ife in Italy often contradicts the dream it’s supposed to reflect. After Frances Mayes wrote “Under the Tuscan Sun,” which suggested (in a so-southern way) that the trials and tribulations of restoring a villa could mix easily with flea market shopping and garden wine-sipping, casual observers began imagining expat life in the Mayes vein.
Italy makes you run to keep up. Long workweeks and short store hours make daily shopping nearly impossible, which helps explain why Italian freezers have grown in size over the past two decades. Smaller families need two incomes. Women work.
So what about mamma in the kitchen? What about the aromas of ragú simmering through the house? Are three-hour lunches gone forever? I hope not. My mother-in-law Tina put it best: “Spend more time shopping and less time cooking.”
Good food depends less on time it takes to make than on great ingredients, simple techniques, and planning. Most meals are quick, light and easy to prepare. Timing is the key. If you start heating water when you get home you can make sauce as it boils. While the sauce simmers, you can sauté or grill chicken, beef or pork. You can also put together salad dressing.
Lunch is served.
While eating, you can turn your attention to slow cooking. Since most food tastes better the next day, why not cook the night before instead of rushing home to make a meal from scratch? Learning to prepare future meals while you’re working online or watching TV is an acquired skill, and a useful one.
In winter, a simple bollito misto (boiled meat) is an excellent source of lunch and dinner. In a season that invites soups and stews, a boiled beef dinner gives you a one-pot supply of both. By itself, the broth is a lovely light first course. It can also be used to boil tortellini. The beef in the bollito is traditionally served on its own, accompanied by sauces (seven in restaurants where a bollito cart is still wheeled in). Beef aside, bollito provides a meal that keeps on giving. There is tongue, rolled up testina (or cow face), and zampa (hoofs).
Italians may not like leftovers but they do love transforming old ones into new dishes. No self-respecting Tuscan would ever think of making the twice-cooked vegetable soup, ribollita, in a day. The tender act of recooking softens the vegetables, blends them, and develops flavors that can infuse even stale bread. It’s a monument to Tuscan ingenuity.
My basic bollito meal goes a long way.
If I let the broth chill overnight, I find it easier to remove the fat. The result is lovely and light. I then reheat the meat in some of the broth and serve it with salsa verde (see recipe below), mayonnaise, olive oil and sea salt. Mostarda di Cremona provides a great kick.
Jewel-like pieces of spicy fruit are a perfect balance to the boiled beef. I serve them in thin slices in some of their syrup on a small side-dish. The vegetables are the boiled potatoes and carrots used in making the original bollito.
Bollito is just the start.
Afterwards comes lesso rifatto or francesina, as Tuscans call it. You recook the remaining beef with twice its weight in onions, then splash in some red wine and tomato sauce. Let it stew and you have some true comfort food, which you can serve with mashed potatoes.
Trust me, it’ll become a family favorite.
2 1/2 pounds beef (muscle, tongue, etc. for boiling)
2 beef bones
1 onion, peeled and left whole
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 3-inch lengths
1 celery stalk
Sea salt to taste, about 2 tablespoons
One-half capon or boiling chicken, optional
Place all the ingredients in a large soup pot and introduce water. Bring to a slow boil, covered, for one hour. Skim the surface. Add chicken and cook for another hour. Check the beef to ensure it’s cooked. It should be very tender; the skin should peel easily from the tongue. (I like to make this the night before so I can remove excess fat from the broth.)
Remove the beef and vegetables from the broth. Discard the tomato, parsley, and beef bones. Strain the broth and replace the beef in the broth. Refrigerate overnight. Remove the solidified fat from the broth the next day. Reheat together.
To serve, remove enough broth for the soup. Boil the tortellini in the broth and serve with grated Parmesan cheese. Serve the already-cut beef arranged on a plate.
1 cup Italian parsley, leaves only
2 tablespoons capers
1 garlic clove
1 anchovy filet
Red wine vinegar, to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
1 slice white bread
Finely chop the parsley, capers, garlic, and anchovy. Put the mixture into a serving bowl and add olive oil and red wine vinegar. Adjust seasonings. Remove the crust from the slice of bread, and soak the bread in red wine vinegar. Then crumble the bread into sauce. If you wish, you can add chopped pine nuts.
I love salsa verde on hot green beans and boiled potatoes. I also make an appetizer by removing the yolks from hardboiled eggs and blending them with the sauce. Refill the eggs and refrigerate before serving.