Among the several weighty tomes I’ve lugged across Europe in my 30-pound backpack is a hardback edition of Mario Batali’s Simple Italian Food. The idea was supposed to be that when we arrived in Tuscany, we’d need a cookbook that actually featured ingredients available locally. It’s worked fairly well, but unfortunately Batali’s book is written in English, and many of the proprietors of the authentic artisinal shops we’ve been frequenting don’t speak English. Worse, my 18-year-old recollection of college Italian doesn’t extend to important terminology such as “lamb chops.” Still, we’ve eaten well (we ended up buying leg-of-lamb, chopped into steaks and grilled according to Mario’s instructions for “lamb chops Scottaditi” with pop-pom mushrooms, garlic confit, and mint).
Jim discovered in Rome that he likes gnocchi, so one day Nora and Jim announced they’d like to try making it. It’s an elaborate 3-hour process involving boiling potatoes, peeling them hot, and mashing them in a food mill. They couldn’t get the food mill to work, so they substituted a meat grinder. It probably took an hour to run all the potatoes through. While Nora cranked, Jim attempted to sculpt the remains into a bust of Steven Colbert. The final result looked more like a cross between Donald Trump and Alfred E. Neuman:
Nora and Jim thought he looked good enough to lick:
Eventually they did settle down into making actual gnocchi. For the most part on this portion of the trip Jim’s preferred posture has been hunched over the computer, listening to Guns and Roses as loud as the rest of us can tolerate over the iBook’s tinny speakers and playing an addictive little video game called N. It was quite refreshing seeing Jim and Nora happily shaping gnocchi for an entire afternoon:
I’m not a gnocchi fan, but this really was quite good with the pesto our guests (frequent Word Munger commenter) Pat and (his wife/our friend from college) Suzanne brought from Cinque Terre.
These early adventures, along with our wonderful experience with the butcher in Montalcino led us to a more ambitious pursuit: Grilled Florentine T-bone steak. When you order steak from the butcher here, she hauls out a massive piece of meat, then asks you how thick you want it. Mario’s recipe calls for a 3-inch-thick T-bone, about 3 to 3 1/2 pounds. Arriving at the shop on a Saturday morning, the butcher had an assistant (her son?) and charged him with cutting our steak. He hardly believed I wanted it as thick as I did. The resulting cut actually weighed 3 kilos, about twice what the recipe called for (the reason for this, which we discovered later, will be revealed shortly). Here our lovely spokesmodel Suzanne demonstrates the impressive bulk of the slab we’d soon be cooking for dinner:
Mario’s recipe calls for chopping 1 tablespoon each of rosemary, sage, and thyme, mixing with 2 tablespoons each of salt and fresh ground pepper, then rubbing on the meat. We managed to find all these spices except thyme (perhaps again due to our language deficiencies). Then the entire steak was rubbed with fine olive oil from Orcia. Here I am placing it on the grill:
When I remove the meat the appointed 12 minutes later to flip, one side of the slab was in flames:
You can also see the problem with this particular cut, and the reason why it was so much heavier than the recipe called for. On the left, it’s about 3 inches thick, but on the right, it’s more like 5 inches. Our apprentice butcher didn’t manage to cut our steak straight. But as this picture reveals, after the final 9 minutes of grilling it was still cooked quite nicely:
As we carved farther in, the meat became rarer, and some of it could only be described as “tartare.” But since we could only consume about half this cut for dinner, all six of us were able to find a cut cooked to their liking. Mario’s recipe was absolutely delicious, with the charred spices adding an excellent flair to the dish. I’d highly recommend it: