Basic Cooking Class Italian Style – A Bit of Boot Camp Never Hurt

Kindness is timeless.

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You know the cooking experience is going to go well when you are offered a beautiful orchid plant even before starting the lesson!  The story may be apocryphal but I had read that in China it was customary for an audience to clap before the show took place, maybe to clear the air of any unwanted negative energy or, on the contrary, to imbue the air with positive vibrations emanating from the clapping itself.  I was just so touched by the attitude of gratitude that my two fellow kitchen ‘combatants’ showed me with their floral offering and their smiles.

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The venue was the home of Victoria Bonadonna and her very generous and thoroughly organized kitchen space.

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I don’t like the kitchen spaces used for formal cookery lessons; highly technical, ergonomic and hygienic in the extreme, and thus practical for understandably obvious reasons, they lack any ‘real home’ element to them – it’s like being in a gymn as opposed to walking in a park or swimming in the sea. Victoria’s is no huge kitchen and is proof that size does not matter immeasurably when it comes to putting good food on the table.  Victoria does, however, boast many and necessary accoutrements for making the cooking process a smooth one, the helpful kitchen gadgets or ‘toys’ as I call them:  precision electronic scales, knives, immersion blender, electric whisk/beater and plenty of pots and pans of all sizes.  Victoria has plenty more kitchen trinkets but these are the ones that really matter. Oh, and scissors ! Scissors can save the day.

And Victoria is, and very much so, organised.  I think that that is one of the ‘ingredients’ that doesn’t get enuogh mention when it comes to realistic, do-able, enjoyable cooking. Mental clarity and organization are everything.  So it is better to start learning a few simple techniques and tips first and play around with those until they are under your belt, and then brave recipes that require a lot more skill.  And this is precisely why I love Italian cookery: the techniques are so easy, anyone can learn them.  Good meals can be prepared in very little time.  Since time management, as we know, is something of a challenge for so many of us, this is an immense boon.

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Victoria is the mother of two and an accomplished home cook.  Moreover, she can bake whereas I do so with hesitant trepidation.  And she can barbecue too – which I cannot because we live in an apartment and don’t have a garden.  Victoria is privy to an award-winning barbecue recipe that her cousin in Missouri shared with her; she gave me some tips for spare ribs that I then made for my nephew who loves them and, though roasted in an oven as opposed to a proper barbecue, boy!  Boy were they good!.

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Victoria’s lifestyle is typical of many women raising kids: an early wake-up, breakfast for the kids, drive them to two different schools, pick them up at lunch time (in Italy school kids finish their day at around 1 o’clock after a certain age), make them lunch, make sure they get started on their homework, take them to various sports or activities in the afternoon, and then – of course- make them dinner.  In other words, she is busy.  Busy all day.  In and out of the car at regular daily intervals.  Oh and did I mention that she runs the Culture Club of the Castelli as well as the Castelli Welcome Neighbour Association?

Christine (below) is a mother to be and about to return to her native Napa after spending nearly two years in Italy on account of her husband’s work.  She likes to cook too and was keen to learn more about a few simple, easy to make Italian recipes, for weekday meals.  So Victoria and I conspired to organize an Italian Bootcamp Cooking Basics for her day before yesterday.  The appointed time was 10 a.m. and it had to be over by 4 p.m.  I did most of the shopping the day before but bought some fresh vegetables first thing in that morning.

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Here we are, the car unloaded and we are about to begin.

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Below is the list of what we prepared together. At the end of this post, I put up some links to most of the recipes we cooked that I have blogged about.

LIST OF RECIPES

(1) Chicken stock – which we used to make (2 ) Chicken Corn soup (admittedly not an Italian recipe) and (3) Egg Drop Soup (stracciatella).  We also made (4) Salad soup.

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(5) We prepared the easiest of tomato sauces – Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce using just a can of plum tomatoes, an onion and plenty of butter.  We used this sauce to make (6) riso al pomodoro (rice in tomato sauce) and to cook (7) meatballs in what was left of it.  It would make a delicious sauce for pasta too (8), all one would need is add some freshly grated parmesan.  So just think about this: one tomato sauce and three recipes as a result!

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We prepared previously cooked, shop bought (9) borlotti beans with the rind of pancetta and some tomato paste squeezed out of a tube (we had used the pancetta for the salad soup).  We made (10) pasta e ceci (pasta and chickpea/garbanzo thick soup).  Using my special quick-and-easy technique, one could also make pasta e fagioli, pasta with beans soup, it would be the same procedure.

Pasta dishes:  (11) pasta with broccoli and sausage and (12) spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli flakes.

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The broccoli and sausage pasta (11) is on the upper left of this photo, next to the carrots.

We  made (13) polpette – meatballs – from scratch and cooked them in the tomato sauce with the addition of peas.  We used thinly sliced chicken breasts to make (14) chicken with ginger (my own recipe) and (15) chicken with oranges.

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We blanched spinach to make (16) spinaci alla romana.  We cooked (17) broccoletti in the oven with olive oil, lemon zest and a dusting of parmiggiano  (parmesan).  We made (18) mashed potatoes the Italian way (with the addition of parmesan and nutmeg).  We also made (19) a pepper stew – peperonata – even though this is not the best seasons for capsicum.  We also sliced some carrots (20) and cooked them down with butter and water.

