Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking

Editor’s note: Linda Avery, who has been reviewing cookbooks for Pen & Fork for almost two years, filed this review while on vacation. Please do not feel too sorry for her — she was in Umbria, Italy — not a bad place to test recipes from a new regional Italian cookbook.

Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking
by Pamela Sheldon Johns
photos by Andrea Wyner

Facts: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC,   pages, $21.99 (or Amazon at $14.50)
Photos: Over 140
Recipes: 69
Give to: Italian lovers, suitable for beginner cooks

I got my first look at Pamela Sheldon Johns’ Cucina Povera:Tuscan Peasant Cooking just days before leaving for Italy. We were renting a house in Todi, Umbria, and, as is my M.O., I was planning to cook at least a few meals with the locally available products. Granted, Cucina Povera is humble Tuscan cooking, but we were just a hop, skip and a jump as Umbria borders Tuscany on its northwestern border and Lazio on the southwestern border.

I had no intention of schlepping the book, so I decided to scan ten recipes to bring. I had to make sure each recipe was seasonally correct, e.g., my husband loves cinghiale (wild boar) but hunting season doesn’t begin until November; while boar it’s probably available, that gave me pause. Braised Pork Shanks had to be included as a nod to my Nonna who made us giggle as children when she announced she was making “Stinco di Maiale” (stinco actually translates to “shin”). And, since fig season begins in September in Umbria, Fichi allo Virio (stuffed figs) was a must.

I pored over each recipe for odd ingredients that I might bring, such as the 5 dried juniper berries called for in Coniglio con i Funghi (rabbit with mushrooms). Although I was intimately involved with this book, I knew that trattorias and osterias would be calling to me, so ultimately I reduced the number of recipes to five.

Cucina Povera, literally “poor kitchen”, opens with stories about good food in hard times. Her “introduction” runs to page 41 — and I was sorry when it ended. These are warm, interesting, heartfelt memories related by older friends of Sheldon Johns who perhaps lived through WWII when food was scarce.

One gentleman relates grabbing a handful of chestnut flour from a bag at a neighborhood grocery on his way to school: “the owner would look the other way… that bit of flour was my breakfast, so sweet and satisfying.” Chestnuts and corn were staples for bread, polenta and cakes. Salt was heavily taxed, so it was used sparingly to cure meat, make cheese… but not bread, and still today Tuscan bread is unsalted.

This book is summarized in a quote from Chef Carlo Cioni from Artimino, Tuscany: “Today’s choice of simple foods is not out of necessity as it was in the past. Now, in addition to considering economy, we are seeking quality and purity of flavor.” Sheldon Johns achieves this with her recipes, from Appetizers to Breads & Sweets, they are uncomplicated with most having about seven ingredients, many only five.

In the end I wasn’t able to try the coniglio, not because rabbits weren’t available, but because we were sharing the house with our friends, the Hares, and they refused to eat rabbit, but I did try the braised pork shanks. The long, slow cooking time (with only six ingredients including salt and pepper) was worth every minute as the meat practically fell from the bone; the ripe figs simply stuffed with walnuts and Gorgonzola were divine, but my gnudi (spinach and ricotta dumplings) fell apart — my bad – I’ve never gotten those to work for me.

I was introduced to farro, the nutty flavored Etruscan grain many years ago in zuppa di farro (soup) while in Lucca. It’s also known as spelt or emmer. Farro is debuting on more American menus and, thanks to Trader Joe’s, home cooks are embracing it (as spelt). I will admit taking a liberty with this recipe,  substituting prosciutto of Norcia (Umbria) for the salame, but this is a salad that allows you to do that. Try it and twist it as you wish!

Insalata di Farro (Farro Salad)

Serves 6

photo © by Andrea Wyner

Farro is an ancient strain of wheat with a high protein content and a nutty flavor. It can be found in natural foods and gourmet foods stores whole, cracked, or ground into flour. This dish can be served warm as a winter side dish, or chilled for a summer salad.

2 cups whole-grain farro
3 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 green onions, including 1 inch of green parts, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 zucchini, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded, deveined, and diced
2 cups chicken stock, heated
1 cup canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 ounces spicy salame, diced
Grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Romaine lettuce leaved for serving

1. Soak the farro in water to cover for at least 1 hour or overnight.

2. In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the green onions, garlic, zucchini, and bell pepper and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes.

3. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Drain the farro and add to the pan, cover and decrease the heat to a simmer. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the farro is tender and the stock has been absorbed. Stir in the chickpeas and salame. Cover and set aside to keep warm.

4. In a small bowl, whisk the lemon zest, lemon juice, and the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil together. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Fluff the farro with a fork. Stir in the dressing. Serve warm or chilled, on lettuce leaves.

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