Reprinted from the Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Connecticut, May 5, 2002
A Taste of Northern Italy
MCC offers courses in the "Flavors of Tuscany" and "Light Italian Cooking", By Steve Starger

MANCHESTER, CT -- Experts on the subject claim that the cuisine of Northern Italy, specifically the region of Tuscany, is characterized by its simplicity.

That works as a general description, if you accept butter, olive oil, cream, rich cheeses, sage, rosemary, basil, sun-dried tomatoes, and the requisite complementary wines as models of simplicity.

Simple is as simple does, and simplicity Tuscan style can be a very rich and complex experience.

Aficionados of Northern Italian cooking, and food lovers in general, will have a delicious opportunity to learn about the region's mouth-watering specialties at Manchester Community College, which will host a pair of classes in Tuscan and "light" Italian cooking on Saturday, May 18.

The instructor of both courses is the bona fide article when it comes to Northern Italian cooking.
Maria Stranieri was born and raised in Italy, where, she says, her family life revolved around the kitchen. In America, Stranieri parlayed her childhood kitchen experiences into a profession. A graduate of the Connecticut Culinary Institute and former owner of Spesa Restaurant in Bristol, Stranieri operates a personal chef business and teaches at the Culinary Institute and Wild Oats, a natural food market. Stranieri also has a Web site for her personal chef enterprise at www.chefmaria.com.

The essence of Northern Italian cooking, according to Stranieri, lies in the region's soil.

"Northern Italy's soil yields sweeter products," she says. "In the south, things are more robust."

The relative lack of robustness may equal simplicity in cooking, but it's hardly a liability.

Northern Italian cooking employs lots of butter, cream, and cheeses, Stranieri says, because there are more animals raised for milk.

"In the south, we don't have the land," she says. "Being so hot there, the land doesn't yield much food for cattle to eat. It's not good country for beef or pork."

Because of the region's abundance of olives, Northern Italian cooks begin their creations with olive oil, according to Stranieri, who adds that only fresh ingredients are used.

"If you use cheese, be sure you use the strongest for flavor, and you can use less," she says.

For cheeses, Stranieri recommends small amounts of Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Romano is made with sheep's milk and is richer that Parmigiano, which is made with cow's milk.

"Parmigiano cheese comes from Parma, but only the Reggiano family is the best and the original," Stranieri says. "Unless people taste it, they won't understand the incredible tastes."

Stranieri also warns against using packaged cheeses. "Get it fresh in a chunk," she says, "and grate from that."

In Northern Italy, "bread is a complement for everything," Stranieri says. A popular snack is bread dipped in extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin, the darkest olive oil, is made from the first press of the olives, Stranieri explains, and is used mostly with raw foods such as salads.

Extra virgin olive oil can also be drizzled into a bowl before serving soup. The oil, when cooked, doesn't overwhelm other ingredients but adds a nice taste with soups and salads, Stranieri says.

"Whenever we cook in Italy, we use very few products, no more than three or four ingredients," Stranieri says, "but they are of the highest quality and the freshest. We never import things; we use from the region, in season."

To complement their dishes, Northern Italians use local wines, such as those made in the Chianti region.

"These kinds of wines are not the cheap wines of the old days," Stranieri stresses "They're very sophisticated."

Two of Tuscany's best wines, in Stranieri's estimation, are Brunello and Galestro, red wines that are imported worldwide.

"These wines are sweet but robust and pair beautifully with Tuscan food," she says.

For example, either wine makes a perfect complement for the flavorful Northern Italian flat bread known as focaccia.

Stranieri's choice for white wine is Vin Santo, a medium light wine that is perfect for dunking with biscotti, an Italian dessert cookie.

If one had to pick a dish that defines Tuscan cuisine, risotto would probably fit the bill, Stranieri says.

Risotto starts with arborio rice sauted in olive oil, butter, and wine in a large frying pan for about 25 minutes. The rice is added after the butter has melted. The oil, butter, and rice mixture must be stirred and not allowed to boil, so each rice kernel is coated and the rice doesn't stick to the pan.

When the rice is ready, gradually add two quarts of stock. Every time the liquid is absorbed, add another cup or so until the rice is al dente -- firm but tender, Stranieri says. The pan may be removed from the heat during the process, but the rice must be stirred constantly to avoid sticking.

During the last five minutes of cooking, Stranieri advises adding fontina cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and porcini mushrooms to the risotto, although many different ingredients may be used to taste.

On the "pasta question," Stranieri says that Northern Italians make fresh pasta, which is used immediately. In the south, pasta is dried and used later, because the south's more robust sauces go well with the drier pasta.

Northern Italian cooking contains elements of French and Swiss cuisine because of the geographic similarities in the soil, Stranieri says. She adds that the food also reflects the many conquests of Italy over the centuries. "Every nation has conquered Italy, in one way or another."

"Simplicity" takes on new meanings when you apply it to the varieties and complexities of Tuscan cooking. The best test of simplicity is the palate.

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