We just returned from another amazing adventure in Italy, one of many since our first visit 40 years ago. This was a short trip to see the Christo art installation “The Floating Piers” on Lake Iseo in northern Italy. It also gave us an excuse to visit our friends in Tuscany and Lake Maggiore.
One of our special, innovative lunches was at Il Cavaliere Ristorante at the Gabbiano Winery, outside of Florence. We were joined by our dear friend Bettina Rogosky, owner of the Carnasciale Winery in Tuscany, who brought a magnum of her special wine, Caberlot, to enjoy with lunch.
Also at our table was chef Francesco Berardinelli, whom we have known for many years. He served us several dishes based on healthy, fresh ingredients and explained that they were originally part of Cucina Ebraica (“Jewish cooking” in Italian). He said the early Italian Jews adapted local produce and recipes to comply with dietary laws; for the same reason, vegetable dishes were developed to provide meatless meals.
Chef Francesco began our meal with fresh-picked string beans from his garden. The beans, chock full of fiber and vitamins that contribute to healthy eyes and bones, were lightly steamed and tossed with a yogurt-lemon sauce, then topped with chopped mint and roasted hazelnuts.
Then he served a cold, thick Tuscan Tomato and Bread Soup called Panzanella. The ingredients feature cancer-fighting vitamins and also included cubes of fresh mozzarella, lots of shredded fresh basil leaves (a virtually calorie-free source of Vitamin A) and extra virgin olive oil.
My favorite was Farinata, a pizza-pancake recipe made with chickpea flour, which is sold in Italian specialty shops and health food stores. Ideally, the batter — rich in fiber, protein and iron — is prepared a day in advance so it can mature before baking.
It is interesting to note that chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, were another food staple that the Italian Jews always served; the dishes reflected the poverty of the Jewish community, which included refugees from Sicily and Southern Italy.
Farinata is now available in downtown Los Angeles at a new restaurant, Officine Brera, where chef Angelo Auriana bakes it in his pizza oven. It is vegan, gluten-free — and delicious!
PANZANELLA (TUSCAN TOMATO AND BREAD SOUP)
- 1 cup dried bread
- 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut in cubes
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 cup fresh mozzarella, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
- Basil leaves for garnish
Soak bread in warm water to soften and squeeze out excess water.
Place tomatoes in a food processor or blender and pulse to blend. Add bread, olive oil, chopped basil, salt and pepper and blend. Transfer to a bowl and mix well. Spoon onto bowls and top with mozzarella cubes and basil leaves.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
GREEN BEANS WITH YOGURT-LEMON DRESSING
- 1 pound green beans, trimmed into 1 1/2-inch lengths
- 1/2 cup plain yogurt
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
- 1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts
Bring water to a boil in a saucepan. Drop in the beans. When the water returns to a boil, cook the beans for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drop into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.
In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice, salt and pepper, honey and olive oil, and mix well.
Drain the beans and blot them dry on paper towels. Toss with yogurt dressing and top with mint and roasted hazelnuts.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
FARINATA (CHICKPEA PIZZA)
- 2/3 cup chickpea flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup water
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Sift the chickpea flour with the salt into a medium-size bowl. Slowly add 1/4 cup of the water, whisking constantly to form a paste. Beat with a wooden spoon until smooth. Whisk in remaining 1/2 cup of water and, if time permits, cover with plastic wrap and let the batter stand at room temperature for 30 minutes or overnight, then stir in the chopped rosemary.
Preheat the broiler.
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil in a 10- to 12-inch nonstick ovenproof skillet. Stir the batter once, and pour about 3/4 cup of it into the skillet. Cook the pancake over moderately high heat until the bottom is golden and crisp and the top is almost set, 2 to 3 minutes. Burst any large air bubbles with the tip of a knife.
Sprinkle pepper over the top and place the skillet under the broiler and cook until the pancake is golden and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Slide onto a wooden board. Using a pizza cutter, cut into wedges and serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining batter.
Makes 2 Farinata.