Discover more from Letters from Tuscany
Tessa Kiros, her new cookbook, and when I fell in love with her world
A recipe for a Wild Greens Pie from Tessa Kiros' new cookbook, Now & Then
I’m writing to you from a drizzly Tuscan countryside, a dog curled up on my feet and a tray of fennel roasting in the oven with lemon and garlic. The quieter days are upon us: the cooking class season is slowing down and this means we’ll have more time to test new recipes, experiment, read, study, and write. Mostly write, here, for you. There’s a time to be out there, and a time to look inside, reflect, grow. This is winter for me.
For the winter season, we just scheduled in-person monthly three-day masterclasses, a deep dive into the Italian food culture. It will be the perfect time to soak beans for traditional soups, learn to bake local Christmas cookies and spiced panforte, embrace the bitter flavours of green leaves, balanced with a good drizzle of new olive oil.
During the summer I set aside books for when I’ll have more time. Well, hopefully that time is now, and I want to tell you about everything that excites me, inspires me, teaches me.
Today’s letter is about a cookbook author and a friend, Tessa Kiros, and her new cookbook, Now & Then: A Collection of Recipes for Always. Leafing through Tessa’s new cookbook I took a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about my first encounter with her world, and how that basically changed my life. I’ll bring you with me back to 2007…
As always, thank you for being here and for sharing this journey with us.
I was the new girl in the office. We were gathered around our desks during lunch break, eating pasta salads briefly reheated in the microwave placed next to the photocopier.
Ten days into the new job, and I already had a feeling it was not the place I thought it could be, except for those chats during lunchtime, the highlight of the day. My packed lunch was often the sparkle that led us to food talks: it was a joined effort of my first experiments in the kitchen and my mum's loving details, as she would pack my lunch in the morning with a clean tablecloth and some fruit. So I was quickly labelled as the one who loves to cook.
It was 2007, well before I even knew what a food blog was, but those moments spent in the kitchen had the taste of freedom and redemption.
Can you imagine? a friend of mine lives next to a cookbook author, said Alessandra, one of my new colleagues. When she tests recipes for her books, she shares all that amazing food with her neighbours. Lucky ones! My eyes started to twinkle. And does she live close by? Who is she? Alessandra casually dropped a name: Tessa Kiros.
Seconds later I was googling her—pretending to work—searching everything about this woman who was living not far from me and had a dream job, a cookbook author. Before you think I was stalking Tessa on Google, I’ll say in my defence that I was guided by genuine curiosity. With my first proper salary, I went straight to the best bookshop in Siena, Libreria Senese, where I bought her first two cookbooks, Twelve and Apples for Jam, both in English.
That was my first encounter with Tessa’s world, a completely new genre of cookbooks, where recipes were embroidered with stories, beautiful images, and glimpses of her life. You could recognize her voice, her story, and her inspirations in each book. Before this encounter, I was gathering inspiration only from weekly magazines, my grandma’s tattered cookbooks, and my mum’s pristine cooking encyclopedia.
That moment marked the beginning of my love of cookbooks and of my ongoing collection.
I brought those books to bed with me, leafing through their pages to fall asleep, bookmarking the recipes I wanted to try. I kept those books in the kitchen, attempting new flavour combinations, learning my way into a new way of cooking, trusting completely another person, and discovering the pleasure of being guided by a warm voice, the voice of a friend.
In my mind, Tessa was the older friend with whom you wanted to spend time chatting and cooking, my first inspiration, someone who was unwittingly showing me the way.
Months later my mum said: I found Tessa’s mailing address (she was known as Tessa at home, her books scattered everywhere, her recipes part of our family celebrations) in our phone book, why don’t you write her a letter? I picked my best stationary paper, jotted down a heartfelt thank you note for all the inspiration and copied it with my best handwriting. I put a stamp on it and sent it with the same trepidation as when you posted your Christmas wish list to Santa Claus.
I don’t remember what I wrote in that letter, but I know I began my shy approach by saying that we lived on opposite hills and that she could probably see my house if she looked out of her window.
Fast forward eleven years and that letter came out again when I was sitting at Tessa’s table, heavily pregnant with Livia, during a Greek dinner with her family. Luckily I could blame my hormones for the teary eyes I had for the whole night, standing at her stove and sniffing the smell of the food I knew so well, peeking into the pots, sharing the food she had cooked for us.
Over the years we had become friends in real life, not only in my head.
She wrote the forward for my second cookbook, I Love Toscana, and this gave us the chance to meet over tea at me. She was an inspiring speaker at one of the Creative Gatherings I used to host with my friends Sarka Babicka and. But what I cherish more are those hours spent chatting drinking chamomile tea, munching on each other’s experiments, walking along our country roads, eating pizza and tacos.
Tessa’s friendship is a beautiful gift life blessed me with, just as her books, a collection of recipes and stories that have enriched people’s lives through the years.
