The first thing my husband asks me when he comes back home from work is “What are you preparing for dinner?” He is starving; he leaves at 6 am and comes back at 6 pm, sometimes later, with no breakfast and a light lunch. Dinner is ready by 7 and I usually plan the weekly menu in advance, or I forget what to make. For the weekend we have pizza for lunch and richer dinners with pudding in the evening. I try to diversify and make balanced meals with pasta or minestra (soup) for the main course and vegetables or salad together with eggs, mozzarella or burrata, or we can have meat with potatoes in different versions, and fish on Friday.
Reading Stanley Tucci: My Life Through Food, I felt deeply connected with his Italian food heritage. What he describes in his book, which is a memoir of sorts, is more or less what has happened and in part still happens in my family. We take time to prepare food, choose the ingredients carefully and the type of pasta needs to match with the sauce, as Tucci remarks. We used to make passata (tomato sauce) for the whole year too, cook the tomatoes in a cauldron in the garden and seal the sauce in jars. It was a ritual where the whole family was involved. About the Christmas dinner, the menu is long and challenging too, we start at lunch and end in the evening with short breaks when we play cards and tombola (a game similar to bingo) and nibble pieces of torrone or panettone in the meantime. Preparing and savouring food is part of Italian identity, it gives us joy and nurtures the family too. For me, Italian food is the best, even the simplest dishes such as pizza margherita and spaghetti with aglio, olio e pepperoncino (garlic, oil and chilli) are superb.
Tucci is a well-known actor; he acted in successful films such as The Devil Wears Prada, Prizzi’s Honor, The Terminal, Big Night and many others. He won four Emmy Awards and published four cookbooks. His passion for food doesn’t stop to Italian cuisine, he also quotes English, French and even Icelandic dishes in his cookbook. His grandparents moved to US from Calabria and his parents, Joan Troppiano and Stanley Tucci Sr., maintained Italian cooking traditions. He grew up in Katonah (NY) where they had some grounds with a vegetable garden and raised chickens and goats.
In his memoir he says that preparing, serving and eating food were primary activities in his family. The mother used to fill her children’s bags with Italian products when they went to visit her. I must confess I do the same with my children when I go to visit them or when they come south. I always prepare a bag or two full of pasta, sweets, biscuits and passata I buy at the Italian Deli shop and add some home-made products too. In Tucci’s book there are family conversations, which sound very realistic. I was intrigued by his good, simple recipes such as how to make chicken stock or egg with tomato and more elaborated ones such as Tucci’s ragù (Bolognese sauce), his way of pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans), timballo or timpano (casserole of sorts wrapped in dough and filled with pasta, eggs and potatoes), and his popular Negroni cocktail he defines as ‘sun in your stomach’. Balanced meals, creativity and feeding your family combine in Italian cuisine; it is a way to express care and have fun too.
Tucci is happily married with his second wife, Felicity Blunt. His first wife, Kathryne Spath, with whom he had three children, died of breast cancer when she was only 47. He was devastated by her death and after some years he was diagnosed with cancer too. He had a big tumour at the base of his tongue and recovered after a long cancer treatment. This gave him side effects and he couldn’t swallow. When he improved, he appreciated the taste of good food even more than before. His successful TV program for CNN, ‘Stanley Tucci searching for Italy’ (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11852724/ ), is a journey in different parts of Italy discovering habits and recipes and having gorgeous dinners. He remarks that Italy is a small but diverse country where food and wine change from region to region, and there are twenty regions so there is a lot to explore.
I find Tucci’s approach clever and easy-going; he is never pretentious and the recipes are just right. Here are my recipes that I experimented during summer and autumn. We enjoyed all the dishes and cakes and I hope you will enjoy them too.
You need: half an onion, 2 carrots, a stalk of celery, olive oil, tomato passata, salt and pepper, 1-2 courgettes, peas, spinach, broccoli, 2 potatoes, 2-3 tomatoes, a tin of borlotti beans and one litre of stock (chicken or vegetable stock).
Grind the onion, celery and carrots in a blender. Fry the mixture in a large saucepan with 1-2 tbsp of olive oil for 2-3 minutes covered with a lid. Add the courgettes, broccoli and potatoes cut in chunks and the peas too. Stir and let them simmer for 5 minutes. Add the borlotti beans and the stock with one or two tbsp of tomato passata. Let it simmer for one hour and serve warm adding grated parmigiano. You can just have the vegetable minestrone or add pasta (ditalini or small macaroni) if you wish.
Feta and broad beans salad
You need: 200 g feta, 100 g broad beans, 2-3 tomatoes, 200 g pearl barley, rocket salad, dry oregano, salt and pepper, olive oil.
