02 May 2009

La Mia Cucina Toscana

Pino Luongo’s first cookbook, Fish Talking has been a hard one to find. I once ordered a copy that was delivered to the wrong address. The people who got the package never gave it back! Right now they are making Couscous with Seafood and thinking how great it is to have careless FedEx drivers.

La Mia Cucina Toscana: A Tuscan Cooks in America is much easier to find. I find it to be a bit exaggerated and over-blown, but if you have ever seen Luongo, the book seems to mesh with his style. Luongo is always looking at traditional Tuscan cuisine and finding ways to make it new. I give his style points for going out on a limb. Sometimes it works beautifully! Several years ago, he made a pizza in his restaurant, Le Madri. The pizza was a thin round of focaccia, split up the center. The focaccia was separated and spread with Robiola cheese, and finished in a white truffle oil. It was a sensation, not only at Le Mardi but in many other restaurants! The recipe has been copied repeatedly.

In La Mia Cucina Toscana he transforms a Tuscan lasagna. This lasagna takes thick Tuscan bread instead of pasta. The bread is layered with cauliflower and cheese and baked. It makes a wonderful dish on its own and it is a different side with a roasted chicken.

Lasagne of Bread and Cauliflower

Fine sea salt
2 pounds cauliflower, thick stalks discarded, separated into florets
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
One 3/4 pound loaf Tuscan country bread, ends trimmed and discarded, sliced crosswise 1/2 inch thick and toasted
10 ounces 3- to 6- month old Pecorino Toscano, grated
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 325 F

2. Fill a medium pot with water and add 2 tablespoons salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add cauliflower and cook until soft, 4 to 6 minutes. Strain the cauliflower liquid through a fine mesh strainer placed over a bowl. Set aside the florets and the cooking liquid.

3. Pour 1/4 cup of the olive oil into a baking pan measuring about 11 inches X 8 inches, tipping the pan from side to side and using your fingers to coat the bottom and sides evenly.

4. Lightly soak half the toasted bread slices a few at a time in the cauliflower cooking liquid and arrange in a single layer on the bottom of the baking pan. Sprinkle half the cauliflower evenly over the bread, top with half the Pecorino, season generously with black pepper and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the remaining olive oil. Add another layer of bread, top with the remaining cauliflower and cheese, again season generously with black pepper, drizzle on the remaining olive oil.

5. Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake for 20 minutes or until golden on top. Cut into portions and serve at once.

Why on earth Luongo strains the cauliflower water is beyond me. I never strain the liquid. It is totally unnecessary. Just lift out the cauliflower and then dip the bread in water in the pan.

You want to give it a good soak. The recipe says "lightly soak" but if you use a traditional thick Tuscan bread, you need a good bit of liquid in the bread, otherwise you end up with a baked brushetta.

I also lay a piece of parchment over the dish BEFORE the aluminum foil.

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