Three tastes of Tuscany: Eggs 'acquacotta', baby pear tart, summer zucchini risotto

Shakshuka, Italian-style: Acquacotta Maremmana.
Shakshuka, Italian-style: Acquacotta Maremmana. Photo: Lauren Bamford

Former Good Food recipe contributor Emiko Davies shares three recipes from her second regional Italian cookbook, Acquacotta, including an Italian-style shakshuka, a seasonal vegetable risotto and a pastry case packed with piccolo pears.

Acquacotta Maremmana

Acquacotta recipes will differ from kitchen to kitchen in Maremma, and partly the idea is to use what you have on hand. But when I think of acquacotta, this is what I have in mind – a thick, slow-cooked stew of vegetables, mostly tomatoes, poured over a slice of stale bread. There's also a sunken egg 'in camicia' (as poached eggs are described in Italian, which makes me imagine the yolks, buoyant and still runny, dressed in oversized, floppy white shirts), nestled in the soup. It's this soft-yolked egg that makes the dish. Break into it with your spoon and let the creamy yolk run into the soup. It's warming, comfort food at its best.

One day I had the luck to meet and be invited into the house of Ilena Donati, an elderly woman from Capalbio who spent most of her life working in kitchens. You could see by the way her eyes lit up while talking about food that it was her passion. She told me two secrets for making the perfect acquacotta – one was to leave out the carrot in the soffritto. Onions (and here there are plenty) are naturally sweet, especially when slow-cooked. Carrots are even more so and adding them would upset the balance. So, no carrot. The other was to cook everything piano, piano (slowly, slowly).

Acquacotta by Emiko Davies.
Acquacotta by Emiko Davies. Photo: Supplied

Ingredients

1kg fresh, ripe tomatoes, or 800g tinned whole, peeled tomatoes

3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

4 large brown onions, finely sliced

½ celery stalk, finely chopped

125ml (½ cup) dry white wine

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1 freshly chopped red chilli or dried chilli flakes, to taste (optional)

1L (4 cups) vegetable stock or water

4 eggs

4 slices stale Tuscan bread (or crusty white loaf)

50 g (½ cup) grated parmesan or pecorino cheese (optional)

Method

1. Score a cross on the bottoms of the ripe tomatoes with a sharp knife. Place them in a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds, then remove and plunge them into a bowl of ice-cold water until cool enough to handle. Their skins should be very easy to peel now. Chop them into quarters and remove the watery seeds. Chop the rest of the tomatoes into cubes and set aside.

2. Heat a casserole pot with the olive oil over low heat. Add the onions and celery along with a good pinch of salt and let it cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Add a splash of water if you see the onions are sticking.

3. Turn the heat up to medium and add the white wine, simmering for about three to four minutes to reduce.

4. Pour over the tomatoes. If using tinned whole, peeled tomatoes, use a wooden spoon to break them up once in the pan. Add another pinch of salt and, if using, sprinkle over the chilli. Add half the stock (or water) and bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down to low and let it cook slowly, uncovered, for about 45 minutes. During this time, check on it now and then, and stir occasionally. The liquid should reduce to a nice, rather thick consistency, but there should still be enough liquid to be able to poach the eggs in it. Top up with the rest of the stock (or water) as necessary.

5. Taste for seasoning and, if necessary, add salt or freshly ground black pepper. Then crack in the eggs, one by one, not too close together. If you prefer, you can crack the eggs first into a small bowl and then carefully tip the cracked egg into the soup. Poach them until the whites are cooked and the yolks still soft and runny (this can take anywhere from three to six minutes, depending on the pan used and the temperature of the eggs). Remove from the heat.

7. Place a slice of stale bread at the bottom of each bowl. With a ladle, carefully scoop out the poached eggs one by one and place each on top of a slice of bread. Scoop out more soup and pour over the top to soak the bread. Sprinkle each dish with grated cheese (if desired) and let it sit for a minute or two to allow the bread to absorb some of the liquid adequately before serving.

Serves 4

Note: This is perfect for using up overly ripe fresh tomatoes in summer, but otherwise you can use tinned whole, peeled tomatoes as an alternative (passata or tomato purée is too smooth). Stale bread soaks up the liquid nicely and doesn't get soggy. If you don't have stale bread on hand, you can dry it out in a low oven until crisp (don't toast – this changes the flavour of the bread too much). You can prepare the soup in advance, right up to the point just before you put the eggs in; this can be kept in the refrigerator overnight or you can freeze for later use. Just reheat with a splash of water and, once simmering, add the eggs.

Acquacotta by Emiko Davies. Risotto Con Le Zucchine. Photographer: Lauren Bamford

Summer zucchini risotto. Photo: Lauren Bamford

Risotto con le zucchine - zucchini risotto

In the late spring and summer when you find piles of young, sweet zucchini at the market, with their huge, bright yellow blossoms still attached, this risotto is a weekly fixture on our table. My absolute favourite of the many different varieties of zucchini you can find are the slightly speckled, pale green, slender heirlooms with gentle ribs along the length of the vegetable. They are tender and cook beautifully. I like to grate them, which I find quick and easy in this dish. I also love the way the grated zucchini pieces blend in with the rice. Alternatively, you can slice them thinly – because of the ribs, the slices will look like little stars.

These lovely pale vegetables are known variously as zucchini 'costata romanesco' or Florentine zucchini. If you have your own vegetable garden, these heirloom seeds are easy to buy and grow yourself so you have access to these beautiful zucchini and their flowers.

The vegetable stock recipe here is double what you will need for this recipe, but it's always useful to have for soups or stews in place of water. If not using it right away, you can freeze it – an ice cube tray filled with stock is handy, so you can pull out exactly the amount you need.

