Monday, December 20, 2010

Italian Cooking

At long last and with much ado, I'm finally ready to share with you the extraordinary trip to Italy we took all the way back in October.  During our trip we spent 5 days on the Tuscan countryside, staying at the Castello di Spaltenna in Gaiole in Chianti.
If you look real hard you can see me waving from the top left window.  The highlight of the trip for me was the private cooking class my mother and I took with Chef Simone at the Malborghetto restaurant.  Chef Simone greeted us warmly with warm espresso when we arrived at the restaurant late morning to learn how to prepare a delicious traditional 4-course Tuscan lunch.
The restaurant was not open for dining, they were just starting to prep for their dinner service.  Chef Simone was an amazing teacher.  Warm, friendly and patient, and full of tips and tricks.  I was surprised at how much we learned from him!  Simone invited us into his small and tidy kitchen and we got right to cooking.  The first step was to prepare dessert, which was an Italian classic - Tiramisu.  I've never made it before and was surprised at how easy it was.  We started by separating egg whites and yolks.
My mother beat the whites to a soft peak with some sugar.
I whisked together the yolks and mascarpone cheese, then gently folded in the whites.
Then we started layering the custard with delicate, slightly crunchy Italian ladyfingers quickly dunked in strong espresso.
And that's it!  The Tiramisu needs a couple of hours in the fridge to set, but we whipped it up in just a few minutes.  Next it was time to start the sauce for the pasta course, a hearty Bolognese.  Bolognese is a meat sauce made with very little tomato - the meat is the star.  We started by grinding onions, carrots and celery in a very serious grinder.
For those of us who don't have industrial meat grinders, a food processor will do.  One of the many clever tricks Chef Simone taught us was to soak onions in cold water before chopping to eliminate tears.
We then sauteed the vegetables in olive oil. 
As the vegetables sauteed and softened, we learned another trick.  If the vegetables are starting to brown too quickly, and aren't softened yet - add water!  Simone told us it was a chef's secret that they never talked about because it just sounds too simple.  But its a very obvious way to add moisture without changing the flavor.  Once the vegetables were well softened, we added ground beef.  The chef didn't use a lot of measurements.  For this sauce, he just said to eyeball an equal volume of vegetables and ground beef.
Once the meat was browned, we added a little pureed tomato and red wine, then let the sauce simmer while we moved onto the pasta.  Homemade, of course.  Chef Simone pulled together the dough for spinach-ricotta ravioli like magic.  A little flour, a little water, one egg and some salt kneaded together yielded the most perfect pasta dough I've ever seen.  I was amazed at how sturdy it was as we rolled it out and yet still so light.
My mother and I set up a little assembly line to fill the ravioli with a mixture of frozen blanched spinach and ricotta.  
Ricotta in Italy is different than what we have in the the states.  Its much creamier and smoother.
The ravioli was placed on floured baking sheets and then frozen.  It can go straight from freezer to boiling water, so you can make a large batch ahead of time and just cook them as you need them.

With all this prep done, we moved onto our appetizer.  I have to be honest, I was a little nervous when the chef told us we would be making chicken liver crostini.  I've never had liver before, and it did not appeal to me.  But under Chef Simone's tutelage we put together a warm liver spread that was rich and earthy, with just a mild liver flavor.  You start by sauteing onions in olive oil, and then added whole livers to the pan.  They need to be well cleaned - best to have a butcher do that.
Cook the livers through, then add sweet wine, anchovy paste and capers.  The sweet and salty elements keep the liver from being too overpowering in this dish.  Once everything is cooked, you mash it all together or give it a quick whirl in the food processor and serve with toasted bread. 

Finally, we moved onto the main course.  Yes, there's more food!  This was a very traditional Tuscan dish of white beans and sausage.  Chef Simone had cooked the cannellini beans ahead of time with some herbs and garlic, but he said canned would also do.  This dish was incredibly simple but flavorful.  You just start with some beans, garlic, sage rosemary, sausage (casings removed) and a little tomato sauce.
Simone chops up several heads of garlic at the beginning of the week and stores them in a jar with some safflower oil.  For everything else in the kitchen he uses extra virgin olive oil, of course.

Saute the garlic, sage and rosemary in olive oil and then add the sausage and a little water.
When the sausage is nearly cooked through, add the beans, a scoop of tomato sauce, and salt and pepper.  Cook until beans are soft and start to break down.

And was time to eat!  We started with the chicken liver crostini, served in a little fondue pot-type dish with a candle underneath.
I really was surprised at how much I enjoyed it!  But I had to pace myself, knowing all the food that was to come.  Before the pasta course, Simone brought us back into the kitchen to teach us how to make a parmesan basket to serve pasta in.  You just sprinkle grated parmesan cheese cheese into a small non-stick skillet, melt it over a low heat, and then flip it onto an upside down bowl to form a bowl shape as it cools.
Delicious melted cheese and lovely presentation!
This was easily one of my favorite dishes of our trip.  Delicate pasta with a rich, hearty sauce.  The main course came next, humble beans and sausage elevated to a whole new level.
And of course, the Tiramisu for dessert, dusted with grated chocolate.  I was completely stuffed at this point, but could not help eating all of this!
Cooking in this beautiful, authentic Tuscan restaurant with such a warm and knowledgeable teacher was definitely the highlight or our Italian vacation.
We even got aprons with our names on them!  Thank you, Chef Simone!

Now obviously I've been home for 2 months and have had plenty of time to try out these recipes on my own.  First up had to be the Bolognese.  As I started to gather my ingredients, I realized we didn't have any red wine, an essential component to the sauce.  I ran down to our local Wine Emporium, and was shocked and thrilled to see that they carried the Chianti Classico from the tiny Castello di Spaltenna, where we stayed in Tuscany!
I'm glad we didn't try to lug any of this wine home, knowing that we can pick it up right down the street.  Not having a professional grinder, I chopped my onions, celery and carrots in the food processor.  Much easier than chopping by hand!
For meat, I used ground beef from Hardwick Beef.
After a long simmer with lots of red wine, I served my Bolognese over penne (not quite ready to attempt the homemade pasta) with a parmesan bowl that turned out to be more of a parmesan plate.
We were immediately transported back to the Tuscan countryside.  And now you can be, too!

Chef Simone's Bolognese
2 large onions
4 large carrots
4 stalks of celery
2 Tbs olive oil
1 Tbs tomato paste

2 lbs ground beef
1 - 2 cups dry red wine
1/2  - 1 cup pureed tomatoes
salt and pepper
  • Peel the onions and carrots and cut them into large chunks.  Whir them in food processor with the celery until finely chopped, but not turned to mush.
  • Heat olive oil in large dutch oven over medium hear, and add vegetables.  Saute until softened, about 10 minutes.  Add tomato paste and saute a few more minutes
  • Add ground beef, breaking up large chunks, and saute until just browned.  Add about 1/2 cup red wine and reduce heat to a simmer.  Continue adding red wine as it cooks off.  
  • When meat is cooked through and it starts to look saucy, add pureed tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.  Simmer on low for another 20 minutes or so, add more tomato if sauce starts to look dry.  
  • Serve over your favorite pasta with lots of parmesan cheese.

Buon Appetito!

Next up, I'm going to be making Tiramisu for Christmas Eve.  My parents are hosting the Feast of the Seven Fishes!  Stay tuned!