Food Adventures

Sunday, July 09, 2006

First of all, an apology to those who might have checked this blog in the past week. Things have been quite busy.

We spent Friday and Saturday in the mountains North of my favorite Tuscan town of Lucca, at the Argiturismo La Torre, one of our favorite places to stay in Italy. The owners, Paolo and Laura, are very friendly and nice, which makes staying at their gorgeous property even more pleasant. It was good to get away from the heat and crowds of Firenze, breathe some cooler air and enjoy the peace and quiet of the Tuscan hills.

On Friday night, we had dinner at the small restaurant on the property where Laura does all the cooking. I still remember the wonderful things we ate here last year, easily the best food I have had in Italy. Laura again wowed us with her cooking and it was difficult to not eat too much. We started with some marinated anchovies, local prosciutto, crostini with lard, and fried meatballs. Yes, these were only the appetizers. The anchovies were strong and with a zing from the marinade, the fried meatballs melted in the mouth. The only thing that I am still not in love with is lard, but who knows. After this wonderful spread, we continued with the creamiest, tastiest lasagna imaginable. I could have stopped right there since the lasagne and the Rosso di Montalcino that Paolo himself bottles were a perfect match. But just when I didn’t think I could eat any more, out came freshly fried potatoes and beef rolls with prosciutto and sage. I could not resist. The rolls were wonderful, perfectly crispy and full of flavor with a hint of sage and, as we all know, there are very few things as good as fresh, homemade French fries. The feast ended with a chocolate and coffee cake, light and creamy, coffee, limoncello and a homemade gooseberry liquor. Two hours of sheer bliss! Outside the moon was trying to peek through the clouds left behind by the rain that had fallen earlier in the day. The night was perfectly dark, quiet, and fresh—perfect for a short walk after the decadent dinner.

Unfortunately, we had to leave La Torre on Saturday morning, to continue our trip to Modena. It was another hot and sunny day and after a brief stop in Reggio Emilia where we ate a very average lunch, we continued on to Modena. Modena seemed very modern: even the old part of town is full of stores like Benetton and Sisley. After a short walk around town, we continued on to Firenze, where the excitement about the World Cup finals is growing by the second.

Walking around Firenze, all you see are people—both Italians and foreigners—wearing shits that say "Italia" in big letters on the front and everyone is talking about where they will watch the game. Should be an interesting evening on Sunday.

A brief summary of the past week:

Aaah, Firenze in July: heat, millions of tourists, and crazy traffic. Someone just told me that Firenze is the hottest city in Italy, hotter than Rome. It's best not to think about that. The heat would not be so important if the classrooms where the cooking classes are held had AC. Call me spoiled, but I do enjoy some cool air, especially when wearing a cooking jacket, hat, and long pants. And being around 6-12 stoves, all on. When I get a chance to venture outside the school in the short break between classes to go get an espresso, the outside temperature of 90+F feels cool compared to the temperature around the stoves in our classrooms. But it's best not to dwell on that. I have made peace with that fact that I will have to drink 6 liters of water before 6 pm just to stay alive.

Despite the heat, cooking school has been great fun. The courses are well organized, the instructors are excellent chefs and every dish is a learning experience. Just when my teammates and I think we've created a wonderful dish, we discover that there are always things that could be improved: more salt, better cooked roux, more water, less water, softer dough.

In the Tradition of Italian Food course, we are introduced to the history of Italian cuisine. Our instructor, Andrea Trapani, is an excellent chef and the dishes he prepares always provide an excellent standard to aspire to. I think I'll continue to hear Andrea's advice as I am cooking for a long time: salt, taste, more salt, taste again, …. So far we have made many interesting dishes: sweet and sour pork with spicy chickpea puree, zucchini sformato (zucchini flan), chicken with prunes, pizza, naked ravioli with butter and sage, zuccotto, Lady fingers.

In the Regional Italian Cuisine, a course taught in Italian, Marcella introduces us to the flavors, textures, and dishes of the different regions. We started with Emilia Romagna, one of the most famous regions in Italy food-wise. Emilia Romagna is where Bologna, Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Parma are, so need I say more. We have also talked about Tuscany, Sicily and Liguria, regions that have given rise to some of the best known Italian dishes: cannoli (Sicily), cantuci al Prato (Tuscany), tagliatelle and ragu (Emilia Romagna).

There are only 6 students in this course, so we work individually and get a great deal of advice from Marcella, who is very knowledgeable about the regional differences in Italian food. Marcella's face lights up when she starts explaining the characteristics of each individual region and the most representative flavors. Marcella is training us to develop our own way of doing things. She generally does not encourage the use of a scale and wants us to cook more by feel. She is also training our palates to notice the differences that result from our individual choices and styles.

The day we make fresh cannoli (including rolling out by hand and frying the shells) is the best day of the week. Marcella had warned us the cannoli would the best any of us had ever had and she was right: they were crunchy and delicate, and the smooth filling rich with chocolate chips and candied fruit provided a nice contrast. After exerting a great deal of energy rolling out the dough for the cannoli shells, I am reluctant to throw it out, so in addition to making the 5 shells I need, I also fry up some of the leftover dough, sprinkle it with powdered sugar and munch on it. Yum!

Stay tuned for reports about risotto, polenta, gnocchi, and many, many other wonderful things to come out of Marcella's course.

Anyone who has ever talked to me knows that I am a pastry and sweets lover and I can talk about desserts for hours. So when on day 1 I found out that we were making pastry cream, I could not believe my luck. As many of you know, I cannot resist pastry cream and seek it out every chance I get. Of course, the pastry cream Andrea taught us how to make was by far the most delicious pastry cream I have ever had and when I had to throw away the half a batch left after my partner and I made the crostata (a short pastry pie filled with pastry cream and baked), tears came to my eyes. So I hugged the bowl and finished the rest of the cream. My classmates were hesitant about trying it at first (imagine my surprise at seeing people not flock to taste pastry cream!), but were gradually convinced.

Our baking instructor, Andrea Biancchini, also affectionately known around the school as "il genio del cioccolato" (chocolate genius), owns a chocolate shop in the Santa Croce neighborhood of Florence (close to the famous Il Cibreo) and it is high on my list of places to visit next week. Andrea likes things done a certain way and insists that we follow his method. His teaching style is very Italian, full of facial expressions and hand gestures.

We have made puff pastry, a variety of sponge cakes, ganache, and profiteroles. I always make sure the product is of high quality be repeatedly tasting and retasting. What a good student!

Now I am off to write my paper on sauté. Stay tuned for more delicious news rom Firenze.

Forza Azzuri!!!


At 11:16 PM CDT, Anonymous Erika said...

What gorgeous pictures! If you say that this pastry cream is the best you've ever tasted, then I know it's good (and insist on hearing more about this!). Who are these people that aren't flocking towards the pastry cream? Who let them take this class? Ahh...pastry cream, how we dream of thee.

Thanks for the update. It all sounds so wonderful and I look forward to hearing more about your classes, especially the risotto! I hope it cools down a little soon.


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