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We made a very unscientific batter (21) and fried (22) artichokes and (23) courgette/zucchini flowers.

And this marked the end of the savoury dishes.

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Last we made a (24) jam tart (crostata) with wild cherry jam.  When I say ‘we’, I actually made Victoria make it – I know she likes getting her fingers stuck in the job when it comes to baking.   Thank goodness for a stand mixer … I was giving her instructions all backwards, and told her to put the flour in first, instead of the butter.  Ah well, kitchen catastrophes do take place and we have to understand that that is ‘normal’ too, and that we have to find remedies for them.  A good sense of humour and a glass of wine can be very helpful.

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The sour cherry crostata, just out of the oven.

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Victoria, on the left, is holding the crema pasticcera (baker’s custard).

So … all in all …. 25 recipes.  Not bad.  And every single one very easy to make and execute (except for the frying maybe). The whole experience was coloured by banter, joking, exchanging stories and all those conversations that are so good for bonding.  When I got home, a little on the exhausted side physically, but ‘high’ emotionally, I came across an article which just spoke out to me, as if  to pat me on the back as it were – me and all the wonderful ‘ordinary’ people people, not celebrity chefs or ‘slebs’ as Gareth Jones used to call them, ordinary people both male and female, young and old, who understand that cooking is NOT, or at least need not be, a chore.  It  was an interview with  Jules Blaine Davis in which she mentions how her mother admonished her  for relying on take-away/take-out foods so heavily.  Her mother told her in no uncertain terms:

“We need to make the kitchen a place where you can BE, not a place where there are things you have to DO.”

Well … thank you Christine and Victoria.  We certainly did a lot of both ‘doing’ and ‘being’.

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If you are interested in trying some of the recipes above, for which I have written a blog post, you will find the links below.

Recipe for a mixed meat stock/broth: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/taking-stock-over-making-stock-olivers-brodo/

Lettuce soup: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/soup-series-salad-soup/

Pasta e ceci soup: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/pasta-e-ceci/

Pasta e fagioli soup: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/good-golly-pasta-e-fagioli/

Spaghetti with garlic, oil, chilli, pecorino and mint: https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/dracula-style-spaghetti-with-garlic-mint-and-pecorino/

Pasta with broccoli and anchovy and pecorino sauce: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/green-technique-and-sicilian-broccoli-pasta/

Pasta with broccoli and sausage: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/pasta-with-broccoli-and-sausage-pasta-broccoli-e-salsiccia/

Chicken with orange: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/the-doleful-door-stop/

Meatballs with peas in a tomato sauce: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/meatballs-with-peas-polpette-con-piselli/

Mashed potatoes the Italian way: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/the-comfort-of-a-spud-il-pure-di-patate-mashed-potatoes-italian-style/

Spinaci alla romana (they are mentioned towards the end of the post): https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/going-tuscan-for-st-valentines-peposo-cannellini-and-spinach/

Batter for frying: the ‘unscientific’ recipe we used in our cooking class was the following: 2 serving spoons of ordinary flour plus one of corn starch; repeat until you think you have the desired amount (we did it 4 times).  Add one egg.  Add one spoon of vodka or grappa.  Add one tablespoon of olive oil.  Allow to rest for at least 20 minutes in the fridge. The following link is another way to make batter: https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2012/09/09/my-favourite-batter-for-courgette-blossoms/

Recipe for crostata pastry (pie crust): 300g sifted flour, pinch of salt, 3 egg yolks, 1 whole egg, 150g sugar, 150g butter at room temperature, finely grated lemon zest.

Baker’s custard (crema pasticcera) https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/bakers-custard-crema-pasticcera/

And the flowers are just so beautiful.  Again, thank you.

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5 thoughts on “Basic Cooking Class Italian Style – A Bit of Boot Camp Never Hurt

    1. Well … it was an all simple-recipe ‘feast’ – lots of food, yes (and which by the way will not have gone wasted !) but also an idea of what one can make without worrying or too much bother.
      Three steps:
      (1) If you make Marcella Hazan’s incredible tomato sauce, all you have to do, literally, is empty the can into the saucepan, add a peeled onion, chopped in half if need be, add butter, salt and a pinch of sugar, cover with a lid and simmer for 20 minutes. Put a timer on for 10 minutes. Total preparation timefor al lthis is: what?, 5 minutes, 6?
      (2) Then, pour water into a pot and bring it to boil, add salt. While it is reaching boiling point, grate some parmesan cheese. When the timer goes ping, pour the Italian rice into the boiling water – it should take about 12 minutes to cook through (rice should not be al dente). Taste. Drain.
      (3) Put the rice into a big bowl, add a little more butter if you like, then the tomato sauce and finally the grated parmesan cheese. Add, if you like, some chopped fresh herb of your choice. Christine is going to become a mother soon, and Victoria and I were regaling her with horror stories of what will befall her, especially during the first couple of months, time wise. The recipes were mainly about the ease of execution … I mean, slicing carrots and cooking them down with water and butter…? spinach sautéed with garlic and a twist of nutmeg, to which raisins and pine nuts are then added? Uber basic chicken stock? Lettuce soup? You get the picture … Thank you for always commenting Frank !

      Liked by 1 person

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