Janet Ross and Her Tuscan Vegetable Cookbook

Introduction:

In the cookbook, Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen, or, How to Cook Vegetables, author Janet Ross compiled a number of different recipes focusing on the cuisine in Tuscany during the time period when it was produced in 19031. What I found most interesting about this cookbook was the direct focus on vegetables and the hundreds of recipes with them as the main ingredient. For the most part, in modern times, I believe that when someone thinks of Italian food, vegetables are not at the top of the list, so I was curious as to why Ross focused the majority of her cookbook on vegetables.

The Author: 

While researching, I was able to find some interesting information regarding the author Janet Ross. She was born in London in 1842 into a life of wealth and status but lived in Florence for most of her life. 

Photo of a drawing of Janet Ross from the biography Queen Bee of Tuscany by Ben Downing https://bookshop.org/books/queen-bee-of-tuscany-the-redoubtable-janet-ross/9780374239718

She had a number of connections with well-known people of the time including John Addington, a historian of Renaissance Italy, writer Mark Twain and novelist Edith Wharton.2 Ross wrote many books throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries but the most famous is her Tuscan cookbook. I found it odd that she chose to write the cookbook considering the fact that it was very different from her other works, even those which had to do with historical Italy, and were most likely not recipes that she herself was actually cooking. In further research and as stated in the cookbook, I discovered that these recipes were actually crafted by the Ross’ chef Giuseppe Volpi, the chef in Poggio Gherardo, their villa. 3

The fact that she had a chef is not at all surprising considering her lifestyle and status in the city. Additionally, Ross’ cookbook contains a preface which seems to give the reader an insight of food history in the time period as well as her passion for writing the cookbook. She very clearly describes her appreciation for vegetables and their versatility as well as the overall lack of recipes being published and shared at the time, especially in the Italian fashion. 

Tuscan Cuisine and The Tuscan Cookbook:

The Tuscan cuisine in modern day consists of a variety of vegetables as well as fruits, cheese, meat, olive oil and bread, all of which were certainly present throughout the area’s history. Through research and experience, I learned that most of these dishes today certainly have vegetables incorporated in them but this cookbook, for the most part, discusses meals where the entire dish is the vegetable like artichokes and mushrooms that are prepared in different ways such as with a sauce. One of the most famous Tuscan dishes is the ribollita, which was created by peasants using bread and whatever vegetables were available and it was reboiled the next day.4 It is, however, not mentioned by name in this cookbook. I found it somewhat strange how the author mostly focused on the vegetables individually instead of how they can be combined together, like in ribollita, which is how most of my understanding of how Tuscan food would be consumed. The cookbook is first alphabetically organized by vegetables or other types of food like beans or rice, starting with artichokes and the different recipes and ways to make them and then moving on to the next. She also chooses to make three subcategories for salads, sauces, and soups as there are quite a number of those recipes included. 

There are some patterns to the way some things are prepared as a number of things are done in the same way such as “alla Francese”, and “alla Crema”. A big difference compared to today that I noticed in the cookbook was the recipe of the Francese provided by the author. In the cookbook, it includes eggs, tomatoes, chicken jelly and more. In the modern (at least Italian-American) version I am familiar with, it is basically a wine, butter, and lemon sauce typically served with chicken. These are very different sauces and clearly, somewhere along the way, changes and developments were made.

After reading the preface of the cookbook, it is clear that Janet Ross primarily created this cookbook in collaboration with her chef, Giuseppe Volpi, based on her passion for the food as well as to put a piece of work out there that was different from the English recipes. Though the cookbook focuses mainly on vegetables, it is not a vegetarian cookbook as it does include many meat recipes. I did not find anything in research or in the preface which explicitly says that Ross was a vegetarian but I think it was certainly possible as seen in her obvious appreciation for vegetables. She clearly states that her English friends would be some of those reading the cookbook so they could be exposed to the recipes on how to cook vegetables the Italian way. 

