Midsummer days call for lighter fare, meals served out of doors and dinners that don’t require hours at a hot stove. Summer is also the time when I dream of traveling to some exotic place to soak up sun and dine on exquisite cuisine.
Emiko Davies’ second cookbook on Italian cuisine carried me to Tuscany’s Silver Coast on the Tyrrhenian Sea and the farmlands nearby. Aquacotta: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany’s Secret Silver Coast shares recipes spread between vibrant photography, homey shots of Davies’ family and friends dining out of doors, visits to the market and panoramas of crackled stucco houses along a sun-washed sea.
Davies’ cookbook is practically a one-way ticket to the Tuscan coast, minus the jet lag.
An ardent seafood lover, I decided to bring the Pacific Ocean to these Mediterranean recipes, starting with the zuppa di scampi e patate — shrimp soup with potatoes. Scampi, writes Davies, are small lobster found in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, also called langoustines. They’re prized for their delicate flavor and have a quality similar to our own local delicacy — the spotted prawn.
Spotted prawns are technically shrimp, but their meat is described as Dungeness crab crossed with lobster tail. Because of this finery, be prepared for a heavier price tag. I found mine for $20 a pound.
I went early to our local market and had to wait a few minutes for their delivery of prawns coming in from La Conner. This meant I could take my spotted prawns home live, rather than blanched, which is done right after delivery in order to keep the meat from turning gummy. The fishmonger explained that I needed to cook the prawns as soon as possibly in order to keep them from releasing a little something back into the tail meat that would render the flesh mushy instead of sweet and firm.
I didn’t ask for clarification on what this “little something” might be, but I took him at his word, figuring I could Google it later. (It’s actually an enzyme naturally occurring in shrimp which upon exposure to oxygen begins to travel from brain to tail, discoloring the spot prawns with brown spots and making mush of the flesh. Thanks, Google.)
Back in my kitchen, I read over the recipe and Davies’ story of seaside gatherings catching and preparing a meal around this star of scampi soup. The prawn heads bobbed about in simmering water for stock, bringing the smell of the seaside to my kitchen.
Like most of the recipes in Aquacotta, the ingredient list for the zuppa is short, the prep fairly minimal and the process simple.
I served the zuppa di scampi with creamy polenta and dished it up at our backyard picnic table. Our toy cluttered yard and unfinished paint projects slipped away as we dressed the table with linens, sipped chilled wine and filled our plates with pretty pink prawn tails and soft potatoes.
Happy with my first Aquacotta venture, the next evening I went all out. I tackled the polpo e patate — octopus and potato braise.
Polpo e patate is served either warm or cold, and requires a bit more labor than the zuppa di scampi. The bulk of my time was spent on my Pacific version of polpo and a specialty I’d never cooked before — Pacific octopus. I had no idea based on its frozen size, just how large the octopus would be! My kids seemed more enamored with poking the thawed beast than the idea of eating it, but after a first bite of the finished dish, eagerly asked for seconds.
Energized by the success (and fun) of her seafood dishes, I passed into other sections of Davies’ book, making tomato and celery salad, vinegar chicken and a zucchini risotto with squash flowers that my husband said was the best risotto he’d ever tasted. Accolades all round.
From the dessert pages I chose a traditional peasant-style cake called castagnaccio. It’s more of a thin, dense, moist sort of quick bread sweetened by its studded raisins and hints of rosemary rather than loads of sugar, an ingredient Davies says an Italian peasant family could scare afford. She also warns that castagnaccio is either something you love or hate.
I rather loved it. It tasted a bit funky at first, the chestnut flour makes for a heavy bite, almost like a paste, but with more crumb. It has a subtly sweet character but with a slightly bitter finish. Olive oil is a main ingredient, so choose your most mellow extra virgin so as not to add too many tannins to an already nuanced cake.
I found the castagnaccio went best with steaming hot espresso, served in the cool of the evening as we watched the sun set. (Optional is the addition of an untidy garden and the shouts of children’s last gasp of play for the day.)
I’ll admit, Davies’ Aquacotta has made me wax sentimental. But with the romance of Tuscany and the sea, I can’t help musing over other dishes I’ll try into August and thinking that aside from a plane ticket to Italy, the quickest way for me to fulfill my summer travels is to dive headlong into a cookbook full of simple fare and flavors of the Silver Coast.
Who should get this book? Home cooks who enjoy stories of travel with their meal. Anyone with an interest in traditional Tuscan cuisine and local specialties.