Ingredients

For the vegetable stock

1 brown onion

1 large carrot

1 celery stalk

1 handful flat-leaf (Italian) parsley stalks

2 fresh bay leaves

For the risotto

4 small zucchini and their flowers, about 250g

60ml (¼ cup) extra-virgin olive oil

1 brown onion, finely chopped

300g risotto rice (such as carnaroli)

125ml (½ cup) dry white wine

60g grated pecorino or parmesan cheese (optional)

Method

1. To make the vegetable stock, chop the vegetables into rough chunks and place in a stockpot with the herbs and three litres of cold water. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for one hour. Strain and set aside until needed.

2. Wash the zucchini and pat dry. Remove the flowers and roughly slice, then set them aside. Grate the zucchini and set aside separately.

3. Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a wide, deep frying pan over low heat. Add the onion along with a good pinch of salt and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened but not coloured.

4. Add the rice and stir through the olive oil until it is glistening and thoroughly coated, about two minutes. Pour over the white wine and bring the heat up to medium. Let the wine simmer for about five minutes, then ladle over just enough warm stock to cover the rice. Cook, stirring occasionally and adding stock to cover as the liquid reduces. 

Serves 4

Acquacotta by Emiko Davies. Ricotta and baby pear tart.?Photographer: Lauren Bamford?

Ricotta and baby pear tart (or substitute poached plums or apricots). Photo: Lauren Bamford

Crostata di ricotta e pere coscia – ricotta and baby pear tart

In the summertime you find baby pears (known as pere coscia in Italian) all over the local farmers' markets around Argentario. Yellow-skinned, a little firmer and crunchier than regular pears, they make great toddler-sized snacks that cause minimal mess, which is one of the reasons we love them. I've also been looking for a way to cook with them, for those occasions when we don't eat them fast enough (fruit ripens so quickly in a warm, summer kitchen). So along came this tart.

Ricotta crostata is a favourite dessert in these parts – perhaps dotted with chocolate chips or layered with lip-smacking sour cherry jam or compote made from visciole cherries (Prunus cerasus). It's from a tradition more notably found in Lazio and, especially Rome, where it is a well-known dessert of the Jewish ghetto. In this part of the Maremma – which is closer to Rome than Florence, and is home to villages with a strong Jewish history, such as Pitigliano – it's easy to find these influences.

This very simple dessert is not overly sweet and is pretty enough to present to guests. The pears are briefly poached in water with a squeeze of lemon juice until just tender but not too soft. The pie dish is layered with the shortcrust pastry dough and smooth ricotta filling and the poached pears are carefully pushed one by one into the filling. Once baked, the tart is best when left to settle overnight in the fridge and eaten the next day – chilled if it's summer, and room temperature otherwise.

Ingredients

For the poached pears

7 to 9 baby pears*

55g (¼ cup) sugar

For the pastry

250g (1 cup) plain flour

100g castor sugar

125g (½ cup) cold butter, chopped 

pinch of salt

1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk

For the filling

500g (2 cups) ricotta

100g castor sugar

zest of 1 lemon

1 tsp vanilla extract (or scraped seeds of ½ vanilla pod)

2 eggs

icing sugar, to serve (optional)

Method

1. Peel the baby pears. Leave the stems on (I don't core them, as they are so small and tender they don't need it). Slice about 5mm off the bottom of the pear, so that they have flat bottoms to sit on. Roughly chop the pear offcuts and leave aside to add to the ricotta mixture. If you're making this dish with regular sized pears, peel and slice them into quarters and remove the core (if they are particularly large pears, you can slice into eighths).

2. Slide the pears into a saucepan of simmering water with the sugar to add a touch of sweetness to them. Cook for 15 minutes, or until they are just tender. Remove the pears, drain and let them cool. 

3. To make the pastry, combine the flour, sugar and butter together in a bowl. Using your fingers, rub together until there are no more visible pieces of butter (or you can pulse in a food processor). Add the salt and egg plus yolk and combine until it comes together into a smooth ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and put in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes, then roll out on a lightly floured surface to about 3mm thick. Lay over a 22cm to 25cm round pie dish and trim the borders. Prick the surface gently all over with the tines of a fork.

4. Preheat the oven to 180C.

5. To make the filling, combine the ricotta, castor sugar, lemon zest, vanilla and eggs, and mix until smooth. Pour over the pastry-lined pie dish and smooth over. Carefully push the pears into the ricotta filling, then bake in the oven for 45 minutes, or until the top is firm and slightly coloured golden brown and the pastry crust is golden.

6. Let it cool completely before serving and, if you like, just at the last moment sprinkle over some icing sugar – this will mostly sink into the surface of the ricotta and the pears, so you won't see much of it, but it will add a hint of sticky sweetness.

Store this tart in the refrigerator and eat within two to three days.

Makes 1 tart; Serves 8

Note: If you have some leftover pastry, roll out to make mini tart bases that you can blind bake in a muffin tin or cut out cookies with it that you can decorate with icing or layer with jam. It's a versatile dough that also freezes very well – nice to have for a rainy day baking project.

Hot weather pastry making: If you're trying to roll out pastry in the hot, sweltering summer, and find that it's melting before your eyes, try placing a couple of bags of frozen peas (or similar, even ice packs) directly onto the surface where you plan to roll the pastry out for about 10 minutes to chill it. Always chill your pastry before using it (letting it rest in the fridge for 1 hour is ideal). You might even go so far as to put the rolling pin in the freezer to give it some chill. The idea is to keep the pastry (and the butter in it) cold so that you can work with it more easily.

*If you can't find baby pears, you can make this with regular pears. Choose firm rather than ripe pears, which hold their shape better. This tart would work nicely with halved and seeded apricots or plums (though these would not need to be poached).

This is an edited extract from Acquacotta by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $49.99.