Making Potato Gnocchi and Tomato Sauce No. 1: 

In collaboration with my research on the author and cookbook, I decided another way to truly get an understanding would be to make some of the recipes in the book and compare to how the modern version would be made, according to my understanding. I decided upon making gnocchi and an accompanying tomato sauce from the cookbook to try to get a range of some of the recipes present. I started with the Tomato Sauce No. 1 and the recipe is written as follows:


Recipe from Janet Ross’ Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen

Immediately, the first thing I noticed was a lack of garlic, which is basically a staple in any Italian sauce today. I also figured that the sauce was overall going to be pretty bland and not very flavorful. And so, I gathered my ingredients including an onion, some celery, fresh parsley (but could not find Italian parsley), 3 tomatoes, olive oil, salt, pepper and dried basil, because I sadly could not find any fresh. I also approximately halved the recipe.

I then minced a quarter of an onion, a couple sticks of celery, a good amount of parsley and I sliced my tomatoes. 

After prepping my ingredients, I added them to a saucepan with about a quarter cup of olive oil, salt, pepper and the dried basil.

I let the sauce boil and then I turned it down to a simmer to continue cooking while I prepared the gnocchi. The recipe in the cookbook for potato gnocchi is as follows:

Recipe from Janet Ross’ Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen

I gathered my ingredients for the gnocchi recipe (I approximately halved this as well) which included three potatoes, flour, in which I needed to look up about what a dessert spoon looks like, about 2 eggs, salt and grated cheese (I chose both Romano and Parmesan because I, unsurprisingly, had both on hand).

To begin prep, I peeled and chopped the potatoes into cubes while I got the water boiling to cook the potatoes. In the meantime, the sauce was starting to come together.


I boiled the potatoes and then mashed them until they were smooth. Going back to the sauce, though looking not very appetizing, I determined the sauce was done and it certainly did not come out exactly as I expected. The recipe called for the sauce to be drained but in my case, the only liquid was oil so I figured I should not do this.

At this point, I decided to finish making the gnocchi the next day and just reheat the sauce for the final pairing. So, the next day I took my “mashed potatoes” out of the refrigerator and waited for them to start to come to room temperature and make my dough with the cheese, eggs, flour (which I decided to add more than the recipe said as my dough was very sticky) and salt. I then did my best to roll the dough into balls and covered them in flour, as noted in the recipes. (This made me laugh because they almost look like mini beignets covered in powdered sugar in this picture!)

I tossed the gnocchi into the bowling water until they floated to the surface, about five minutes. While they were cooking, I heated up the sauce on the stove and once they were done, I plated the dish.

After tasting the dish, I have to say I was not a big fan. As expected, the sauce especially was quite bland and it almost tasted like I was eating soup and not particularly similar to any sauce I have tasted. The gnocchi were okay but they had almost no flavor, except for potato, which I feel like the gnocchi I have had certainly does. I do think if I had blended the sauce, it might have been better but it certainly needs more flavor, in my opinion. 

To conclude, I am glad I chose to make these two recipes from the cookbook. It allowed me to have an additional insight into the cookbook itself and why certain recipes may have been included. I wish it turned out to be a better success and pair better together but alas, due to the inevitable faults of myself and the overall blandness of the recipes, they did not come out the way I wanted. But I can say I did my best to recreate the recipes that Ross, or more specifically her chef, created.

Notes: 

1. Ross, Janet. Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen, Or, How to Cook Vegetables. JM Dent and Co., 1903. 

2. Dirda, Michael. “’Queen Bee of Tuscany: Janet Ross,’ by Ben Downing.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 June 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment /books/queen-bee-of-tuscany-janet-ross-by-ben-downing/2013/06/26/56e6fca0-de1-11e2-85de-c03ca84cb4ef_story.html. 

3.  “Leaves from a Tuscan Kitchen.” Martin Dwyer, an Irish Chef in France, 17 May 2006, martindwyer.co/m/2006/05/17/leaves-from-a-tuscan-kitchen/. 

4.  Srl, Dotflorence. “Delicious Florentine Food . the Traditional Tuscan Ribollita.” Delicious Florentine Food ., http://www.walksinsideflorence.it/the-traditional-tuscan-ribollita.html. 

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