Aquacotta: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany’s Secret Silver Coast by Emiko Davies
Publisher Hardie Grant Books
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ZUPPA DI SCAMPI E PATATE / SCAMPI AND POTATO SOUP — serves 4
I opted to leave a few of the spotted prawns whole, but you don’t have to. If you choose to do so, toss them in with the stock for a minute or two then remove and add later to the finished dish for a playful plate-up. We ate this with Davies creamy polenta, but her recipe calls for the even tastier addition of garlic rubbed on slices of grilled rustic bread. Either way, you’ll want something to sop up all that wonderful sauce.
500 g (1 lb 2 oz) scampetti
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, 1 finely chopped, 1 whole for rubbing bread
1 handful flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, stalks and leaves separated and finely chopped
125 ml (4 fl oz / 1/2 cup) dry white wine
400 g (14 oz) tinned peeled tomatoes
500 g (1 lb 2 oz) potatoes, peeled and diced into 2 cm (3/4 in) cubes
4 slices Tuscan bread (or other crusty bread)
Remove the heads and shells of the scampetti and set aside the meat and tails. In a saucepan over high heat, toast the heads and shells for about 2 minutes (no oil or anything else necessary). Pour over 1 litre (34 fl oz / 4 cups) of cold water, bring to the boil and turn down the heat. Let it simmer, covered, for 30 minutes, then strain. Set aside the scampi stock.
In a wide frying pan, heat the olive oil over low heat and gently cook the chopped garlic and parsley stalks for 5 minutes. Pour over the wine, turn the heat up to medium and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, the scampi stock and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat to low and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Add the potatoes and cook for 15 minutes or until they are just tender, then add the scampi and the parsley leaves and cook for a further 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Grill (broil) the slices of bread or put in a low oven to dry out slightly. Rub with the whole garlic clove.
To serve, place a slice of bread in the bottom of each bowl and ladle the soup over the top.
CASTAGNACCIO / CHESTNUT FLOUR CAKE — serves 8
I found the cake to be rather rich and because of its dense nature and intense flavor, having closer to 12 servings. Chestnut flour can be a bit difficult to track down, so I recommend calling ahead to your local specialty market, or purchasing online. The ricotta cream is so amazing that I suggest doubling the recipe below. You won’t be sorry.
300 g (10 1/2 oz / 3 cups) chestnut flour, sifted
2 tablespoons sugar (optional)
pinch of salt
500 ml (17 fl oz / 2 cups) cold water
3 tablespoons olive oil
60 g (2 oz / 1/2 cup) sultanas (golden raisins)
40 g (1 1/2 oz / 1/4 cup) pine nuts (or walnuts)
1 rosemary sprig, leaves picked
zest of 1 orange
250 g (9 oz / 1 cup) ricotta
2 tablespoons sugar
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Combine the chestnut flour, sugar (if using) and salt in a bowl. Add the water, bit by bit, stirring with a wooden spoon or whisk to avoid lumps. You are looking for a batter that will run off the back of a spoon, much like pancake batter. Depending on the quality of the flour, you may need a little more or a little less water than called for to obtain this consistency.
When smooth, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the orange zest to the batter and mix it in. Allow the mixture to rest at least 30 minutes (or overnight).
Preheat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF) and line a 30 cm (12 in) round pizza tray with baking paper. Alternatively, you can use a rectangular baking tray of similar dimensions.
Soak the sultanas, nuts and rosemary in cold water for 15 minutes. Drain.
Pour the batter into the round pizza tray (or rectangular baking tray). The batter should be not much more than 1 cm (1/2 in) high. Evenly scatter over the sultanas and nuts, the rosemary leaves and the rest of the olive oil.
Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until you begin to see little cracks appear all over the top. Do not over-bake or it will become very dry. Let it cool in the pan, then cut it into wedges.
To make the ricotta cream, whisk the ricotta, sugar and lemon zest together in a bowl. Chill until needed.
Serve the castagnaccio on its own or with a dollop of ricotta cream. This is best on the day it is baked, so share it around. However, it does keep for a day in an airtight container at room temperature. It’s best not to store it in the refrigerator as it tends to get hard and rubbery when chilled.
NOTE: Try to use a tray similar to the dimensions given in the recipe. Otherwise, just be aware of the thickness as you are pouring the batter into the pan. If it’s too thin, it can come out too dry; too thick and it will be dense and, dare I say, claggy. (In Livorno they have a thicker version, which is known as toppone and is generally considered less refined than proper castagnaccio).
Recipe excerpted with permission from Acquacotta by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant Books March 2017. Photo of castagnaccio by Lauren Bamford.