Tuscany, a culinary dream come true

I’ve dreamt of cooking in Tuscany for years, and when my dream came true, it was beyond my imagination.

Have you seen the movie from 2003 called Under the Tuscan Sun, starring Diane Lane?

In the movie, a woman impulsively buys a villa in the Tuscan countryside where she shapes a new life for herself amongst the vineyards, orchards and farms of old Italy. I saw the film shortly after it was released, and I remember hoping that someday I would have the chance to cook in Tuscany, to drive the countryside, visit the markets, and taste the beautiful, local fruits and vegetables. With my busy life, it didn’t take long to forget my little request to the universe, but I’ve learned that once you put a request out there, it will eventually come back to find you.

My dream came true when I was hired to cook for a client who was hosting a 10-day business conference at an exclusive, private villa in the hills of Tuscany. The experience was beyond my imagination.

The villa was in a remote area, surrounded by forest, and caretakers of the property tended a beautiful garden along with a grove of fig trees. The 18-20 guests would dine each night in a large gazebo in the garden. I provided them with four or five courses for every dinner, which would carry on for hours each night. The host paired my offerings with wines from the area, and the results were sublime.

I was given a car to use (just like the one in my daydreams) and I would drive over the rolling hills and across the countryside to a nearby town. There, I’d spend a good part of each day wandering the market and visiting the butcher, cheese maker, and bakeries.

tuscan countrysideIt’s hard for me to explain the kind of beauty and bounty you find in Tuscany. The fresh fruit was plentiful – fig trees grew everywhere – and the selection of vegetables was astounding. There were dozens of varieties of tomatoes and a selection of fresh herbs like nothing I’d ever seen, including five varieties of thyme. Cheese is unique to the area, and there were more than 50 varieties. The meats were fresh, and butchers were happy to supply specialty cuts – even some I’d never seen before. And the olive oil! You have never tasted olive oil until you’ve had olive oil pressed fresh from the olive groves of Tuscany. I was inspired with every trip to the market, and every night I’d serve new dishes and bring unique and interesting flavors to the table.

Years later, I still vividly remember the rolling hills, the bountiful market, and the dreamy, iconic villa. Tuscany has influenced my approach to cooking. I’m even more committed to shopping for fresh ingredients at local markets, and I’m always open to new varieties and flavors and looking for the same fresh, colorful ingredients.

I have a few more wishes – my requests to the universe – waiting to be fulfilled, but for now, I’m content to daydream about my time in Tuscany. The recipe that follows is a simple variation on a soup I made while I was there.

Chef Zipora’s Signature Vegetable Soup

(Serves 4)
1 TB Olive Oil
2 Cups Banana Squash, diced to small (1/2 inch)
1 Medium Onion, diced to small
2 Medium Carrots, peeled and diced to small
1 Medium Turnip, peeled and diced to small
3-4 Small Red Potatoes, scrub washed
1 Medium Zucchini, diced to small
1 Medium Anise, diced to small
2 Cups White Cabbage, thinly sliced
1 ½ Cups Garbanzo Beans
1 15 oz. Can Stewed Tomatoes
½ Ts Cayenne
½ Ts Salt
½ Ts Black Pepper
4 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 ½ Ts fresh grated parmesan

Instructions
1. In a large pot, heat up oil on medium heat. Then add squash, onion, carrots, turnip, potato and anise.
2. Cover pot and mix for 10-12 minutes. Then add Vegetable broth and simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Next, add the spices; cayenne, salt and pepper. Then add the zucchini, tomatoes and Garbanzo beans. Simmer for 10 minutes. Then add cabbage and cook for another 5-7 minutes.
4. Remove from heat. Salt and Pepper to taste. Serve in bowls topped with the Parmesan cheese.