With Valentine's Day around the corner, Hollywood star, keen cook and newlywed Stanley Tucci reveals his recipe for romance.
By Diana Pilkington
If anyone can attest that the way to the heart is through the stomach, it's Stanley Tucci.
A shared "obsession" with food helped The Hunger Games star fall for British literary agent Felicity Blunt, who he married last year.
"The whole thing was romance with food. It still is. I love to watch her eat. It's sexy," says the 52-year-old.
Tucci was introduced to his new wife by her famous sister, Emily, with whom he appeared in The Devil Wears Prada.
"We would go to different restaurants each night or we would cook. It was just so easy and we felt so comfortable with each other," he says of their courtship.
Born to Italian-American parents who are both keen cooks, Italian cuisine is a big part of Tucci's heritage. And his new book, The Tucci Cookbook, featuring family recipes passed down through generations, is testament to that.
"I put it together because I really wanted these recipes written down for selfish reasons, but I also wanted to share them with people," says Tucci, who was widowed in 2009 when his first wife and the mother of his three children, Kate, died from breast cancer.
When it came to foodie dates, he and Blunt were not afraid to get their hands dirty, and the actor fondly recalls two moments in their courtship when they bonded over butchery.
On one occasion, they bought a 26-pound suckling pig for a party, and shared the task of cutting off its head so it could fit on the spit.
"That was our first butchering experience," he says. "I remember the next morning seeing her in her bathrobe shredding the rest of the meat off the carcass to save it for sandwiches.
"That's what she did before she'd even had her cup of tea. I thought that was pretty funny and very attractive."
Another experience saw them set to work on two uncooked pheasants they had received as a gift from a chef at the Ledbury restaurant in London.
"We sat down to watch cooking shows with the pheasants and two big roasting pans in front of us and taught ourselves how to pluck.
"It took a very long time, and we practically destroyed the skin of the pheasants in the process. But it was great."
It's no wonder, then, that Tucci has a few tips for planning the perfect Valentine's Day menu.
"If you are a meat person I'd go for a great rack of lamb. If you are a fish person, maybe just pasta with vongole, those little sweet clams.
"If you're going to take somebody out in London, I'd recommend the Ledbury for Valentine's Day because it's so special. You are hard-pressed to find anything else like that."
Indeed, Tucci, who lives north of New York with his new wife and his three kids, says he has become a "huge" fan of British cooking in recent years, since he's got to know the country better through his other half.
He counts Nigel Slater and Heston Blumenthal among his culinary heroes and plans to include some of his wife's recipes ("She makes great Yorkshire puddings, oh my God, really good," he enthuses) in a forthcoming cookbook he is writing.
"You can't really beat a good sausage roll," he declares. "And great roasts. Those little roast potatoes were a revelation to me - because Italian roast potatoes aren't the way you guys do them.
"Felicity made them and when they came out of the oven they were just extraordinary. I thought my son was going to have a heart attack. He was so happy."
Try these recipes from The Tucci Cookbook to get your heart racing this Valentine's Day...
Bruschetta with tomato (Bruschetta con pomodoro) (Serves 4) 4 tomatoes, roughly chopped 8 fresh basil leaves, chopped 1tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped, plus 1 garlic clove, cut in half 4tbsp cold press or extra virgin olive oil Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper 4 slices Italian or farmhouse-style bread, toasted Additional cold press or extra virgin olive oil to drizzle on top (optional) In a medium-sized bowl, mix the tomatoes, basil, parsley, chopped garlic and olive oil together, and season with salt and pepper. Rub the toasted bread with the garlic halves, then top with equal portions of the tomato mixture. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil on top if wished, and serve immediately.
Rocket with prosciutto, pears, and parmesan (Insalata di rucola, prosciutto, pera, e parmigiano) (Serves 4) 350g rocket leaves 125ml Sherry Shallot Vinaigrette (see recipe below) 8 thin slices prosciutto 2 firm ripe pears, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced 60g large Parmesan cheese shavings Toss the rocket with the vinaigrette in a large bowl. Distribute evenly among four plates. Garnish each plate with two slices of the prosciutto and equal portions of pear. Use a vegetable peeler to shave portions of the Parmesan on top.
Sherry shallot vinaigrette (Makes 250ml) 1 small shallot, finely diced 1tbsp Dijon mustard 4tbsp sherry vinegar ½tsp salt Freshly ground black pepper 4tbsp rapeseed oil 3tbsp extra virgin olive oil 1tbsp hot water In a measuring jug or wide-mouthed jar, whisk the shallot, mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper together. Slowly add the rapeseed oil, olive oil and the hot water, whisking to make a smooth, emulsified dressing. Set aside until needed.
Linguine with clam sauce (Linguine con vongole) (Serves 6) 450g linguine 125ml plus 1tbsp olive oil 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped 4tbsp dry white wine 18 clams Salt and freshly ground black pepper 1tbsp chopped fresh Italian, flat-leaf parsley Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta for 10-12 minutes or following the packet instructions until al dente.
Meanwhile, warm 125ml of the olive oil in a high-sided saucepan set over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes until softened. Add the wine and leave it to cook away slightly for about 1 minute. Add the clams and their juice and season with salt and pepper. Cook until the broth froths to a level of 2.5-5cm. Remove from the heat. Stir in the parsley.
Drain the pasta and toss in a serving bowl with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Divide between six dinner plates. Top with the sauce, and serve immediately.
Variations: The same dish may be prepared without removing the clams from their shells, making for a less formal, hands-on meal. Warm the olive oil in a saucepan large enough to hold the clams in a single layer. Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes until softened but not coloured. Add the wine and leave to simmer for about 2 minutes to sweeten. Add the clams and parsley and cover the pan. Cook for about 5 minutes until the clams open. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and spoon over the cooked pasta. Be sure to discard any unopened clams.
Poached pears in red wine with muscat zabaglione (Pere al vino rosso con zabaglione al moscato) (Serves 4) For the pears: 4 firm ripe Bosc pears, peeled, stalks intact 150g caster sugar 700ml fruity red wine, such as Beaujolais, Merlot, or Dolcetto d'Alba 2 cloves 5cm cinnamon stick Lemon zest from ½ lemon For the zabaglione : 2 egg yolks 2tbsp plus 1tsp sugar 4tbsp muscat or other sparkling wine 2tbsp Marsala wine Trim the base of the pears so they will stand upright on a plate. Place the pears in a small saucepan; they should fit snugly. Sprinkle the caster sugar over the pears, then pour the wine over to cover (water may be added if necessary). Add the cloves, cinnamon stick, and lemon zest. Bring to the boil over a medium-high heat. Cover, and reduce the heat to a low simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes until the pears are still firm but tender when pierced with a skewer. Remove from the heat and allow the pears to cool in the wine mixture.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pears to a plate and set aside, reserving the wine in the saucepan. Over a high heat, boil the wine for 6-8 minutes, reducing the liquid to a thick syrup measuring about 175ml. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and set the liquid aside.
In a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, muscat and marsala. Whisk the mixture constantly for about 2 minutes until it thickens and becomes frothy and light. Remove from the heat immediately.
Divide the zabaglione equally between four dessert plates or shallow bowls. Brush each pear with some of the syrup and place in the centre of the zabaglione. Extra syrup may be drizzled on the rims of the plates or bowls. Serve immediately.
:: The Tucci Cookbook by Stanley Tucci is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £30. Available now