Friday, June 1, 2012

The Tuscan Farmhouse Picnic Lunch


The Tuscan Farmhouse Picnic Lunch


One of the things that I love about Italian cooking is that it really can be simple, and in many cases, does not involve a lot of cooking. How funny is that? Take the lunch that I had in this old Tuscan farmhouse restaurant while in Tuscany as an example. Walking in the door surrounded by old wagon wheels you are immediately transported to some ancient time in Italy where the farm hands gathered in the wine cellar for their noon lunch to get out of the heat of the day. 



The dark room is damp with low ceilings made of curved wood rafters giving you the sense that you have walked into an oversized wine barrel. The meter wide stone pillars create resting places for those of us seated on the wood benches and cool our backs which have been scorched in the heat of the morning sun. Famished from the long morning walk on the Francigena road we ask simply for food. Almost instantly both red and white wine appear along with water (with and without gas) and 3 glasses for each of us; two for the wine and one for the waters.  


One must never mix wines in the same glass! The glasses are simple, more like what I use in the United States to drink morning juice out of, and not those fancy long stemmed, wide-mouthed wine glasses…no, just simple juice glasses for our water and wine. Wine compliments every meal in Italy and today we are enjoying a bottle of Chianti and the house white. The Italians are not known for fast food at all, and in fact, the slow food movement began in Italy (see the history on the link in the sidebar).
  
So although famished, we settled in for a leisurely lunch of wine and an array of regional specialties of meats and cheeses. We share stories, learn about each other and ourselves in the world. The lunch was salami, mortadella, prosciutto and pecorino cheese with crostini and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil. A meal fit for royalty, yet only the crostini was even close to what we would call “cooked”.  The simplicity, the ambience and the combination of flavors made this meal classic Italian. Easy to recreate – including the ambiance – you too, can transport your friends to Italy simply and classically by using the following tips for recreating the Tuscan Farmhouse Picnic:

THE AMBIANCE: RUSTIC, INFORMAL AND SIMPLE
  • Move your picnic to a place away from your formal dining room or formal table, find a place in your home or yard or garden where 6-8 people can gather around a small table with close seating, a picnic table or small round table works best;
  • If you have a checkered table cloth to put over the table that is great, if not use a colorful place mat or tray on which to place the wine and glasses;
  • Have both red and white bottles of wine open and ready to go with 2 small juice glasses for each person. The glasses will fill the table and provide colorful table decorations when filled with the wine;
  • If you can find a large bottle of an Italian sparkling water to place on the table, that also provides the table decoration and creates the feeling that you are somewhere else;
  • I like to place a candle or two on the table, in this situation I would pull out an old empty straw covered Chianti bottle and place it on the table with a taper candle to add that little extra flavor;
  • Although crostini is usually served on a plate, in this setting where you are trying to recreate a Tuscan Farmhouse Picnic experience – a large basket with a colorful napkin placed under the crostini and wrapped up around the bread will add more character to the picnic feel;
  • And finally the touch that I like to add is a special platter or colorful serving tray for the meats and cheeses and another one for the tomatoes drizzled with olive oil.

Now that your ambiance is set, think about slowing things down and just sitting and enjoying your company. Pour small glasses of wine,  pick up the food off of the platters one piece at a time, eat, enjoy and learn about each other…see if you can make your picnic lunch last 60-90 minutes and learn something new about each other!


TRAVEL TIP – I like to look for that one unique or striking platter or bowl that I can use when I get home to add that special touch to entertaining – here’s one that I brought back from Radda in Tuscany that I use anytime I am serving a meat and cheese tray.

THE FOOD


I like to pack a platter full of meats and cheeses, and my basket of bread with several choices – here are some of my favorites for a Tuscan Farmhouse Picnic Platter:

  • Mortadella – which is like a thinly sliced bologna  
  • One or 2 salamis – one hard salami and one spicy salami
  • Prosciutto or some type of salty ham
  • Pecorino cheese is very difficult to find where I live so I often have to substitute a good pecorino with an aged white cheddar;
  • A sweet, soft white cheese like provolone or muenster
That’s it for the platter a nice combination of sweet and salty spicy and mild - it is that easy, put your platter together in advance of your guests arriving and just pull the platter out when it is time to serve. 


The tomato platter drizzled with olive oil – about an hour before your picnic slice the tomatoes about ½ inch thick so that they have some substance to them arrange on the second platter,  lightly salt and drizzle with a good olive oil. This gives them a little time to sweeten up and create a little juice that you will want to dip your crostini into. Here’s a tip for serving tomatoes that are not home grown, not fresh from the Farmer’s Market – salt them liberally (instead of lightly) with a kosher salt after slicing and before drizzling with olive oil – the salt pulls out the more bitter acid let them sit for 15 minutes after salting liberally and then drizzle the olive oil to taste. If the tomatoes are especially bitter dab up the moisture that is created on top of the tomatoes after the 15 minutes of salting and then salt them again before treating with the olive oil. 


Bread is a staple in Italy, and crostini is simply bread sliced about ¾ of an inch to an inch thick that is toasted. To make the crostini spectacular drizzle a little bit of olive oil on the bread and toast for a few minutes then take the bread out of the oven and rub a clove of peeled garlic over the bread. If you smash the clove of garlic with the blade of your knife, it will activate the garlic juices and transfer that goodness to the bread. Rubbing a non-smashed clove of peeled garlic will also impart the garlic flavor onto the bread too, but it is fun to practice the smash of the knife blade on the garlic clove. Or if you don’t want to mess with the garlic clove, you can use garlic flavored olive oil for complete simplicity (please see link for a great source of specialty olive oil). Put the garlic treated bread back in the oven and toast until it has developed a nice rich brown color. 


You can toast the bread in any number of ways, on the grill, in a toaster oven, in a frying pan…whatever works for you – this is supposed to be easy and fun so find something that works for you. While serving the bread while warm is great; the smell of warm toasted bread is very inviting, warm crostini is not essential to the entire event. Remember this is about creating ambiance and you as the host are part of that ambience, if you are running around the kitchen your guests are missing a crucial element to the picnic – you. So put the toasted bread in a basket cover it with a rustic, colorful napkin, place the basket on the center of the table and enjoy spending time with your guests.


Okay that’s all you need to do for a classic, simple Tuscan Farmhouse Picnic – enjoy!


Tomorrow – look for the link to my contemporary twist to a classic rustic Tuscan dish – Mama Caruso’s Ribollita

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