Halloween costumes for some reason that night.)
Speaking of supper, I have to say that anything Italian is usually a hit in our household. Now of course, if you’ve been to Italy, you realize that touristy Italian cooking and authentic Italian cooking are two completely different things. Our tastes fall in between these two camps. I love the pasta and veggies and cheeses of real Italian food, but try as I might I just can’t make myself like chicken liver crostini or stewed tripe, no matter how authentic it may be. Fortunately, there are enough recipes out there that I was able to find dishes that were both authentic and appealing to my rather timid palate.
I usually love to make bread from scratch when it fits into our global menu, but this week I just ran out of time so I picked out a fresh loaf of Italian bread at the store in the morning. Since I was skipping the traditional Tuscan topping of chicken livers because, well, ewww, I went with a bruschetta topping of diced tomatoes, olive oil and basil. I had just brought in the last of the veggies from the garden this week, and although the tomatoes were a shadow of the flavourful ones we had back in August, they were still a lot better than the ones we’d be finding in the supermarkets from now on.
We then moved on to fresh pasta, which I love, but can never really find the time to prepare. It really is amazing how something as simple as flour and eggs can be transformed into such an incredible variety of final products. For our Florentine meal I made sheets of pasta and then made ravioli filled with spinach, ricotta and parmesan cheese.
Now, a normal progression for a traditional meal in Italy would be to start with bread and an appetizer, then have pasta as a first course, followed by a meat course and side dishes, but I have never quite been able to figure out how to have a multi course family meal without spending a good part of the meal in the kitchen preparing these various courses while my family sits at the table enjoying the meal without me. I could see it working very well if I had a maid to do all the work, but I don’t see that happening any time in the future, near or far. So I moved away from tradition by serving my pasta alongside the rest of the meal, which consisted of green beans cooked with garlic and tomatoes and a scaled down version of bistecca alla Fiorentina. This speciality of Florence is traditionally a massive chunk of high quality, locally raised, bone in steak,cut two to three inches thick, seasoned with only salt and grilled rare on a charcoal grill. It is cooked for several people and served in slices. I had to modify a bit since a traditional Florentine steak would be way too much meat for us and would also cost about sixty bucks. I bought an extra thick striploin instead which provided a similar presentation, but a more manageable serving size.
Of course, to accompany the meal the obvious choice was a wonderful, full bodied Tuscan red.
The verdict? Well, the kids will never complain about a meal that features both bread and pasta. And my husband said something about wishing it could be Florence week every week. So, I think we can call the “F is for Florence” menu a success. And of course any meal is better if it’s followed up with gelato that you made yourself. I can hardly wait to see the kids’ reaction when they get to taste the real thing!