I don't own a home in the Tuscan countryside, but I've got the next best thing -- I know someone who does -- Pamela Sheldon Johns.
In my New Jersey kitchen, I've prepared a few dishes from her most recent cookbook, Cucina Povera, an homage to the peasant style cooking of Italy where nothing is wasted. Until now, we've never met in person. We've only communicated via the world wide web.
But when she learned I was headed to Florence for a couple of weeks, she invited me to visit Poggio Etrusco, the home she and her husband Johnny Johns own, not far from Montepulciano.
It's a house with many beautiful architectural features, like this brick archway. Everywhere you look, there is something to capture your interest.
Including a friendly menagerie of a few cats and dogs.
The house exudes warmth, just like she and her husband. Naturally, when you're the author of 17 cookbooks, owner of a bed and breakfast in Tuscany and run cooking classes too, the kitchen is the center of activity. This is one small corner of the kitchen, where Pamela greeted me with a glass of prosecco and some munchies.
She made a variation of Adri Barr Crocetti's recent post of bruschetta with fava beans, asparagus, peas and ricotta cheese - using really fresh sheep's milk ricotta that was practically warm from mamma's udders. The flavor was heightened with a drizzle of fresh olive oil pressed from Poggio Etrusco's olives. You could have quit right here and I'd have been happier than Bacchus in an unlocked cantina.
But the next dish was what really bowled me over. It started with the blossoms of this tree. Do you recognize it? In Italian, it's a sambuca tree and the flowers are an ingredient in the eponymous anise-flavored liqueur. In English, it's an elder tree.
These are the blossoms from the elder tree. They look similar to Queen Anne's Lace, but you can easily differentiate them because they grow on a tree, not as the perennial flowering plants that spring up everywhere in the countryside. Elder flowers were new to me, but when I got back to Princeton, armed with the knowledge I gained from Pamela, I spotted an elder tree right in the middle of town -- a prime target for foraging.
Before deep-frying them, Pamela dipped the flowers in a light batter made of flour, eggs and prosecco.
Tasty? yes. Unusual? double yes. I had to fight the temptation to eat every one that was put on the plate. But I tried to make nice and leave some for the others. Besides, there was plenty more food to come.
Including these large sage leaves that Pamela dipped into the same batter and deep fried.
These savory nibbles were also a perfect treat with drinks.
Ready for the first course? - a luscious asparagus timballo, topped with an egg and spears at attention. DEE vine! Pamela's recipe follows at the end of the post.
But wait... the deliciousness continues with savory and tender pieces of pork combined with asparagus and carrots, atop a bed of farro mixed with peas and fava beans, all soaking up the rich sugo.
Room for dessert? Ma certo, if it's as flavorful as this homemade strawberry gelato Pamela made. Why is it that strawberries taste so much better in Italy than in the U.S.? Maybe because they're picked when they're plump and red, rather than when they're still unripe, hard and tasteless, like those in supermarkets here.
Walking around Poggio Etrusco, you could sense the pride taken in everything that's grown for consumption -- from the chickens clucking in their pens....
To the artichokes nearly ready to be picked (I'm growing artichokes for the first time this year and they are teensy compared to these plants.)
The property has lovely patios to sit and enjoy the view of the olive groves and towns in the distance.
Visitors can rent rooms and apartments here and really immerse themselves in the Tuscan country lifestyle, taking cooking classes from Pamela or just relaxing by the pool.
Sometimes the outdoor wood-burning oven is fired up for pizza.
Johnny's artwork decorates the tins of olive oil and bottles of wine produced at Poggio Etrusco. This is another of his designs hanging on the wall of one of the guest rooms.
He's a talented artist in other ways too and makes these large tote bags using old Italian movie posters made of plastic.They're humorously lined with remnants from his old shirts and pants, complete with original pockets for tucking away cell phones, a wallet or other items. They'd be right at home at a shop in New York City's Soho.
And I felt right at home at Poggio Etrusco. It was hard to leave, but I know I'll be back someday to visit these welcoming hosts and their enchanting home. Thank you Johnny and Pam for a memorable afternoon.
Pamela Sheldon Johns'
Timballo di AsparagiThis is a wonderful appetizer or brunch dish. It is essentially a coddled egg on top of asparagus purée. The asparagus purée remains creamy and blends with the egg yolk for a delicious sensation. If you prefer a thicker asparagus purée, add 2 egg yolks to the mixture before you pour it into the ramekins.
Extra-virgin olive oil and approx ¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for the ramekins
1 bunch asparagus
¼ cup whole milk (or, if you insist, cream)
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat an oven to 350°F. Lightly oil (I like the misto sprayer that I can put my own olive oil in) six ramekins and dust generously with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Place in a baking dish and set aside.
Cut the asparagus into three parts: the ugly tough root that you will compost; the top 4 inches of the asparagus; and the middle part (now known as the butts). Cook the butts in boiling salted water until very tender, around 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of your asparagus. Drain and cool. Add the milk and ¼ cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and purée. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Divide this mixture evenly between the prepared ramekins. Crack an egg into each ramekin on top of the purée. Sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top of each egg to keep it from drying out as it cooks.
Add hot water to the baking dish to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins and place in the preheated oven. Bake until you can see that the egg white is set (the yolk should still be runny), about 18-22 minutes. If you want a hard yolk, bake for about 22-28 minutes.
While the ramekins are baking, blanch the asparagus tips in boiling salted water until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Remove the ramekins from the oven. Place the ramekins on individual serving plates. Garnish with the asparagus tips and serve at once.
Variation for a savory pudding: If your guests don’t love the fabulous sensation of a soft egg yolk, blend the eggs into the asparagus purée before distributing among the ramekins. Cooking time will be slightly longer, about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.