Under the Tuscan Sun is the delicious memoir of Frances Mayes’ as she buys and restores an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan Countryside. She digs wells, grows herbs and roses, harvests her own olive groves, and thoroughly soaks up la dolce vita Italiana.
Luckily for us, we don’t have to buy a plane ticket and a villa just yet- since we share Italy’s lovely Mediterranean climate, we grow many of the same plants and can try some of the simple but sumptuous traditional Italian recipes that she sprinkles through the book:
Bell Peppers Melted with Balsamic Vinegar
“The immense, convoluted, lustrous peppers in primary red, green and yellow are my favorite vegetable of summer because they wake up so many dishes.”
Seed and slice 4 peppers thinly and cook slowly in a little olive oil and 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar until very soft, about an hour. Stir occasionally; peppers should almost “melt” Season with salt and pepper. Add more oil or vinegar once or twice if they look dry.
Cut about 25 rounds of bread, sprinkle with olive oil, and run them under the broiler. Spoon peppers onto bread and serve warm.
(Try the same method with thinly sliced onions, adding a teaspoon of brown sugar to the balsamic vinegar and letting the onions slowly caramelize. Both versions are rich accompaniments for roast chicken. Leftovers are good on pasta or polenta. With cheese and/or grilled eggplant, very savory sandwiches can be made quickly)
“Extrapolating on the basic basil pesto, I’ve made a lemon-parsley pesto for fish, an arugula pesto for pasta and crostini, and a mint pesto for shrimp. I’ve come to prefer the texture of these pestos to the smoother ones I’m used to. Traditional Tuscan white beans with sage and olive oil taste even better with a daub of this sage pesto. I like it on bruschetta. Passed separately in a bowl, it’s a good accompaniment for grilled sausages.”
Chop a bunch of sage leaves, 2 cloves of garlic, and 4 tablespoons of pine nuts. Grind together in the mortar (or food processor), slowly adding olive oil to form a thick paste. Transfer to a bowl, mix again, add salt and pepper and a handful of grated parmigiano. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.
Basil and Mint Sorbet
“I tasted this unlikely but tantalizing sorbet at the ancient fattoria-turned restaurant Locanda dell’Amorosa. The next day I tried to duplicate it at home. At the restaurant, it was served after the pasta and fish courses and before the main course. More informally, it starts out a dinner on a warm summer night.”
Make a sugar syrup by boiling together 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar, then simmering it for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly, Cool in the fridge.
Puree 1/2 cup of mint leaves and 1/2 cup of basil leaves in 1 cup of water. Add another cup of water, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and chill.
Mix the sugar syrup and the herbal water well and process in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Scoop into martini glasses or any clear glass dishes and garnish with mint leaves. Serves 8.
Fried Zucchini Flowers
Choose a fresh bunch of flowers, about a dozen. If they’re slightly droopy, don’t bother. Don’t wash the blossoms; if moist, pat dry. Place a thin strip of mozzarella inside each one, dip in batter.
To prepare batter, beat 2 eggs with 1/4 tsp of salt and pour in 1 cup of water and 1-1/4 cups of flour. Mix well, breaking any lumps with a fork.
Make sure the oil is hot (350 F), but not smoking– it is very important that the oil be hot enough. Fry untl golden and crispy. Drain quickly on paper towels and serve immediately.