Not everyone is cut out for cooking. Some of us walk into the kitchen with the best intentions, but walk out feeling more “cordon bleurgh” than “bleu”. That said – there is always room for improvement and who better to learn from than the pros.
Last month I had the opportunity to take part in an authentic Italian cooking class in the studio of long time friends (of one another, although I suspect we would be friends if I lived in Rome) Gianni and Caesar from Cook With Us In Rome, just a stone throw from the Vatican City.
Pasta isn’t the first item I would grab from the pantry for a healthy dinner, but if you’re going to eat it, you might as well do it properly. I have to add, that even though pasta is not known for its weight loss benefits, I can’t seem to see how semolina flour and water is life threatening – it has to be better than the store bought stuff that shoots all over the kitchen when you snap it in half.
Pasta aside, we learned some nifty tricks to make use of in the kitchen as well as how to take the parts of food you would normally discard, without giving them a second thought, and how to give them a new delicious lease on life; like the flower tip of a zucchini that hasn’t fully grown. Personally I learnt to try new basic, inexpensive, foods that I previously would have steered clear from and how to spruce them up into somewhat of a delicacy, such as the humble artichoke (which I have a knack for confusing with an anchovy – vastly different).
Travelling different parts of the world is a truly remarkable experience, but I, someone who inevitably always orders the dessert, always want more. I had the task of choosing an activity for my birthday weekend and instead of an open top bus tour I chose a cooking class, and I am so glad I did.
We met Gianni in the market next to Piazza Farnese at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, not too early and not too late. The clouds were looming, threatening a downpour, as we walked through the market choosing the best of the fresh produce available, and learning how to select the right ripeness, colour, tenderness, and so on, of each ingredient.
Tip #1: When you are making a tomato-based sauce use a variety of different tomatoes to guarantee you get the best flavour. Choose some big juicy ones if you are making a lot of sauce and make sure you get some smaller red ones for flavour.
Once we had all our goods, Gianni led 10 eager, and equally hopeful, cooks to the studio to get cooking.
The studio is designed solely for the purpose of cooking and eating (and drinking). 10 heavy wooden chopping boards were laid out for us, with our very own aprons and various utensils.
The Prosecco was poured (and poured and poured throughout the day) and the cooking lesson began.
Now we had initially thought that we were entering a sort of Master Chef situation and my husband and I were almost on non-talking terms because as Ross says to Chandler in Friends, “I don’t believe contestants are supposed to talk to each other!” Thankfully, it was far less competitive and far more educational and enjoyable.
On the menu was:
- Artichoke done the Roman way (as opposed to the Jewish way) steamed with garlic and mint.
- Zucchini Flower stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy paste (yes anchovy, not artichoke), and deep-fried in a light Prosecco batter.
- Handmade egg and flour Fettucini with a tomato sauce and Parmesan shaving.
- Handmade semolina and water Cavatelli pasta with a Roman broccoli and goats cheese sauce.
I can’t give away the secret recipes but what I can tell you are a few tips we learnt on the way.
Tip #2: Garlic. Don’t mince it, crush it, or squash it, you lose all the beautiful oils. Instead, chop it and put it in cold oil in the pan before heating the oil, it burns quickly. Also, when you slice the clove down the middle, peel out the little green bit in the middle. You can also swirl sliced in half garlic in hot oil just to scent the oil.
Tip #3: Slice the rosa tomatoes in half and place them face down in extra virgin olive oil on a low heat until they caramalise and get toasty and brown on the surface. So sweet, with an intensely delicious taste.
Tip #4: Use only olive oil, garlic and tomatoes to start your tomato sauce. Once the tomatoes have all started to shrivel and pull away from the skin you can strain them to create a concentrated sauce (which you will reduce further) or blend for a bulkier sauce.
Tip #5: What do you do when you need to sweeten a tomato sauce? Add sugar? No!! For about 45 min you can slowly sautée some onions in olive oil. You can do this ahead of time and store in bulk in the oil. Add them to the sauce and the natural sweetness from the onions will do the trick. They will also melt away into the sauce because at this stage they are incredibly soft.
Tip #6: Your pasta dough MUST chill before cutting or shaping, except for gnocchi, never chill gnocchi.
Tip #7: When making Tiramisu ALWAYS chill your espresso before soaking the finger biscuits.
Tip #8: Have a big family or recruit some friends to help you roll out your pasta dough; you’ll need them.
What an epic way to truly immerse yourself in the culture, learning to cook and understand why Italians love their food so much.
After cooking, we all gathered around the dining room table to enjoy the fruits of our labour and copious amounts of wine. I think we may have stayed an hour or two too long, but THAT is how great the day was. To top it all off we met some great people from all over the world; Malta, Wales, Brazil, Denmark and Spain.