In her latest book, “Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking,” author Pamela Sheldon Johns brings to life a manner of eating — and living — in Italy’s Tuscany region, which resulted from wartime rations, poverty and hardship. During these lean years, people were forced to rely on seasonal and local ingredients, yet this austerity resulted in a creative style of cooking that yielded flavorful, substantive dishes that have retained their popularity in more abundant times.
In fact, many Italians reflect on this time fondly reciting the proverb, si stava meglio quando si stava peggio, which translates as, “we were better off when thing were worse.” What makes “Cucina Povera” much more than a cookbook are the personal stories and recollections that are included throughout. In fact, the book begins with a history of cucina buona in tempi brutti, or “good food for hard times” told through Johns’ interviews with Italians that lived through them.
One such man, who Johns refers to as her “adopted Nonno (grandfather)” is Virio, who survived the period of time after World War I until just after World War II – a time period of great hardship throughout Italy– by being a scavenger. He’d forage the land, or hunt, or sometimes rely on the kindness of generous shopowners. In another section of ”Cucina Povera” Johns tells about Tuscany’s Camoldoli Monks, an order situated in an ancient forest in the Tuscan Apennines, who rely on natural ingredients to create medicinal herbal remedies.
There is another story of a woman, Dr. Evelina Modigliani Rossi, who was born in 1917. She ran a post-war humanitarian organization that was partially funded by the U.S.’s Marshall Plan. Signora Rossi recalls that many peasant women lacked knowledge about preserving foods and medical situations. She explains, “The fact is that life spans were shortened drastically by a lack of such knowledge…”
All of the people in “Cucina Povera” share the common bond of reliance on the Tuscan land for survival. As such, Johns also explores the various towns and regions within Tuscany that have inspired these creative cooking techniques. Each village or town has a unique story to tell, such as Pitigliano, a village that has a historic tradition as a haven for Jews that dates back to Medieval times. Elena, a resident, who went into hiding during the second world war recalls the food her mother made, “one of my favorite dishes was tortelli filled with spinach and ricotta, with cheese and cinnamon on top.”
Of course, after the stories that Johns has included, which teach the reader so much about the Tuscan people, history and land, are the recipes. It’s here that one can truly see the influence that Tuscany has had on Italian food throughout the world because many of the dishes found in “Cucina Povera,” are also found, ironically, in some of the world’s best — and most expensive – Italian restaurants.
For example, there is a recipe for Pappa al Pomodoro, the bread-and-tomato-soup, which is so popular, in many incarnations, in so many Italian restaurants, even those that are not serving uniquely Tuscan fare. The recipe sections are divided into sections. The first is “Appetizers” and it includes recipes for Crostini and Bruschetta. It also includes the recipe for Necci, a unique chestnut flour crepe that is traditionally filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and honey, and not something that is commonly found in the U.S.
Then there is another section for “Soups” that includes the recipe for the Pappa al Pomodoro, as well as for Garmugia Lucchese, a spring vegetable soup from the town of Lucca. Also, there is the recipe for Ribbolita, another popular Italian menu item, that relies on bread as a main ingredient.
In a recent episode of “Best Thing I Ever Made” Chef Scott Conant taught viewers how to make his Gnudi, a word that translates from Italian as “nude” and describes this pasta, which is actually more like pasta filling without the outer layer, hence the gnudi. You’ll find Johns’ excellent recipe for Gnudi in the “Pasta and Grains” section (see the bottom of this post for the recipe). Also here are recipes that include Farro, a grain that is popular in Tuscany’s Garfagnana zone, as well as throughout Italy (this is the same grain used in pastiera).
The other sections of ”Cucina Povera” are for “Meats & Seafood,” “Side Dishes,” and “Breads and Sweets.” In the latter, Johns provides the recipe for Castagnaccio, a very unique chestnut flour cake that contains Rosemary and Pignoli nuts. Johns explains during the introductory section of the book about the dominance of the chestnut as an ingredient in Tuscan cuisine.
What makes ”Cucina Povera” such a treasure — and a thoroughly enjoyable journey into Tuscan life and cooking — are all the interesting details and facts that Johns includes. And this should come as no surprise because Johns was named “One of the Top 10 Culinary Guides in Europe” by The Wall Street Journal and she runs an agriturismo and cooking school from her Tuscan farm. She includes the information that helps the reader to learn and understand the cuisine of Tuscany, such as when she explains about ingredients like Sofrritto, the “holy trinity” of Tuscan cooking – the combination of carrots, celery and onion that serves as the base for many popular Tuscan dishes.
After reading “Cucina Povera” and trying the recipes, which Johns has obviously taken great care to make accessible and easy to follow, you will feel like you’ve actually attended one of the author’s cooking seminars at the idyllic Poggio Etrusco and you’ll be armed with the knowledge that would make it possible to pretend you have. Johns is extremely generous in sharing her knowledge and, more so, her impressions of Tuscany, with her readers. By portraying its food and people — with what is obviously such heartfelt reverence — she leaves you with the same warm feeling that you get when you bask in the golden glow of this region of Italy.
Pamela Sheldon Johns’ Recipe for Gnudi
Gnudi – Spinach and Ricotta Dumplings
Gnudi means, well, “nude”—because these are nude ravioli, the filling without the outer pasta covering. They are delicious served with tomato sauce, as in this recipe, or with melted butter and sage.
Serves 6 | Ingredients
3/4 cup steamed spinach, finely chopped
3/4 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups tomato sauce (recipe follows)
In a large bowl, combine the spinach, ricotta, pecorino, and egg yolks. Stir to blend. Stir in the nutmeg and salt to taste, then gently stir in the flour, mixing just enough to pull the mixture together.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Heat the tomato sauce and spread a thin layer of it over the bottom of a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Set aside.
Using two tablespoons, shape and compact the ricotta mixture into ovals and drop them directly into the boiling water in batches, so as not to crowd the pot. They will float to the top when done, after 3 to 4 minutes. Using a wire skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer the gnudi to the casserole dish. Keep warm in a low oven. Repeat to cook all the remaining gnudi. Spoon the remaining tomato sauce over the gnudi and serve at once.
Pamela Sheldon Johns’ Tomato Sauce
Makes 6 cups | Ingredients
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
2 pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, and sauté the onion for 2 to 3 minutes, or until softened. Add the tomatoes, garlic, parsley, and basil. Decrease the heat to low and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Pass the mixture through a food mill or purée in a blender until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
—From Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking by Pamela Sheldon Johns/Andrews McMeel Publishing
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