Now & Then: A Collection of Recipes for Always
I know I’m not the only one to feel this deep affection for Tessa Kiros and her books. Whenever I mention her with friends or random strangers, they surely have one of her books, they cooked from Apples for Jam for their kids, travelled thanks to her stories from Falling Cloudberries or Provence to Pondicherry, or fell in love with Tuscany and its seasonality thanks to Twelve. I also noticed that everyone tends to a favourite, a book they dearly love: until a couple of weeks ago I would have said that mine was Apples for Jam, but Now & Then might have become the new favourite.
Do you have a favourite among Tessa’s cookbooks?
This new book keeps its promises: it is part memoir and part recipe collection, most of them coming from Tessa’s life and travels to Italy, South Africa, New Orleans, Mexico, Thailand, and Greece.
It is brimming with stories and inspiration, and shows how Tessa’s taste and cuisine were forged by her experiences, connections, and her travels.
As you will see—if you have read my other books—I haven’t changed much. I still love lemons and roses.
Perhaps my tastes have evolved a little, swayed by new discoveries. Essentially the cravings that pull me are forever the same. Sour. Salty. Buckets of leafy greens. Small splashes of strong flavours. Colours and seasons—they are all still there, crisscrossed with snippets from my travels and our everyday shifting needs.
There are chapters like Things that stay, What I would miss if I left Italy, Mexico flowers, A few things I’m obsessed with (I’ll let you discover that they are, and how you could become obsessed, too), and Roses.
Nowadays is the chapter with the larger amount of recipes, a portrait of how Tessa and her family like to eat now. Here you can find a recipe for vegetable moussaka and biscotti della salute, a green plate with avocado and tahini, and a couscous with vegetables. Among these recipes, one stood out: Hortopita.
I’m excited and honored to share one of my favourite recipes from Now & Then, Hortopita, a Wild Greens Pie. I tried it last winter when Tessa came for tea, and we loved it instantly, so I asked her for the recipe and made it immediately the next day. The great thing about Tessa’s recipes is that they work, always. She is generous with details, tips, and also advice on how to serve it. If she suggests you to serve her Hortopita with a squeeze of lemon, a little flaky salt and some chilli oil over the filling, listen to her, do it!
RECIPE. WILD GREENS PIE - HORTOPITA
Excerpted from Now & Then by Tessa Kiros (Murdoch Books). Copyright © 2023.
This is one of my family's favourites. Healthy, bursting with many flavourful greens (you can use any greens that you like here) and a lovely addition to any kind of meal. It is delicious.
300 g (10½ oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
200 g (7 oz) cold butter, chopped
1 small egg, lightly beaten
3 scant tablespoons milk, plus a splash extra for glaze
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
300 g (10½ oz) young wild green leaves (e.g. friarielli, horta, mustard greens), with some thin stems, roughly chopped
400 g (14 oz) spinach leaves with some tender stems, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a little extra for brushing
110 g (3¾ oz) bulb spring onions, trimmed, white and green chopped
60 g (2¼ oz) chopped dill fronds and stalks
a handful of parsley, roughly chopped
a large handful of mint leaves, chopped
a handful of chives, chopped
300 g (10½ oz) feta, crumbled
1 heaped teaspoon za'atar mixed with an extra ¼ teaspoon sumac (or 1 heaped teaspoon sesame seeds)
To make the pastry, put the flour and butter in a bowl with ½ teaspoon salt. Rub together with your fingers until it is like small crumbs. Add three-quarters of the egg (save the rest for glazing), the milk and vinegar, and work in quickly to form a dough. The pastry will feel quite soft and damp.
Cover and put in the fridge for an hour or so.
For the filling, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to the boil. Add the wild greens and blanch for 1-2 minutes to soften this may need longer depending on the greens you are using). Scoop out with a slotted spoon to a colander and press lightly to get rid of most of the water but leaving some liquid in to keep the filling just moist. (Pour yourself a mugful of this wild greens water to drink - delicious.) Blanch the spinach and drain in the colander also, pressing lightly to squeeze out the excess water.
Heat the olive oil in a large pan, add the spring onions and sauté until lightly golden. Add the blanched greens and turn through. Remove from the heat. When it has cooled down, use your hands to mix in the herbs and feta. Add a little salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and brush the bottom and sides of a round flat oven tray (e.g. a pizza tray of about 32 cm/ 12½ in with very low sides) with olive oil.
Divide the dough into 2 pieces, one slightly larger than the other. On a floured surface, roll out the larger piece to fit a few centimetres larger than the oven tray and lay it over the tray. Tip the filling onto the middle of the pastry and spread out gently and evenly (using your hands is easiest) to just short of the edges.
Roll out the remaining pastry on a floured surface to a circle that will cover the filling completely. Lift it with your rolling pin and lay it in position. Turn the bottom pastry over the top layer and gently roll the edges slightly inward. Press to seal in a scallop pattern if you like.
Mix a splash of milk into the saved egg and generously brush the pie top all over. Scatter the za'atar and sumac (or sesame seeds) over the top and just a little flaky salt, crushing between your fingers, then put into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes or until beautifully golden. (Make sure the underside is golden too - cook a little longer if necessary.) Cool a bit before cutting into slices or diamonds. Wonderful served with a squeeze of lemon, a little flaky salt and some chilli oil over the filling.