Cook the barley in salted water. Cut the beans and tomatoes in chunks and cook them in a frying pan with olive oil. Add salt, pepper and oregano and let it simmer covered with a lid for 10-15 minutes. Add the barley and mix for 5 minutes. Finally add the feta and the rocket salad and stir. Let it rest for five more minutes and serve.
Fettuccine with tarragon chicken and cream
You need: 250 g of fettuccine or pappardelle, 50 g of butter, one tbsp of olive oil, one clove of garlic, 200 g of broccoli head finely cut, salt and black pepper, 300 g of chicken breast, fresh or dried tarragon, 150 ml of double cream, half a glass of white wine.
Prepare the sauce melting the butter with the oil in a large frying pan. Add the garlic and broccoli. Let it simmer for 5-10 minutes then add the breast filet cut in small pieces. Add salt and pepper and stir. Let it simmer for 10 minutes covered with a lid. Add the white wine and cook them for 10 minutes. Prepare the fettuccine cooking them in boiling salted water. Add the cream and the tarragon to the chicken sauce and let it simmer for 5 more minutes. Finally drain the fettuccine and toss them in the frying pan mixing with the chicken sauce.
Cake with amaretti
You need: 250 g of self-raising floor, one tsp of baking powder, ½ tsp of bicarbonate of soda, three eggs, 100 g of amaretti, 100 g of unsalted butter, 250 ml whipping cream, some milk to wet the cake.
Beat the yolks of the eggs with the sugar for about five minutes, add the flour, then the baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Warm the butter in the microwave and add it to the cake mixture. Whip the whites of the eggs stiff and add to the mixture. Bake the cake at 180 C for half an hour-45 minutes. Crush 80 g of amaretti and keep the rest to decorate the top. Whip the cream with a tbsp of sugar and mix it with the crushed amaretti. When the cake is cool cut it in half and wet it with milk mixed with water. Spread part of the cream and amaretti on the cake and cover it with the other half. Spread the rest of the cream on the top and the sides of the cake and decorate with amaretti.
Cherry frangipane cake
For the frangipane pastry you need: 100 g of butter, half a glass of milk, 250 g of self-rising flour, one egg, 100 g of sugar.
For the frangipane you need: 100 g of butter, 100 g of sugar, two eggs, 100 g of ground almonds, 50 g of flour, some drops of vanilla extracts.
For the cherry jam you need: one kilo of cherries, 300 g of sugar, the juice of a lemon. Keep a few cherries to decorate the top.
Some almond flakes and icing sugar to decorate.
Prepare the jam removing the stones from the cherries and cook them in a saucepan with the sugar and the lemon juice. Let it simmer till the jam thickens and then let it cool.
Prepare the pastry mixing all the ingredients and bake it in a greased cake tin at 180 C for 20-30 minutes.
Spread the cherry jam on the base of the cake and then prepare the frangipane whisking all the ingredients and spread it on the jam. Scatter some pitted cherries on top together with some almond flakes. Bake at 180 C for 30-45 minutes and finally dust the top with icing sugar.
Pumpkin spice cookies
You need: 250 g or self-raising flour, 100 g of dark brown sugar, 50 g of oats, 50 g of granulated sugar, 100 g of pumpkin pulp, 100 g of butter, two eggs, some drops of vanilla extracts, a pinch of salt, 1/2 a tsp of ground cinnamon, 1/2 a tsp of ground nutmeg, 1/2 a tsp of ground ginger, 1/2 a tsp of ground cloves, some sea salt to grind on top.
Cook the pumpkin pulp cut in small pieces in a saucepan with the granulated sugar and some water. Let it simmer until the pumpkin is soft. Then let it cool. Beat the eggs with the brown sugar and add the rest of the ingredients as well as the pumpkin pulp. Knead the dough then prepare the biscuits making small balls and pressing them on a greased oven tray. Finally sprinkle some sea salt on top and bake at 180 C for 15 minutes.
Pumpkin tart with maple syrup
You need: 100 g of oats, 200 g of walnuts, 200 ml of double cream, three eggs, 50 g of sugar, three tbsp of maple syrup, 50 g of pumpkin pulp, ¼ tsp of ground cinnamon, ¼ tsp of ground ginger.
Cut the pumpkin pulp in pieces and bake it with the syrup, the sugar, the cinnamon and the ginger at 180 C for 45 minutes. Let it cool and prepare the base of the tart mixing the ground walnuts with the oats adding some water and milk to form a dough. Press the dough into the base of a spring tin cake. Mix the pumpkin with the beaten eggs and the cream. Pour the mixture into the tart and bake at 180 C for 30-45 minutes until it sets.