Tuscan cuisine is simple and rustic in nature. There are no heavy sauces or gravies, and this lets the true flavor of the foods shine through to be enjoyed in their purest form. But don’t let that simplicity fool you.
Many Tuscan recipes come prepared by simple roasting or grilling methods; and employ noble cuts of meat or fish, poultry, game and a large assortment of vegetables.
The reason barbecued food tastes so good is because fat drips down on the hot coals, and returns in the form of smoke to flavor the food. Tuscans know that, and have built a veritable culinary tradition around grilling. With the implicit understanding that too many sauces can instead cover these simple and vibrant flavors.
As opposed to barbecuing–which requires low fires providing long, slow cooking, and usually involves rubs, marinades or sauce brushing–Tuscan grilling is strictly about cooking over hardwood fire, without a lid to cover; and with very little in terms of ingredients, besides the hero component. This means no basting, no use of fancy marinades and balsamic rubs, and knowledge of what meat sauce is. For a perfect Tuscan grigliata, locals only employ a light sprinkle of salt and pepper, sometimes a drizzle of lemon juice and the occasional herb seasoning.
Let me begin with the quintessential grilled Tuscan fare, Rosticciana–or, pork rib roast.
Rosticciana – Spare Ribs
Rosticciana which according to geographical area can also be called Rostinciana or Costoleccio–is a difficult cut to grill because the pork fat produces lots of drippings that ignite flames and fiery flares. Result? Ribs that are charred on the outside, and pink near the bone… a veritable Tuscan grilling no-no. Rosticciana requires patience, and some pro grilling skills, but it’s well worth the hassle.
Here’s what you need for authentic Tuscan rosticciana:
- 4 1/2 lbs center-cut pork rib roast
- Tip: They’re easier to handle if they’re cut into segments of about 5-6 rib bones each
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Juice of 2 lemons
Soak the ribs in lemon juice for 30 minutes; and in the meantime, start your fire. This will allow the lemon aroma to penetrate the flesh, but mostly, degrease the meat. Season your rosticciana with salt and pepper at the last minute before setting over the coals.
These should be fairly hot but not searing, let’s say you should be able to hold your hand above the coals for about 7 seconds.
Set the ribs on the grill and cook them, turning them frequently, for about 35-45 minutes. Given the fat content of the meat, there is no need to baste. If the flames blaze too high, briefly remove the rosticciana from the flames with a pair of tongs, be patient and then return them to the grill.
When they’re done, cut the individual ribs free and serve them hot, to be eaten Henry the Eighth-style.
Costolette d’Agnello – Lamb chops
The best to use are rib chops. Look for some that are nicely marbled with fat, since the grilling process will otherwise dry out the flesh. For the same reason, avoid loin chops, which are far too lean for this kind of treatment.
- 12 rib lamb chops
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Fresh rosemary
- Extra virgin olive oil
Get your hardwood coals going. Season both sides of the lamb chops with salt and pepper, and sear for about 2 minutes. Flip to sear the other side, and continue turning the chops from time to time, until they are nicely browned on both sides. Although I generally like my lamb pink, Tuscans in general do not.
Let the lamb chops rest for about 5 minutes, then sprinkle some rosemary needles, and add a thread of extra virgin olive oil before serving.
Fiorentina di Chianina
The Fiorentina cut is a substantial slab of meat roughly equating to an American T-bone or a Porterhouse steak, whose grilled deep-brown crust should be slightly salty, and the inside meat flavorful, velvety tender and perfectly rare.
Not to be tackled without a bottle of robust red wine, and a hearty appetite.
Chianina is an ancient Italian breed of beef cattle, and the prime Italian choice when it comes to red meat. It is the largest and one of the oldest existing beef cattle breeds in the world, and the best for the Fiorentina cut.
Fiorentina steaks can easily exceed 3 kg (6 lbs), and a Fiorentina that weighs less than a kilogram (2.2 lbs) is not a Fiorentina. It must form, according to experts, a perfect heart shape, bordered by a 1-inch perimeter of white fat, with the bone drawing a symmetrical, central “T” that separates the tenderloin from the sirloin.
- 1 T-bone or porterhouse steak, at least 2 inches thick and weighing 2 lbs
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Florentines grill their mammoth steaks over a bed of embers using natural charcoal (ideally oak…), but briquettes will get the job done too. Once you have your coals or briquettes fired up, which should be quite hot–they should be alive and shrouded in a veil of white ash–set your grill about 4 to 6 inches above the coals, and let it heat for a few minutes, but not too long because otherwise it will burn lines into the flesh.
Drop the Fiorentina on the grill, let it sear 5 minutes per side: as soon as the steak comes off the grill easily, flip it and liberally salt the freshly grilled surface. After a few more minutes, when the other side comes free, flip it again and salt. Don’t worry about over salting because the browned surface won’t allow the salt to draw out excess moisture. Continue turning and adjusting lightly with cracked black pepper.
The cooking should happen over only a few minutes, and when done the steak should still be rare on the inside. Purists eat Fiorentina blue (that means really raw) and consider a ‘well-done’ Chianina steak a sacrilege.
Some like to finish cooking Fiorentina by standing it upright, balanced on the cross of the T-bone, like an obelisk.
A huge thank you to Eleonora of Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino for her guest post that has perfectly narrated the essence of tuscan grilling.
Image credits: Eleonora Baldwin