During this pandemic, we have watched television more than ever: movies, documentaries, opera from the Met, and, perhaps not surprisingly, cooking shows. Indeed, ever since we “cut the cable” and turned to streaming, I’m amazed at just how many television chefs there are. And although we’ve discovered a few new channels like Tastemade and Bon Appetit, none has in my opinion provided higher quality than good old PBS.
Once again during this pandemic, the result of placing an online order for groceries changed our dinner plans. In the mood for a lamb stew, I ordered three pounds of lamb shoulder; what arrived were two netted boneless legs of lamb. One was a little more than two pounds; the other, about one.
When it comes to cooking, Tuscany may be famous for its Florentine beefsteak, crostini with chicken-liver spread, thick ribolitta soup, and even its panzanella bread salad, not to mention extra-virgin olive oil and truffles. I believe few, however, would associate the area with fried chicken. Indeed, even after numerous trips to this region and having enjoyed many meals there, I never came across it. In fact, I only discovered it recently while preparing a recipe for a chicken and onion stew from Wilma Pezzini’s The Tuscan Cookbook, which I wrote about here a few weeks ago.
When I saw this chicken recipe on Diane Darrow’s Another Year in Recipes blog last week, I knew I had to make it. Diane is among the most intelligent and eloquent food writers I know. Along with her wine-maven husband Tom Maresca, she’s authored two cookbooks on Italian cooking and can always be relied on for expert advice on the subject of authentic Italian cuisine.
Diane found the recipe in Wilma Pezzini’s The Tuscan Cookbook, published in 1978 and has been writing a series of three posts from it that cover three standard courses of an Italian meal (primo, secondo, dolce). Her description of the book, along with the posted recipes, motivated me to purchase a used copy of it, which I’ve found to be an unsung gem, both instructive and engaging to read.
Sunflowers brought home by husband from our local farmers market evoked intimations of Tuscany that motivated me to prepare the subject of today’s post, peposo, a peppery Tuscan beef stew with a long history.
Serendipity triggered this post. A few weeks ago, a loyal reader in a comment recommended Mario Batali’s 2005 cookbook, Molto Italiano, averring it to be his best ever. I ordered a used copy of it online, and on the day it arrived in the mail, my supermarket had a half-price sale on pork that made a 4.3 perfectly butchered shoulder roast irresistible. This confluence of events ultimately led me to a recipe in Batali’s book for “Braised Pork Black Rooster.” The barnyard moniker derives from the Gallo Nero, Italian for “black rooster,” the emblem of the consortium for Chianti Classico, the wine called for in the recipe. Given my predilection for Chianti, I simply had to make this dish.
My brother recently sent me a link to a recipe in the New York Times for “drunken spaghetti,” or spaghetti all’ubriaco and suggested that I do a blog post about it. I’ve seen the dish prepared several times on television by celebrity cooks like Rachael Ray and, over the years, have read about it in the press. Recipes for it also abound on the internet, some posted by travelers who first encountered it in Tuscany, others by food writers like Mark Bittman, who wrote a column about it in 1998, after having enjoyed the dish at Osteria del Circo in New York City.
I must admit that the dish, as well as its preparation, has a lot of wow factor, which makes for good television, especially when a celebrity chef dumps, with a flourish, an entire bottle of wine into a pot for cooking the spaghetti. As you might expect, some cooks go overboard and call for using status wines like Barolo or Rosso di Montalcino and the audience soaks it up with oohs and aahs. Indeed, all the razzle-dazzle associated with this dish may be the reason I’ve avoided making it until now.
Often my choice of what we’ll have for dinner is determined by what’s in the market. Such was the case yesterday, when I went to our butcher and found some pretty good looking heritage pork chops sourced from local farms.
I wanted a recipe for them that would do justice to their juicy fat and rich flavor. It didn’t take long before I settled on one from Carol Field’s In Nonna’s Kitchen. What attracted me to the recipe was its Tuscan austerity, using essentially only one ingredient other than the meat, onions. The onions are sliced very thin and are stewed for about an hour until they become a creamy sauce for the chops.
