I recently returned from visiting a different part of the world that was beautiful, green, peaceful, interesting, very old and idyllic. Each morning I would get up and throw open the windows in my bedroom that overlooked acres of olive groves and vineyards.
The Mediterranean Sea lay in the distance. The rolling green landscape was dotted by an occasional stone structure or homes hundreds of years old. I’d sip cappuccino and drank fresh blood orange juice. Evenings there was wine, cheese and sausage while we watched the sunset on the countryside behind the cypress and pine trees. I was in Tuscany.
After a two-day journey across half the world, the final leg via a slow train that followed the coastline, I got off in the wrong little town. The dear friends who invited me to join them at their spring time retreat found me though and we drove to their villa in a thunder storm. We enjoyed dinner and wine at a cozy nearby restaurant where the owners greeted them by name with hugs and Italian “air kisses” on each side of the cheek. Owner, hostess and waitress, Theresa, made sure I was welcomed to her charming restaurant. We enjoyed a huge antipasta platter of local cheeses and salami. I dined on branzino, a small wild sea bass, simply prepared. The carafe of red table wine was really good and cost 2 Euros. After dinner, we sipped espresso and cold limoncello.
Limoncello is a traditional liqueur of Italy, typically enjoyed after dinner, as a mid-meal palate cleanser, or as a welcoming drink to guests. This summertime staple is sweet, refreshing and very simple. It requires just four ingredients and a little patience, but the final product is amazing.
Nona’s Italian Limoncello
Using a vegetable peeler, peel the zest from 10 lemons in long strips. It’s best to use organic lemons to avoid waxy residue.
The peeled lemons themselves won’t be used and may be reserved for other uses.
Next, the white pith needs to be removed from the peelings of zest or the finished product will be bitter. To do this, lay the zest pith-side up, and carefully scrape away the pith with a sharp knife. Holding the blade straight up and down will allow you to remove the pith without losing too much of the flavorful zest. You may be a pro at lemon peeling and have very little or no white pith on your strips of lemon zest.
Place the lemon zest in a large, sealable container (at least 2 quarts), and pour one 750 ml bottle of Everclear over the zest. 190 proof Everclear has the greatest extraction ability, but 151 proof is a perfectly suitable substitute. Vodka also works.
Seal or cover the container and keep it in a cool, dry place. Do not refrigerate. Allow zest and alcohol to steep for at least four days and up to four weeks if your schedule allows. The longer it steeps, the more flavor the Everclear will absorb. Shake occasionally.
Make simple syrup by combining 3½ cups of water and 2 ½ cups of sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Keep boiling and stir frequently for about 5-10 minutes or until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to rest until the simple syrup has cooled to room temperature.
Add the simple syrup to the lemon infusion to taste, cover and let rest overnight. Then strain mixture into a sealable container.
Store limoncello in the freezer and serve in a chilled shot glass.
Some of my favorite sight-seeing happens in the grocery store. I wander the aisles to see what products and edibles are part of the everyday lives of people. These grocery store visits tell me a lot, what’s grown near-by and in-season, what people eat and drink, what is produced locally.
There was gorgeous produce and beautiful red ripe tomatoes that caught my eye. There was basil growing in pots and fresh basil in packages galore. Lots of bread, rolls and crackers. There were so many different cheeses and I’d never seen so many different kinds of charcuterie: sausages, salami and prosciutto.
Typically, an Italian meal consists of a first course: antipasti — the appetizers. That course is followed by primi: soup, pasta, risotto or polenta, then secondi: offerings of seafood or meat. Dolci is dessert.
Simply prepared, with a few quality ingredients, is how I would describe most of the meals I dined upon over there. I loved the pasta my friend Bethany would make for our big lunches in the tiny kitchen at the villa. We share a love for fresh tomatoes and basil, garlic, good olive oil, Grana Padano parmesan and of course, wine.
Quick Sweet Tomato Sauce
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into slivers
2 36- ounce jars of peeled plum tomatoes, drained of their juices
Sea salt and black pepper
Fresh basil – a handful
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pan and sauté the garlic until it is soft but not brown. Add the tomatoes and some sea salt and black pepper and cook on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the tomatoes from sticking as they break up. As they cook, they will release their juices. When this liquid has evaporated, add the remaining olive oil, basil and more salt and pepper if needed.
Serve hot over cooked pasta of your choice. Pass freshly grated parmesan cheese.
I brought a little of Tuscany back with me – the belief that is never too early for an Aperol spritz, the rhythm of our days touring wineries and ruins, memories of eating delicious lunches, evenings sitting outdoors at sunset enjoying cocktails and appetizers, my continued love for gelato and my new love for limoncello.
I will never forget the sights and sounds of Tuscany and the incredible hospitality and generosity of my dear friends who treated me like a queen at their Alaskan springtime escape home in Italy.