How many times has this happened to you? You pile into a crowded supermarket with a list two feet long and walk out with shopping carts full of produce, followed by kids carrying bags. Once home you start to worry about how and where to store everything and still find yourself looking in the fridge without an idea of what to make for dinner.
Now picture this: think about a very tiny older woman living in a small hill town in Tuscany. With not too much strength in her arms, she has carried a very small leather shopping bag and gone out for a walk to see what's available at the local market. She buys fresh fish, some in-season vegetables, and on the way home, she buys a loaf of bread at the bakery. How can she make such delicious homemade meals with only a light burden on her shoulder? Because, at home she knows she has stored enough pasta, olive oil, dried beans, canned tomatoes, garlic, and so on to be ready for any meal.
It is this reality and necessity that has made simplicity reign in Tuscan cooking. There are a few ingredients that we use over and over in many dishes and a fairly standard way in which to stock a Tuscan kitchen.
We’ve listed them below and to make life easier, we've divided them both here and throughout the recipes by the place they're kept in any Tuscan kitchen.
- Pantry: Ingredients that can be stored without refrigeration
- Cold Storage: Ingredients that require refrigeration
- Market: Ingredients that are best bought and used fresh
By keeping the ingredients we recommend on hand, you can make any of the dishes on this site with the addition of only a handful of fresh ingredients that you can pick up at a local farmer’s market or speed through the express checkout.
- Olive oil
- Corn oil
- Imported canned plum tomatoes
- Tomato paste
- Wine—red, white, vermouth
- Vinegar—red wine, white wine, balsamic
- Pasta—penne, tubettini, farfalle, rotelle, rigatoni, spaghetti
- Italian Arborio or Vialone Nano rice
- Yellow cornmeal
- Flour—all-purpose, pastry Sugar
- Bread crumbs
- Beans—chick-peas, lentils, cannellini, black beans, red beans, lima beans
- Dried porcini
- Olives—black and green, Gaeta or Niçoise
- Juniper berries
- Assorted herbs (dried if fresh are unavailable)
- Coriander—seeds and ground
- Crushed red pepper
- Black pepper
- Vin Santo (Italian dessert wine)
- Red onions
- Fresh parsley
- Parmesan cheese
- Unsalted butter
- Broth—chicken, beef, fish, vegetable
Enough about lists and classifications. Let's talk about some of the most important elements of Tuscan cooking.
In most recipes in which garlic is used, it is first smashed with the heel of your hand or the flat side of a large knife.
The classification of "extra virgin" is the most important consideration when you're shopping for olive oil. Also, look on the label to see if the olives were grown and the oil produced and bottled on the same estate. This assures you of extreme quality control. These oils are expensive, but worth it. Among the best are olive oils that come from Tuscany, Liguria, and Umbria. When you're sautéeing or frying, you can substitute corn oil for olive oil. It's more economical, and a good-quality corn oil can safely replace olive oil in the first stages of cooking.
We use fresh salad (beefsteak) or plum tomatoes in salads only when they're in season, and we only use fresh plum tomatoes for sauces and stews when they are very ripe. As soon as the season is over, it's not a bad idea to consider using just the good-quality imported canned tomatoes. Even in Italy we don't have tomatoes all year long. In the winter we used canned tomatoes because they are put in cans when they are ripe, with their own natural juice.
We suggest you buy imported dry pastas, since they are easier to cook al dente than the domestic varieties. Spinach and whole wheat pastas are good too and can be used in any recipe. But remember—the cooking times will vary. Fresh pasta is good with gamy and complicated sauces. Dry pastas are best with the least elaborate sauces and are especially appreciated with seafood sauces.
Any time bread is mentioned, we mean a loaf of crusty peasant bread.