This sauce, however, reminded me of Marcella Hazan’s Smothered Onions for pasta, which is quite similar to Field’s except that at the end of the stewing, the onions are browned on high to sharpen their flavor. I thought this would work well with the chops.
One other influence on last night’s dish was James Peterson’s new book, Done.: A Cook’s Guide to Knowing When Food Is Perfectly Cooked. It had just arrived in the mail and I thought why not see what he says about pork chops. The section on sautéed pork chops illustrates with detailed photos exactly when to turn the chops (“When juices start to form on the top and sides. . .”) and suggests an internal temperature of 130° F as opposed to the typically recommended 145° F for the perfect medium. I incorporated Peterson’s instructions for cooking the chops into the original recipe from Field.
I am happy to report the results were. . .extraordinary. The pork chops came out perfectly cooked and juicy; the sauce was sweet and piquant. It may have taken three cookbooks to turn out this dish, but the prep and cooking were minimal.
Braciole di Maiale Contadine Pork Chops Smothered in Creamy Onions Adapted from In Nonna’s Kitchen
3 onions, sliced very fine (I used two rather large Vidalia onions sliced 1/8” thick with a mandolin.)
4-5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (I used 4 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons of butter.)
1-2 tablespoons of water (I skipped the water as my onions were quite moist.)
Freshly ground black pepper
6 pork chops (about 2 3/4 pounds) (I used 2 bone-in chops, about 1.5 pounds total.)
All-purpose flour with salt and pepper for dredging
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 – 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter (As I used butter when cooking the onions and did not puree the onions, I did not use it here.)
Put the onions in a large heavy sauté pan with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, a tablespoon or two of water, salt, and pepper. (I used the oil but added 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter and omitted the water.)
Cover the pan and cook the onions at the lowest simmer over the lowest possible heat for 45 minutes to one hour, stirring occasionally. At the end the onions will be smooth creamy. (I cooked the onions for a full hour and at the end uncovered them, raised the heat to medium high and cooked them until they were deep gold in color. I then added a little dry vermouth and cooked until the wine evaporated and followed this with a tablespoon of chopped parsley.)
Set the sauce aside.
Dredge the pork chops in the the seasoned flour so they won’t stick while cooking. Drizzle the remaining oil into a heavy sauté pan large enough to hold the chops comfortably without crowding, add the pork chops, and brown them, turning so they cook evenly. (I used 2 tablespoons of oil and 1 tablespoon of butter. Following Peterson’s book, I heated the fats and cooked the chops on a medium heat about 5 minutes a side; they were about 3/4 of an inch thick. I turned them only once, when juices and blood started to appear on top of the bones and the meat—about 5 minutes and cooked the second side for about another 3 minutes.)
When they have browned, 2 to 3 minutes a side (again, note my comments about browning above) pour in the red wine and boil until it evaporates. (Before adding the wine, I drained off most of the accumulated cooking fat.)
Put the cooked onions on top of the pork chops, cover and cook together briefly on top of the stove so the flavors meld, turning the chops several times. (I cooked the chops for about 2 minutes covered and turned them only once.)
The onions cook into a really thick sauce; at the end puree them in a processor or blender, adding a little water or a tablespoon or two of butter. (I skipped this step altogether because I wanted the sauce to have a little more texture and had already used enough butter in the sauce and in the browning of the chops.)
I know that with my commentary, this recipe may appear complicated; but trust me when I say it really isn’t difficult.
I served the chops accompanied by oven-roasted broccoli.
Wine Pairing: Morellino di Scansano, Chianti Classico
Last year, I came across a recipe for turkey sausages and cannellini beans all’uccelletta on The Cooking Channel’s show, Extra Virgin. It’s a classic Tuscan dish, where the beans are cooked in a similar fashion as one would small birds, that is, seasoned with sage or, as in this case, with fresh bay leaves.
