Lucca, Tuscany, travels and luscious meals

Last week, which felt like the end of a whirlwind adventure, I returned from twelve days in Lucca, Tuscany.  I, along with eight other ladies and a gentlemen, were part of a chef-driven cooking extravaganza at the International Academy of Italian Cuisine in Lucca. Heading this cooking school is Mr Gianluca Pardini, a highly qualified chef, who has been awarded, from the Italian Cooking Federation, “Master of Cooking and Executive chef,” one of only four chefs to be honored with this award in Tuscany. Mr. Pardini travels around the world, to the United States, Japan and in Europe teaching unique cooking and baking techniques to many cooking schools and audiences. In addition to his travels,  he is the head chef of this Italian cooking school which offers hands-on cooking  lessons to students and passionate cooks.

I often watched closely as Mr. Pardini rolled dough, sauteed chicken for cacciatora, dotted pastry for focaccia dough with grapes, a sweet dessert. Skillfully, he parboiled peppers with onions until very soft, blending them in his high-speed machine until silky smooth, then he poured this creamy sauce over cooked potato gnocchi. Finally the dish was topped with the black seed of papaver somniferum (opium poppy). I also helped with various tasks and jotted down on hand-out paper recipes, as quickly as possible, ideas to help me remember points when I flew home to cook in my own kitchen!

However, jet-lag followed me home and it took me nearly a week to come to my senses as I maneuvered through several countries, and long waits at LAX and Rome airports.  Finally, just yesterday, I felt moved to cook, and with our chilly Denver weather recently, soup felt in order.

At one dinner, while in Lucca, away from the school, we all enjoyed a luscious, popular and traditional soup – Farro and bean or common in Italian – Zuppa di Farro. Initially, I thought I would not like this dish because of the farro, however, the waiter insisted I try it, since too he stated that barley was one of ingredients. I love barley, an old grain which I often ate in my childhood when our maid, Ann, cooked beef, barley and mushroom soup.

Yes, the waiter was correct, the soup was indeed delicious, creamy, touched with small hunks of beans, but too, some of the beans may have been pureed or mashed, which made the soup  half chunky, half smooth, yum!

My version of farro and beans soup fared a bit differently since I was short on carrots, but had plenty of barley and I added bacon instead of pancetta, plus, had half a pound of ground beef which I wanted to make use of, and,  a few other changes. I also added my remaining zucchini which I had collected from my garden the day before to use them before our first major snow, which led  temperatures dipping near 20 degrees!

FARRO, BEAN, BARLEY AND VEGETABLE SOUP                                             Serves 8-10

3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 scallion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

5 small zucchini, cut  in rounds, half inch in size

3 ounces bacon, coarsely chopped ( optional)

2 cans 15 oz. cannelloni beans, drained and rinsed

8-10 medium size Yukon potatoes, cut in thirds

1/2 cup farro, 10 minute cooking variety

3/4 cup pearl barley

1  14.5 oz. can of stewed or chopped tomatoes

1/2 – 1 lb. hamburger – 85% lean (optional)

1/2 – 1 tsp. salt, more for adjustment

1-2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

2 bay leaves

1 tsp. Italian seasoning

2  32 oz. containers chicken stock

1 half head of savoy cabbage, core removed, coarsely chopped

6-7 cups water

1 large piece  or edge of  slightly used old cheese rind – either Parmesan, Fontina,  or Gruyere.

 

1   In a large and heavy pot, heat one tablespoon of the olive on medium heat.  Add the bacon, cook until the meat renders some of its fat.  Remove the bacon to a paper towel covered  plate. (If you choose not to use the meats, just saute the vegetables in two tablespoons of the olive oil.) Remove about half of the bacon fat. then to the pot add the carrots, celery, onion, the one scallion and zucchinis. Cook and stir occasionally over medium heat until the vegetables turn translucent,  7-10 minutes.  Add the garlic, cook on low heat for about one minute. Add half a teaspoon of salt. It’s okay if the vegetables stick a little to the bottom of the pot. If necessary, add another tablespoon of the oil.  Add the hamburger, cook and stir until the meat looses its pink color, about 3-5 minutes.

2    Add the chicken stock, and canned tomatoes, stirring occasionally to release brown bits. Cook on low.  Add three cups of water the remaining salt, the bay leaves and the Worcestershire sauce. Use the higher amount of Worcestershire sauce for a saltier taste and more flavor. Add the barley and the farro and the two cans of beans, plus the cheese rind. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce it and simmer on low covered or not, for about 30 minutes. Add the potatoes, cooking fifteen more minutes. Gradually add 3  cups of water.   Watch the pot carefully, since the barley, plus the cabbage, will eventually soak up a lot of water, and thicken the soup.  Add more water as needed. Add the cut-up cabbage and the Italian seasoning. Cook about 20-30 more minutes on low until the cabbage softens, the potatoes are soft when poked with a knife, and the soup is at the consistency you desire.  Remove the cheese rind, but be watchful, it may have dissolved! No problem. Adjust the seasoning, and serve warm with a chilled salad.

 

Tips and Tweaks:

  • At the time you add the cabbage, add any leftover cooked vegetables you may have on hand.
  • change up the beans you use, try kidney or black beans.
  • For an all vegetarian dish, leave out the chicken stock, and use just water, and leave out both the meats too.
  • add more herb seasoning, and use a half teaspoon each of oregano, and thyme when you add the Italian seasoning.
  • sprinkle fresh parsley on the soup before serving.
  • For a bit more color in the soup, switch savoy cabbage out for red cabbage.
  • Serve the soup with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
  • use  1-2 cups of cooked long grain rice instead of the potatoes and add them toward the end of step 2.
  • For further information on chef Pardini’s cooking school contact through email:  info@italiancuisine.it or their website   www.italiancuisine.it
  • check my facebook page marilyn raff and facebook for further pictures of my adventure and cooking time in Lucca, Tuscany.

 

 

 

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