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The chef Nicola in his element.

The chef Nicola in his element.

My friend Nicola is a cook, gardener, artist, historian and proud  Lucchese – a person born in Lucca. Angela, of La Mimosa, introduced us while gathered around her rustic wooden kitchen table, a fire blazing in the open-hearth to warm us during a fall rainstorm. She was in the midst of preparing rabbit stew for lunch and we were the observers. I was drawn to Nicola’s enthusiasm and knowledge of traditional Tuscan foods, their heritage and cultivation.

I learned that olive oil from Lucca is lighter and softer than the spicy southern version I usually cook with. Tuscan bread is unsalted. The reason being, during the medieval times a high tax was levied on the salt and the bakers decided to go without. Romans used faro before wheat, so in keeping with their roots, many Tuscans use it in salads and soups. Tuscan foods have more of a French influence than other parts of Italy.

To become more familiar with typical, local ingredients, I asked Nicola if he would cook with me in my barn kitchen and teach me his family secrets. He eagerly agreed.

Here is his menu:

Antipasto of Artichoke Hearts, Olives and Pickled Onions

Pumpkin Risotto

 Faraona stuffed with vegetables and braised on the stove top

Rutabagas, cubed and cooked with butter, sage and garlic

A medley of sautéed greens, shallots, garlic and white beans

Unsalted Tuscan bread

Salad greens from Nico’s garden, dressed with local olive oil

Tuscan country wine

Our antipasto and my table decoration of all things nature gathered outside at La Mimosa.

Antipasto nestles between my Tuscan table decoration of all things nature gathered outside at La Mimosa.

When I saw the abundance of groceries overflowing on my countertop, I wondered how we would be able to eat it all. Good thing Angela and Davino were joining us!

Faison is a type of guinea fowl. typical of the region.

The Faraona, a guinea fowl,  is stuffed with leeks, garlic, carrots and celery. It is then trussed and wrapped with a layer of lard. According the the famous Italian culinary writer Artusi, the Faraona is native to Numidia and considered to be the symbol of brotherly love in the ancient world. How appropriate!

Ummm. Lard. It gives the bird flavor and makes everything taste delicious. I loved this paper it was wrapped in.

Ummm. Lard. It gives the bird flavor and makes everything taste delicious. I loved the photo on this paper it was wrapped in.

The trussed, larded bird is browned in a heavy pot on the stove. Water and wine are added during the cooking process and the lidded bird cooks slowly.

The trussed, larded bird is browned in a heavy pot on the stove. Water just to coat the bottom of the pot, sage, garlic, pepperoncini and wine are added to braise and the lidded bird cooks slowly.

The artist, Nico, set to work creating dish upon dish so effortlessly. It was as if he were floating through time, not rushed, just enjoying the moment. I watched (and helped) in amazement as each dish came together.

Nicola artfully balances four burners full of food all going at once: The Faraona, rutabagas, pumpkin risotto, chopped greens with white beans.

Nicola artfully balances four burners full of food all going at once: The Faraona, rutabagas, pumpkin risotto and chopped greens with white beans.

While the bird cooks, Nicola starts the pumpkin risotto. Italians call squash, “pumpkin.” Butternut squash is cubed and cooked in a pot of boiling water until tender but not overcooked. In another saucepan, sauté what else but olive oil, two minced garlic cloves, and  three chopped shallots until soft.  Add two handfuls of rice (arborio) for each person and water to cover. Stir and add water as needed. Drain the almost cooked pumpkin and add to risotto. When risotto is almost done, add white wine as the last reduction and salt to taste. Do not overcook!The secret is to cook al dente.

My kitchen was an infusion of mingling aromas – shallots, garlic, sage and roasting bird. In a soft tone, Nicola describes each step, keeping rhythmn with the courses. Rutabagas, which add a color contrast and bright flavor to our meal,  are cubed and cooked with garlic and sage in a small amount of water.

More olive oil, shallots and garlic are sautéed with a mixture of chopped greens, mostly spinach, that you can purchase ready-made at the store. This is all heated together, then white beans are stirred in. Very delicious and healthy.

Il primo. Creamy and al dented, it gets Davino's approval.

Il primo. Creamy and al dente, it gets Davino’s approval.

Tigre in a trance, dreaming of the bird that fills his senses. Of course, he will be the lucky recipient of tender morsels at dinner time.

Tigre in a trance, dreaming of the bird that fills his senses. Of course, he will be the lucky recipient of tender morsels at dinner time.

Il secondi. Now this is a dinner created with love!

Il secondi. Now this is a dinner created with love!

Angela with Tigre upon lap enjoying the camaraderie.

Angela with Lily upon lap enjoying the camaraderie.

Everything is perfect and so very delicious. The Faraono is delicate and succulent. Angela, Davino and Nicola ate it with fingers, devouring every morsel off the bones.

The conversation (and wine and Prosecco) continued until 12:30am. I will always remember this dinner, the new friendships formed and the enjoyment cooking brings when shared with others. By the way, do all Italian men know how to cook like this? I am impressed!

All the activity wore Gilda out!

All the activity wore Gilda out!

So that’s my friend Nicola. The best part of traveling is meeting new people, discovering their artistic talents and sharing the journey. I wish you art and love everyday in your life.

Note: The photos in this story are off color. I had difficulty with the indoor lighting. They are not my usual standard!

Ciao!

Mary aka Maria