We enjoyed this dish a lot; but after experimenting with it, I developed my own recipe, using sweet Italian pork sausages and canned crushed Italian tomatoes rather than fresh cherry tomatoes.
Enjoy this dish all year round, served with crusty Italian bread to sop up the sauce.
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 sweet Italian pork sausages
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced into chunks
1 28-ounce can crushed Italian tomatoes
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
5 fresh bay leaves
small pinch fennel pollen (optional)
2 handfuls fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
Heat a sauté pan large enough to hold the sausages in a single layer over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil to heat. Once hot, add the sausages and brown on all sides, for about 10 minutes total. Remove the sausages from the pan to plate and reserve.
Add the garlic, and sauté just until golden. With a wooden spoon, stir in the chopped tomatoes and crushed red pepper flakes and season with salt and pepper. (When seasoning, be aware that the sausages may already contain salt.) Lower the flame, and cover the pan with a lid, simmer for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes have thickened to a sauce-like consistency.
Add the browned sausages (and any juice left on the plate), the beans, bay leaves, and optional fennel pollen to the thickened tomatoes. Stir well and simmer uncovered for another 10 minutes.
Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with the chopped parsley before serving.
For those interested in the original Cooking Channel recipe, here’s a to that recipe.
Wine Pairing: Chianti Classico, Sangiovese, Merlot
I was recently gifted with a copy of Giuliano Bugialli’s The Fine Art of Italian Cooking. I haven’t read it yet, but thought I would try out one of his recipes. As I skimmed through the book, I found an interesting one for pollo alla cacciatora, chicken hunter’s style.
Most recipes for this popular dish use a heavier tomato sauce, as well as a couple of vegetables like peppers, onions, mushrooms, and the like. Bugialli, however, presents a more austere Tuscan version that gets most of its flavor from woodsy herbs like rosemary and sage. And rather than tomatoes, the recipe calls for tomato paste, which when toasted a little gives the sauce a deeper, darker flavor.
I think this was one of the best versions of the dish I have ever had. We served it with some couscous and peas. Below is my edited version of the recipe.
Chicken alla cacciatora
1 chicken (3 to 3 1/2 pounds)
1 Tbs fresh rosemary leaves
10 fresh leaves sage
2 large cloves garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of hot red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 bay leaf
2 Tbs imported tomato paste
1 1/2 cups hot water
- Cut the chicken into 16 pieces; coarsely chop the rosemary, sage, and garlic. (I used 8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs. Also be sure to coarsely chop the herbs and garlic so that they do not burn when sautéed in the oil.)
- Heat the oil in a large casserole or Dutch oven that is big enough to hold the chicken in a single layer. Add the chopped herbs and garlic and sauté gently until lightly golden (10 to 12 minutes). (Be sure to keep your eye on the pot during this stage. I kept the garlic on top of the herbs to prevent burning and kept adjusting the heat to allow for a slow cooking of the ingredients.)
- Add the chicken and sauté over moderately high heat until golden all over (about 15 minutes). Add salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes.
- Lower the heat and pour in the wine. Let it evaporate very slowly (about 10 minutes), then add the bay leaf, tomato paste, and 1/2 cup of the water. (I stirred in the tomato paste making sure it was evenly distributed in the pot. I also turned the chicken pieces at this point to coat them with the sauce.)
- Cover the pan and let simmer very slowly for 20 minutes, adding more of the hot water if needed. (I turned the chicken pieces one or two times to ensure even cooking. I also found that I did not need any additional water.)
- At this point, the chicken should be cooked and there should be a small quantity of thick sauce. Remove the bay leaf and transfer the chicken and sauce to a serving dish. Serve hot. (I found a lot of fat on top of the sauce and skimmed off a good deal of it before plating the chicken.)
Bugiialli says this dish is even better when reheated.
Wine Pairing: Barbera d’Alba, Sangiovese, Merlot