Cooking The Tuscan Way With
Antonella And Family

By Faith Bahadurian

The simplicity of the cuisine made it all seem easy

In November, Tuscany is bathed in culinary glory. Just-pressed olive oil flows onto toasted bread, porcini mushrooms are fat and flavorful, and freshly dug white truffles shower down onto buttered fettucini. And in the wineries, September’s harvest is already being lauded as an unusually good vintage.

I was there with my nephew, Patrick Stahl, celebrating a milestone birthday (mine, alas, not his) and had arranged a cooking class through Cooking Vacations (www.cooking-vacations.com) at the Forconi estate in Montespertoli, about a half-hour from Florence. One of many properties that Cooking Vacations works with, the estate has a vineyard that produces D.O.C. Chianti wines, olive groves and organic gardens. The restored villa, Podere dell’Anselmo, offers accommodations, horseback riding and a swimming pool in addition to frequent cooking classes.

Our seasonal menu included puréed peppers on crostini, gnocchi with pumpkin sauce, fish filet wrapped in eggplant slices, and whole fish roasted on a bed of vegetables. The simplicity of the cuisine made it all seem easy.

Our chef/instructor Antonella communicated through her vibrant personality, and with Sandra, the manager, translating where needed. Before we arrived, a bunch of parsley and several cloves of garlic had been chopped to form the seasoning base of most of our dishes. If we had been cooking meat instead of fish, we were told, sage or rosemary would have replaced the parsley.

A hefty pumpkin was cracked open, and blazing orange flesh chopped into a sauté pan where parsley and garlic already sizzled in olive oil. This was cooked down into a fragrant sauce for potato gnocchi that we rolled out by hand and cut into little pillows.

For the crostini, onion and colorful sweet peppers were sweated in a pan, then puréed into sauce to spread on toasted bread. When it was time to peel and slice the eggplant to wrap around the fish, we had a problem — the eggplant that estate owner Fabrizio Forconi had purchased in Florence earlier that day turned out to be skinny and somewhat shriveled, not the big fat specimens that Antonella required to wrap around whole filets.

"Male melanzana!" (bad eggplant!), she exclaimed to our amusement. So we made do, cutting the filets into smaller pieces, tossing them in parsley and garlic, then wrapping the eggplant around those. Once baked, these involtini (rolls) were tasty morsels.

Earlier that day I’d impulsively purchased a bag of chestnut flour at Pegna, a gourmet store in Florence. "What on earth will you do with that?" Patrick had asked. I must have been psychic, because for dessert that night we made a Tuscan classic, castagnaccio, dense chestnut cake.

During the evening, Fabrizio disappeared along with his wine consultant into the winery for some sampling, bringing me back a taste of inky red barely-wine just weeks off the vine. We sampled various estate wines throughout the evening, including several vintages of Chianti, the Bianco Toscano (a white blend), and a dry rosé, all under the Podere dell’Anselmo label — hopefully coming soon to a store near me.

Please note these recipes were made without precise measurements, so mine are approximate; like many experienced chefs and home cooks, Antonella measured by handfuls and pinches, and cooked by sight, feel and taste.


This can also be made with pre-cut butternut squash. Use your favorite potato gnocchi recipe or purchase from store. Antonella garnished this with basil leaves, but sage also is an option. Makes enough for a pound or more of gnocchi.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 4 cups diced pumpkin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Dash of hot red pepper, ½ cup ricotta cheese
  • Basil leaves for garnish

Cook parsley and garlic in olive oil for just a minute or two. Add pumpkin and simmer covered for 15 minutes, until pumpkin is completely tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with hot pepper if using. Purée in blender or use immersion blender. Stir in ricotta and adjust seasonings; serve with basil garnish.


Serves 4 as a second course.

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium zucchini, sliced
  • 2 heads radicchio, sliced
  • 1 pint halved cherry tomatoes
  • 1 whole branzino (sea bass), cleaned, about 3 pounds
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • 2 cloves minced garlic

Toss cut up vegetables with olive oil and place in baking pan large enough to hold fish. Bake vegetables in 350-degree oven for 20 minutes.

Rub fish all over, including inside, with oil, parsley, and garlic. Place fish on pre-cooked vegetables in baking dish and return to oven for another 20 minutes, or until baked through (test with a knife; flesh should flake).


The amazing thing about this thin sheet cake is how sweet chestnut flour is without added sugar. Antonella served this with a dollop of ricotta cheese that had been heated with a little sugar and cinnamon.

  •  17 ounces (500g) chestnut flour
  • Water or milk, or both, as needed
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • ¼ cup golden raisins
  • 1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, briefly sizzled in olive oil

Put flour in a large bowl, and gradually add water and/or milk while stirring with a large fork until a smooth, thin, pourable consistency is achieved. Add olive oil, pine nuts, and raisins. Pour into a shallow baking pan; the batter should be the height of your index finger’s thickness. Spread rosemary leaves on top and bake at 350 degrees for a half hour. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

Faith Bahadurian will be teaching a five-part ethnic cooking class this spring at Princeton Adult School, starting March 13. Registration opens Jan. 2 at:


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