In Tuscany, it’s easy to be a lazy cook and still eat well.
Usually when I arrive here, in the Valdarno area south of Florence, I start cooking furiously. But the weather has been hot and this time I’m opting for more reading, more naps, more outings. So my emphasis has shifted to shopping for dinner instead of laboring over it.
What we’re eating these days is likely to be a simple antipasto platter, pasta with a quick sauce or an all-in-one like beans with chard and tomatoes (I’ll tell later how to make that one).
The region’s fabulous semi-aged pecorino cheeses need only be sliced. Buffalo mozzarella might be from Campania, as expected, but now I’m enjoying luscious mozzarella from the coastal Maremma area, which also raises water buffalo.
Soft, fennel-flavored finocchiona is Tuscany’s pride, and the region’s peppery prosciutto vies with better-known cured hams from the north. Rigotino looks like bacon, but it’s cured and can be eaten as is or used in cooking. Delicately seasoned lardo di Colonnata is delectable on crostini.
Marinated olives, artichoke hearts and cipolline onions, grilled eggplant and zucchini—all are on display at the supermarket gastronomia, a deli counter but so much more. I’m a stickler for making my own pesto. Well, except I’m not doing that here. Freshly made pesto scooped out of a gastronomia tub tastes darned close to what I make myself.
For other foods, supermarkets and neighborhood shops make life easier by doing some prep. Spinach and chard are cooked and squeezed into balls that need only be reheated gently and seasoned. Long-simmered beans are available and so is a small container of odori (onion, carrots, celery, parsley) for making broth or soffritto for a sauce base.
At the fruttivendolo in nearby Bucine, the owner pointed me to flatbreads for quick pizzas. with pancetta precut in small cubes, leftover roasted veggies and grated cheese. Couldn’t have tasted better.
Fresh tomatoes are still in season and they are a component of pappa al pomodoro, thickened with stale Tuscan bread, on offer at the same vendor. It looked gelatinous and unappealing, but she coaxed me to buy some: “Add a little olive oil and water to the pan, then stir in the pappa and heat it up.” She was right—we loved it.
Nectarines and figs were delicious when we arrived in early September but now my interest has shifted to fragrant pears, grapes and yellow canary and striped French-style melons. The pomegranates I saw ripening on trees a few weeks ago are now in markets.
From a garden tree, we also tasted giugiolle (jujubes), small brown fruit that taste like apples. According to Italian web sources, they can be used in risotto and sausage dishes as well as sweets. So far all I’ve done is nibble them.
If you’re still reading, do you remember those white beans with chard and tomatoes? I could have put prepped ingredients together in cucina rapida fashion. As it happens, though, our hosts had given me a pound of dried white cannellini. And, in their garden, we’ve been cutting a full-flavored variety of bietola (chard) and picking the last of their heirloom tomatoes.
Despite my lazy, cheating ways, I made this bean dish from scratch. It wasn’t hard and I hope you’ll do it, too.
This barely makes the cut for a dish that deserves a recipe. It's simple but won't be special unless the details are right. The only indispensable ingredient is dried beans. As is often the way in Italy, they could be served plain, with diners invited to season with olive oil, salt and pepper as they wish. The photo shows beans mixed with chard, diced tomatoes and an optional sprinkle of chopped onion. But you could just as well mix in slices of cooked sausage and chopped parsley instead.
- 1 pound good-quality cannellini or other white beans
- 2 bay leaves or a sprig of fresh sage
- 1 onion quartered through the root end
- 1 small bunch chard tough ends removed
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 large tomatoes diced small
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Chopped sweet onion optional
Place beans in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Soak for 6 hours or as directed on package. Drain and wash well under cold water.
Return beans to saucepan and cover with cold water to a depth of a couple of inches above beans. Add bay leaves and onion, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently, partly covered, about 1 hour or until tender.
Meanwhile, cut chard crosswise (including stems) in thin strips. Bring a medium saucepan, filled two thirds with water and a small handful of salt, to a boil. Add chard, cooking just until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain.
Remove bay leaves and onion from beans. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve: Spoon beans into shallow bowls. Top with tomatoes and chard. Drizzle generously with olive oil. Pass additional olive oil, salt and pepper, and chopped onion (if using) at the table.